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. <>.

The Japanese Bestiary of “Cool”

by Arthi Aravind

Japan’s mythological creatures are a source of rich inspiration for the many anime artists who produce the pop culture which has exploded in popularity in the United States in the past two decades. The mystical creatures of this culture’s bestiary are a unique aspect of its gross national cool which differentiate it from the pop culture exports of other countries. These otherworldly creatures, which are so foreign to the Western imagination, contribute to the popularity of Japanese cultural products in the United States because of their novelty value. [Read more…]

Of Divine and Digital Origin: Mythology in Japanese Video Games

by Katherine Stevens

The Japanese video game industry is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. They are lauded for their creativity and longevity, as well as their broad cultural appeal. However, what many consumers don’t realize is that behind the graphics and fantastical plotlines often lies a broader significance. Many of the most popular franchises in Japanese video gaming are heavily based on mythology, both Eastern and Western alike. While it is often not apparent to many players, especially younger gamers or those who are not familiar with the mythological canon, these details give the gameplay and coinciding plots more depth, and can be seen as a reflection on the creators’ view of culture. [Read more…]

J-Pop: It’s Not About the Music

by Claire Dranginis

Japan has the second largest music market in the world behind the United States, and 75% of the music consumed in Japan is made by Japanese artists[1].  Much of this music is J-pop.  The term J-pop was coined in the early 1990s and it now refers to most popular Japanese music, from rock acts like L’arc-en-ciel to R&B and pop acts like Namie Amuro and Perfume.  With this huge variety of groups in the second biggest music market in the world, how can I say that J-pop is not about the music?  Of course it’s about the music in many cases, but there are other factors that play a larger role in popularizing certain songs or groups.  These factors include a song’s tie-in to a popular drama, anime, or video game, and the appeal of the group members themselves, either for the cuteness, sexiness, or both.  I would argue that it is these other factors that are the reason for J-pop’s place as a part of Japan’s Gross National Cool. [Read more…]

Triumph of the School Girl

Simpler times.

by Keenan Thompson


The shojo genre was originally aimed at young, Japanese girls. Shojo kai was the first of a series of girls’ magazine’s begun in the early Meiji era as an attempt to increase the literacy rate. Soon after these magazines’ birth, short, comic manga strips surfaced. Usually the story followed the lines of some inept female heroine being rescued by a handsome man, but for a long time, shojo romance was taboo. Eventually the taboo of shojo romance was overcome and the genre became redefined by it. The stories, however, keep the same form of a girl waiting to be saved. [Read more…]

The Virtual Idol: The Vocaloid

By Chris An

Hatsune Miku Live @ Zepp Tokyo:

YouTube Preview Image

“We could begin with a music called enka,” he said, “although I doubt you’d like it.” Software agents did that, learned what you liked. “The roots of contemporary Japanese pop came later, with the wholesale creation of something called ‘group sounds.’ That was a copy-cat phenomenon, flagrantly commercial. Extremely watered-down Western pop influences. Very bland and monotonous.”

“But do they really have singers who don’t exist?”

“The idol-singers,” he said, starting up the hump-backed incline of the bridge. “The idoru. Some of them are enormously popular.”

– Idoru, by William Gibson. [Read more…]

Coming to America: J-Horror

by Mary Grob

Film critics and fans alike agree that the American horror genre entered into a slump during the 1990’s that it has yet to recover from. Gone are the days of psychological thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and even the slasher film, an American horror stable since the 1970’s, has lost its appeal. Horror fans have been left wanting something new to chill their blood [1]. In the late 1990’s, a new wave of films known as J-Horror began to develop a cult following in the US. Soon after, Hollywood began to take notice of these foreign films, and the answer to America’s horror slump appeared to have been found within Japan. [Read more…]

Kaitenzushi: Sushi makes the rounds from Japan to America to Japan again

by Arielle Kahn

sushi earrings

Sushi earrings, just one manifestation of the food

In the past forty years, sushi has taken America by storm. Beginning as an obscure immigrant import thought to be unpalatable due to its tradition of using raw fish, sushi has since exploded in popularity, becoming an American symbol of sophistication, health-consciousness, and trendiness. It has been estimated that between 1988 and 1998, the number of sushi bars in the U.S. quintupled (Isle, 2005). Sushi is now a ubiquitous commodity, available not only in high-end restaurants or sushi bars, but also as fast food, prepackaged at the grocery store or on college campuses. Even non-edible representations are popping up everywhere, in the form of accessories, clothes, and knick knacks, from earrings to purses to refrigerator magnets to shower curtains. In America, sushi has firmly established itself as “cool.” Why did this happen? [Read more…]

Standing Out and Fitting In: Street Fashion and the Search for Identity and Power in Post Bubble Japan

by Tori Szczesniak

Fashion is the means of expressing identity. Dressing is a ritualistic, symbolic, everyday practice that we use to situate ourselves in the chaotic, judgmental world around us.  The simple act of putting on a piece of clothing immediately conveys one’s position of cultural power, class distinction, gender, and subculture, all while participating in the global economy. Deciding what we wear matters, especially in an urban, capitalist society where fashion is a tool to distinguish ourselves from one another. On an international scale, the fashion industry represents an interesting view of understanding national power and identity [3].

Professional Designers Dare to be Different

The early 1980s marked an explosion of Japanese fashion in the global industry. The fashion world reacted strongly to the avant-garde, radically different ideas of the country’s designers. The new garments articulated different ideas of what fashion was and the relationship of clothes and body. Japan gradually became a genuine force of change, challenging tradition and introducing new artistic contradictions [3]. [Read more…]