Can 2 Fashion Designers Have The Same First Name Five Must-Knows When Getting a Kanji Tattoo

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Five Must-Knows When Getting a Kanji Tattoo

Japanese tattoos are cool. But if a personal translator is out of your league, how can you avoid becoming a kanji fashion victim and getting stuck with a tattoo you’ll really regret?

1. Know the difference – hiragana, katakana and kanji

Before you talk to your tattoo artist, make sure you know what you’re talking about. You say you want a Japanese tattoo, but what do you know about Japanese characters? You need a quick stint in 2-Minute Japanese Bootcamp.

First of all, let’s make it clear that there is no Japanese “alphabet”. There are three sets of Japanese characters – hiragana, katakana and kanji – and each group has its own history, function and style. Get your head around these facts and you’ll already know more than 99% of the people walking around with Japanese tattoos right now:

Hiragana – These simple, rounded signs represent sounds, but have no independent meaning. They were developed by women in the Heian period and are still considered feminine by Japanese.

Katakana – Developed by Buddhist monks around the same time as hiragana, these are simple, angular characters that also represent sounds and have no meaning of their own. You saw them roll down the screen in The Matrix (even if they were backwards!)

Kanji – Originally from China, these characters are like pictures that represent a meaning and also several different sounds depending on the situation.

Just reading this has probably given you an idea of ​​what style you might like for your tattoo – but don’t stop just yet! Now you know what kinds of Japanese characters there are, let’s move on to…

2. Writing styles

Come a little closer. Lean forward towards the screen. It is true. Now look at the words in front of you. Take a good look at the shapes of these letters. OKAY? Now tell me honestly: Do you want a tattoo in Times New Roman? What about Tahoma? What is it? Don’t want a Canon or Epson tattoo? Of course you don’t. And by the same token, you don’t want your Japanese tattoo to look like a print either!

So now we move on to writing styles. Just as there are three kinds of Japanese characters, there are also three ways they can be written. Do not worry. This is easy! I know you’re thinking that you can’t even read Japanese, so how on earth are you going to be able to recognize these different styles? Well, try this:

Kaisho – Block letters. You learned to write your ABCs this way, and Japanese children learn to write their characters the same way: like a Volvo – boxy but good.

Gyousho – Italic letters. You moved up to middle school and learned that you could write faster by letting parts of some letters flow into the next. Yes, you guessed it – the Japanese do the same thing and they call it gyousho.

Sousho – Super cursive letters. Have you ever seen a prescription from a doctor? So you know how sousho is in Japanese: Sure, the author or some other trained person (probably) can read it, but no one else has a clue what it says!

Do you get the picture? If you want to look like a computer printout, be my guest and go for the kaisho style. It’s your choice. But I think you’ll probably want to use either gyousho or sousho for your tattoo. My personal preference would be gyousho: it’s stylish but won’t confuse even native speakers.

3. Real or fake?

Remember I mentioned Mel C at the beginning? Well, guess what kanji she got tattooed on her arm? That’s right – “Girl Power”: Great in English, but show this kanji combination to most Japanese and you’ll get a blank stare at best. Want a worse example? Try “big daddy”. Now you know what it means in English, but put it in kanji and you end up with “big daddy”! It just doesn’t work.

I’m sure you remember that kanji are the only characters that have meaning as well as sound. And their beauty means they are what most people want for their tattoos. But beware: in addition to being popular, they can also be the most dangerous!

Let’s see if we can find a pattern here: Look closely at the examples above. What do they communicate – concrete concepts or abstract ideas? Do you see how difficult the translators were? Kanji for “dragon,” “samurai,” “love,” or other concrete ideas are fairly easy to spot. But go for anything with an idiomatic meaning and whoever is trying to help you translate it will have a big headache!

Just an idea, but how about this suggestion: instead of trying to force a round English peg into a square Japanese hole, why not find a real Japanese phrase that you like and have it instead? Bushidou (Way of the Warrior) and Ninjutsu (The Art of Stealth) are two great examples of true Japanese terms that would make great tattoos.

4. Your name in Japanese

As I’m sure you remember from 2-Minute Japanese Bootcamp, katakana are the characters normally used to write foreign words and names. So if you want to get a tattoo of your name, technically these would be the characters you would choose. But I guess like most people you want your name written in kanji.

Do a quick Google search and you can find a number of sites that specialize in translating names into kanji. Basically, there are two different methods that these sites use, so let’s look at them here.

Translation of the meaning

This method involves finding out the original meaning of the English name and then researching the kanji equivalent.

For example, my name has its origin in Greek and means “crowned”. The one who gets crowned is the king, so I could translate my name into the kanji for king and call myself ohsama. (Perhaps a little pretentious – and disturbingly similar to Mr. Bin Laden’s first name!)

Translation of the audio

This is much harder! Flip through a dictionary and you will find a lot of kanji that can be combined to sound like your name. But sound is not everything: remember that kanji also have meaning. In fact, it is even more complex than this! Be sure to check each of the following factors with anyone translating your name as using this method:

1. Sound – Does it sound like your name or not? I have seen my name “translated” on certain websites to sound like Stefan. Shame my name (Stephen) is actually pronounced the same as Steven!

2. On-yomi and kun-yomi – Yes, more technical words! But don’t panic – they’re easy to understand: basically, kanji have two kinds of reading. One kind, on-yomi, is their original Chinese sound. The other, kun-yomi, is their only Japanese sound. What must be seen is that (like oil and water) on-yomi and kun-yomi do not mix. Use either all on-yomi reading or all kun-yomi readings to get the sound of your name.

3. Meaning – Do the kanji have a good meaning together? Now, it can be very difficult to find kanji that sound right and have a good meaning, so you may have to compromise a bit with one of these.

4. Masculine or feminine – I guess it’s more like a subcategory of importance, but it’s something you need to check out to avoid embarrassment. For example, while “Asian beauty” might be a good combination for a woman, I have a feeling that most men wouldn’t be too happy to have it permanently written into their skin!

5. If in doubt, check!

First, use your newfound knowledge of Japanese to ask your tattoo artist or kanji “specialist” a few difficult questions. If you get the feeling that they don’t know what they’re talking about, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.

Next, before you get anything done permanently, use an online dictionary to check if the Japanese really means what you want it to. You may not be able to type Japanese yourself, but you can copy and paste characters from an email or web page and see what they mean.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to know someone, ask a Japanese person what they think. Their confused expressions can tell you that you have come up with another “big daddy”!

Follow this advice and you’ll avoid the most dangerous pitfalls of Japanese tattoos and get a kanji tattoo you can be proud of.

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