The Cultural Cache of Kanji: Characters, Cultures, and Communication

by Gibson Haynes

Ninja =/= Samurai

Kanji, the logographic form of Japanese writing, was borrowed from China in somewhere between the 2nd century BCE and the 4th century CE, from the Han and Sui dynasties. Along with hiragana and katakana, it forms the basis of Japanese script. It also forms the basis of one of the most amusing pastimes for the student of Japanese or Chinese, namely, reading the often incorrectly written tattoos of passers-by. (Disclaimer: While many or most of the pictures in this post are of incorrect/unintended characters, I do not deny that many people in the America and elsewhere outside Japan use kanji correctly. These are simply much funnier.) Kanji are all over the place in America, on signs, clothing, and perhaps most intriguingly, on our bodies.

Translation: Listing price within lower winter adult thousand yen village tall inner line New Year’s greeting

Kanji Tattoos

The popularity of tattoos as a means for personal expression has been on the rise in America over the past few decades. In fact, it is estimated that a third of Americans between the ages of 23 and 30 have at least one tattoo. A large number of these tattoos are of Japanese and Chinese characters, 漢字 (kanji or hanzi, respectively); the “cool” factor of these characters definitely derives from their impression of Japanese-ness

The injection of permanent ink under one’s skin is a significant act; it creates an intentional sign that can be read semiologically. Under such a definition, signs contain both the signifier (the actual image) and the signified (the idea inherent in the sign). In terms of a tattoo as a sign, the signifier is the actual ink under the skin, and there are a number of different things signified, from the image formed by the ink to the origin story of the tattoo or its possible textual meaning. However, the fact that the tattoo is a Japanese character will always be one of the things signified to a non-Japanese viewer. In the case of a kanji tattoo, the textual meaning is obscured to most people as well, requiring translation. Translation, in the words of Daphne Lei, thus forms a required “double reading;” that is, when we see a character, we must both figure out how the word sounds in the language and what it translates to in our native language.  To further quote Lei:

“However, between the initial aesthetic response and the final understanding of the meaning, there is a long process of guessing/questioning, translating/interpreting (or mistranslation/misinterpretation), and narrating/reasoning—all these steps constitute the ‘tattoo discourse.’”

The first part of the “tattoo discourse,” and one very closely related to the concept of ‘cool kanji’ is the initial aesthetic response. To us viewers from the West, kanji are immediately seized upon as foreign; English, along with most all other European languages, uses an alphabet-based orthography, whereas kanji are logographic. A logographic system uses symbols to represent words, whereas an alphabetic system uses its symbols to represent sounds; thus it is relatively simpler to figure out the pronunciation of a word in an alphabetic system, and relatively easier to guess at the meaning of a character in a logographic one. A logography like kanji lends itself very well to use in tattoo, as it makes the middle steps in the discourse more navigable. Calligraphy has been elevated to an art form in Japan and China; kanji are aesthetically pleasing to both those within the culture and those outside of it. Ignoring the cultural and linguistic context of your tattoo, however, may be fraught with peril:

The purchaser wanted the character ‘beauty,’ 美. This character means ‘disaster’. The irony is cruel sometimes.

The draw of kanji

Kanji have their own unique draw for many; aside from the aesthetic appeal, kanji offer one of the strongest direct links to an as yet undefined Japanese-ness. Characters are in no way mukokuseki, although there may be confusion among non-experts as to where exactly the characters come from- after all, Chinese hanzi, Japanese kanji, and Korean hanja all stem from classical Chinese characters. Regardless, the very appearance of these characters has become linked in general western conception to the exotic by reverberations, still felt today, of movements such as Japonism and the dreaded Orientalism. For many, this exoticism is the draw of kanji: a system of meaning quite unlike that used in English, endowed with great aesthetic qualities, and presumably emblematic of the culture they represent.


Neither of these characters remotely pertains to sushi, music, or Buddha.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Would you consider getting a tattoo of kanji characters? Do you know someone who has?
  2. Indelibly placing on your own body words of a language you do not speak- where does this fall on issues of representation? Are the characters subsumed by the intention of the person tattooed, or if the tattooed person does not have a grasp of the language’s intricacies, do the characters wield a power of their own?
  3. Where/do you see kanji in your everyday life? Does kanji carry a component of native Japanese-ness, or merely otherness to a relatively uninformed audience?

For further reading/amusement: (Number two, especially)


Lei, Daphne P. “The Blood-Stained Text in Translation: Tattooing, Bodily Writing,and Performance of Chinese Virtue.” Anthropological Quarterly, 81,1: 99-127.

Logogram.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 06 Apr. 2011. <>.

Schildkrout, Enid. “Inscribing the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 33: 319-344. <>.

Gibson Haynes

My name is Gibson Haynes, and I am a sophomore majoring in Linguistics and, prospectively, Asian and Middle East Studies. My first interaction with Japanese export was that ubiquitous commercial phenomenon Pokemon, which hooked me from the beginning. I found the films of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli soon after, and life thereafter contained on-again off-again touches of popular Japanese exports (Final Fantasy, Naruto, etc.).

Most of my experience in the study of East Asia has revolved around Chinese, however, and I have always heretofore studied Japan through the lens of China. Considering I have no extensive knowledge of Japanese culture, but plenty of interest in acquiring it, I signed up for the course.  I hope to gain a stronger understanding of Japan as it presents itself to the world.