Do you want to express yourself in a unique and meaningful way? Consider getting a kanji tattoo. Kanji is the ancient Japanese writing system derived from Chinese characters that dates back over 2,000 years. With its beautiful aesthetics and profound symbolism, it offers an ideal form of expressing thoughts or beliefs through art.
In this article, I’ll explain some key facts about kanji tattoos and explore how different symbols can be used to convey messages. So if you’re considering getting one of these intricate designs on your skin, read on.
Japanese vs. Chinese
Kanji is the oldest of three writing systems used in Japan today and it is ultimately the most complex. Kanji characters are borrowed from China and like Chinese they do not represent an alphabet.
Instead, the complicated forms for each kanji character are small, self-contained, pictorial images, just as in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Unlike Egyptian characters, however, kanji characters are composed of a number of different lines that are bounded within an imaginary square, where the lines are used to suggest objects or actions rather than represent them literally.
More than just a system of writing, however, the practice of calligraphy raised the depiction of kanji to a high art. Early Japanese emperors and Zen priests mastered the flow of spontaneous yet constrained movements of the brush that created kanji writings that were admired not only for their aesthetic value but the spiritual effect that they induced in the mind of the reader.
Japanese Kanji Tattoos
Japanese kanji tattoos are often done in this same spirit of artistic achievement, even going so far as to simulate brush strokes, and even brush strokes done in their traditional order.
Kanji Tattoo Readings
The choice of what to say with kanji characters runs the entire gamut from whole phrases to personal names or a single thought, such as our kanji here of “love.”
When using kanji to spell a western name, using the phonetic equivalents associated with each kanji character, be aware that in Japan the writing system of katakana is specifically used for foreign words and names, not kanji. There’s more on this below.
Kanji Tattoo Meaning Primer – Writing Your Name as an Example
The first thing to note when choosing kanji symbols is that they are only one of three writing systems used in Japan, which is where kanji is used. Kanji is the oldest and most complicated of the three writing systems.
The other systems are hiragana and katakana, with katakana being the most familiar to westerners. Why the most familiar? Because katakana is used specifically to write foreign words (and science words and a few other things) and foreign names.
One Kanji Symbol, Many Meanings
The main thing that sets kanji apart from these other two systems of writing is that kanji are ideograms–a lot like Egyptian hieroglyphs, as noted above. One symbol can stand for a whole concept or idea. Hiragana and katakana are much like the English alphabet and they literally spell things in a phonetic manner.
The Name Pamela in Kanji
To use the name Pamela as an example, below we have the hiragana symbols that literally spell the sounds pah-may-lah or pah-may-rah (since the Japanese language has neither an “L” or “R” but instead a “liquid R”). Reading top to bottom, as is normal for Japanese, the top symbol is pronounced ‘pah’, the second symbol is pronounced ‘may’, and the bottom symbol is pronounced ‘lah.” Without a doubt, these Japanese symbols spell out the name Pamela–or pretty darn close.
One Sound, Different Meanings
But let’s say you really want your name spelled in kanji. Your choices here are many. That’s because there are many different kanji–which each represent a different concept–that sound alike. For the ‘pah’ sound, there are at least three different kanji symbols pronounced that way.
However, they have radically different meanings. In the first row of the table below, the sound ‘pah’ can be expressed by three different kanji, the first of which means “feather”, the second of which means “to break”, and the third of which means “leaf.” It’s up to you which one you choose.
The decision of which meaning you choose (feather, to break, or leaf) makes kanji interesting because you can give the name Pamela a second meaning, in addition to just the phonetic spelling. Let’s say we make the following choice, highlighted in orange.
Below are our three kanji choices for the three sounds in the Pamela. These kanji characters would be pronounced (approximately) as Pamela and could be interpreted as “Sprouting Leaf of Ivy.”
As another example, let’s say we choose three different kanji symbols, highlighted in green.
Below are our three kanji choices for the three sounds in the name Pamela. These kanji characters would still be pronounced (approximately) Pamela, but could be interpreted as “Break Good Jade.”
Some Popular Kanji Tattoos
Each of the kanji characters below is identical in sound and meaning, but done in different styles. When you’re trying to decide on your kanji tattoo design, it’s important to visualize your tattoo and its placement on your body. For kanji tattoos, it begins with the symbol itself and the style of writing you’d prefer. These are just a few samples of the different style of kanji writing you might want to consider in your tattoo design.
There is no doubt that Japanese kanji tattoos can be a beautiful way to express yourself. But as always when dealing with a language that you don’t speak, please check your tattoo symbol. Non Japanese speakers should consult with a native speaker familiar, preferably one familiar with Japanese culture.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, it is not necessarily disrespectful to get Japanese tattoos. In fact, tattoo artists from all over the world have tattooed traditional Japanese tattoos on international convention attendees while visiting in Japan. But be aware of the traditional Japanese motifs and their real meaning, including those of a kanji. In the end, your choice of body art and its style is a form of self expression that should reflect something of meaning to you.
Yes, in fact it’s legal. But for decades Japanese tattoos were only seen on the yakuza (Japanese organized crime). In Japan, tattoos today are rising in popularity among Japanese people, as elsewhere in the world.
Traditional Japanese tattoos are sometimes known as irezumi designs (irezumi is Japanese for “inserting ink”).