Why Do People Get Kanji Kanatana Tattoos?

kanji tattoos

I woke up this morning wondering again why Americans get Japanese lettering/words tattooed on their calves, necks, arms, backs or any other body part. This seems a bit odd to me considering we live in America where virtually no one speaks, let alone reads, either language. Don’t people get tattoos of things people know about to show them off? When I look at these tattoos, it’s nothing but lines, and I’m not going to ask every single person I see with one of these tattoos what it means.

After Googling a bit, it seems like these tattoos are based upon a common writing form for both Japanese and Chinese languages (Hanzi for Japanese and Kanji for Chinese). I could be wrong, though it doesn’t really matter. The point is, I can’t read them.

I politely asked a few people who I happened to be acquaintances with what their tattoos meant, since I can’t read them. To begin with, neither was real confident what language they were written in, but both agreed it was probably Japanese. They were also pretty confident of what was written, despite not being able to read it. One girl got the word “LOVE” tattooed on her neck, or so she thinks, which made sense I suppose. Not sure why she decided upon the Chinese or Japanese language (I don’t know which it was and neither did she), because hardly anyone can read it, but still it kind of made sense. Another girl thinks she got the word “HARMONY” tattooed on her calve. Again sort of makes sense, if that’s truly what was tattooed.

But some people get words or phrases that seem a bit off. For example, some guy on the internet had the picture and symbol of a samurai sword tattooed on his back. I began to wonder, is there someone in Japan that has the word “SUPERSTAR” tattooed on their back in English?

kanji tattoos

I did confront a stranger about what his tattoo said. He kind of stumbled when explaining it to me, and I never got a straight answer. If this tattoo was of just one word, why did it take over 60 seconds to explain? I didn’t feel like pushing it, so I nodded in agreement, said thanks and walked away. It could have said “KILLER” and I’d rather not piss someone like that off. This is purely my guess, but I think he probably got the tattoo thinking it meant “something” but later found out it didn’t mean that at all, and was too embarrassed to admit it. Or maybe the line was drawn incorrectly, the equivalent of a spelling mistake in English. Or maybe he had no idea.

Which made me think; how do the folks really know what it is they are getting tattooed on their body if they can’t read the language themselves? This is a big assumption on my part, but I’m going to stick with it; most English speaking American’s can’t read Japanese or Chinese. So, what about the artist at the tattoo parlor? I’ve read it can take years to master the brushstrokes required of the Hanzi-kanji symbols. If not done right, it can look like the handwriting exercise of a 7-year old on paper with no lines.


I’ve read the instructions from consumer grade electronics devices manufactured overseas. It’s difficult to translate phrases from one language to another because there isn’t always a one-to-one correlation. It’s rare I come across instructions where the wording was first checked in the English version of Microsoft Word. Many have misspelled words and the sentences are fragmented at best. Other times, I laugh in frustration at the poor translation and simply look at the pictures. And most of us true computer geeks remember the poorly translated phrase “ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US” from the 1991 video game Zero Wings.

I spent about 30 minutes Googling “Hanzi-kanji bad tattoos” this morning. There are a lot. Some people may have actually wanted the words “Chicken Noodle Soup” or “Sesame Chicken” on their arm. I’ve seen similarly worded tattoos in English that say things just as silly. At least for the Hanzi-kanji crowd, no one can read the mistake, if it was indeed one.

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