What you need to know before getting a Japan-inspired tattoo

When in doubt, stay clear of kanji

Emma Steen
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Emma Steen

Japan has a complicated relationship with tattoos. Traditional Japanese tattoos, called irezumi, are thought to have a history that dates back to the Jomon period (14500 BCE-300 BCE). These days, there's a negative view of tattoos in Japan, since they've come to be associated with the yakuza. However, this hasn't stopped free spirits abroad from getting their skin inked with Japanese characters.

There are a lot of things to love about Japan and its language, so it's understandable if you want to keep some of it with you for life. That said, Japanese can be a tricky language, so here are some things to bear in mind should you decide to get that ink on your skin. 

Find a proper artist 

There's nothing wrong with wanting a tattoo of your favourite anime character, but it's tough to compete with animators when it comes to getting the lines and shading just right. If you cheap out and get a dodgy DIY tat of an iconic character like Pikachu, people will definitely be able to tell the difference. Luckily for this Pokemon fan, a proper tattoo artist was able to fix the damage. 

Photo: tattoodaze.com

Know your kanji from your katakana

The Japanese language has three different scripts: kanji, which is borrowed from the Chinese language, as well as two phonetic alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana. So depending on the context and the way the syllables are used, the meaning can differ wildly. 

It's clear that this woman wanted the characters on her neck to signify 'strong woman'. Unbeknownst to her, the kanji character for 'strong' and the katakana character commonly used to write 'mosquito' are nearly identical. カ女 looks a lot like ‘strong’ and ‘woman’, but it is more likely to be read in Japanese as ‘mosquito woman’.

You can't always just combine your favourite kanji 

These two characters individually mean ‘pain’ and ‘wind’. Together, they spell ‘gout’. Thankfully, this is just a screenshot taken from a video game, and not a real wrestler unsuccessfully trying to brand himself as ‘the wind of pain’. 

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Be wary of the ‘go big or go home’ mantra 

It’s difficult to say what this man thought he was having tattooed to his bicep, but probably the last thing he wanted was for it to spell ‘failure’ like it does. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid getting any kind of kanji tattooed if you’re not familiar with it, let alone getting it tattooed in broad strokes.

Don’t rely on direct translations 

In defence of Ariana Grande, there are many things to love about shichirin, a Japanese charcoal grill, but it would take the most passionate foodie to willingly tattoo this onto their hand. The singer was ridiculed by netizens when she posted a now deleted photo of her palm tattoo on Instagram to signify her song ‘7 Rings’. Grande later modified the tattoo with the addition of the kanji character for 'finger', but this was only a small improvement. 

More on life in Japan

Best Japanese movies and series on Netflix

10 best Studio Ghibli films

English words with completely different meanings in Japan

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