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Best to consult an expert before getting a cryptic kanji tattoo

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

“Mami,” I said, reading the kanji 「真実」tattooed on the bicep of the young man seated beside me last December, aboard a flight bound for Houston, Texas. “Is that the name of your Japanese girlfriend?”

The mélange of emotions displayed on his face — a mixture of irritation and panic — could have put him in contention for an Oscar.

“No,” he replied grimly, “It’s not ‘Mommy,’ ” which is what he thought I had said.

Mami, however, is not the same thing as Mommy, and I felt quite certain I’d read the characters on his arm correctly. Ma means truth; mi is the first syllable in minori 実り (ripe). In a woman’s name, and read as ate-ji (phonetic-equivalent characters), they mean something along the lines of “true bounty.”

“No, it’s pronounced shinjitsu,” he countered defensively.

“Ahhh, OK,” I conceded. “As in truth or authenticity.” For indeed when read according to on-yomi (Chinese readings) the two characters mean just that.

I assured him that we were both right and to prove my point took out my laptop computer and input まみ (mami). Sure enough, 真実 was the second compound that popped up, after 真美 (Mami, a name using characters meaning “true beauty”). Then I typed しんじつ (shinjitsu) and the same characters appeared on the screen.

He displayed an expression of rapt relief. Who knows, he might have had his eyes on a girl named Kazuko, who no doubt would have felt 焼きもち (yakimochi, jealousy) to see the name of a rival female tattooed on his arm.

That said, getting a kanji tattoo can be a hit-and-miss proposition. A Chinese graduate student named Tian found so many wacky examples he started a blog in 2004 called “Hanzi Smatter” — “Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters” — which shows the infinite number of ways kanji tattoos can go wrong. (Hanzi is the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of 漢字 [kanji]).

Some of recent posts on this blog (www.hanzismatter.blogspot.jp) include the tattoo 無料 (muryō, free of charge), which its owner mistakenly thought meant “freedom,” and the character 醜 (shū or minikui, ugly) whose unfortunate female owner had been told meant “friendship.” Oh my.

Along with tattoos with ludicrous and horribly garbled meanings, photos on the blog include dozens of incorrectly written and even non-existent characters (what Mr. Tian, the Hanzi blogger, calls the “gibberish font”), as well as tattoos that are 逆さま (sakasama, upside-down) and 反転 (hanten, reversed), as if they had been copied off the reflection in a mirror.

Some people also send emails to Tian with photos attached to ask what their tattoos mean.

“I got this tattoo 17 years ago in NYC,” wrote one correspondent. “The tattoos were supposed to have read, ‘Strength and Courage.’ I’m sure they don’t. LoL! If you could tell me what the characters mean (if anything), I would appreciate it.”

I wonder how that person reacted when informed that the characters in his tattoo meant 小畜 (shōchiku, little animal) and 大過 (taika, big mistake).

The Japanese word for tattoo is irezumi, alternatively written 入れ墨 or 刺青. The English タトゥー (tattoo) has also become common in recent years, and tends to be used to differentiate the traditional Japanese styles from Western designs.

If you’re going to stay in Japan for any length of time, I’d dissuade you from getting a tattoo. For one thing, you’d probably have trouble landing a job with the Osaka City government, as its mayor, Toru Hashimoto, has cracked down on municipal employees with tattoos. At many hot springs, public baths and swimming pools, moreover, it’s common to see signs at the entrance that read 入れ墨のある方はご入浴出来ません (Irezumi no aru kata wa go-nyūyoku dekimasen, people with tattoos are not admitted) or proclamations to that effect.

While I don’t have a tattoo, not long after I started learning Japanese I began toying with ways to write my name in kanji. Unfortunately マーク (māku, Mark) offered no attractive possibilities. One, 真悪 (māku), means “truly bad.”

But at some point I needed to make an 印鑑 (inkan, personal seal or “chop”) so I set out to find an impressive name that would work both in Japanese and Chinese. I came up with 周雷馬 which can be read “Shūraiba,” close to Schreiber. In Chinese pinyin it would be spelled Zhou Leima. The meaning was Mr. Shu (or Zhou) the Thunder Horse.

It was not long thereafter that my own galloping ignorance was exposed. A Chinese girl I was dating in Osaka asked me to carry a gift to her sister in Taiwan. Not long after I returned to Japan she showed me a letter in Chinese from the sister.

“Your American friend has three surnames!” the sister chortled.

I was aghast to find that Zhou, Lei and Ma are all Chinese family names, and would therefore be an unthinkable combination for a person’s name.

Fortunately at least, I refrained from getting it tattooed on my arm — or elsewhere.

  • Kelly

    I have seen so many Asian inspired tattoos in my corner of the United States, and while the characters themselves are often inked correctly, the meaning is another matter.

  • Diep

    Mark-san ! Wish you good health to keep writing for Everyone ! Diep/Vietnam

  • pervertt

    “Zhou Lei Ma”also sounds uncomfortably close to a vulgar Chinese swear phrase for telling someone to do something unprintable to his mother. Definitely not the sort of thing you’d want to sport on your arm or any other part of your anatomy for that matter.

  • Elissa Sullivan

    I am so glad you touched on this. I have a few tattoos and I live in Japan. It is not even a question to me anymore, I just hide them as best as I can. I would be absolutely mortified to have some of this ridiculous Kanji on me. Makes me think of the post by George Takei where he points out that no one would get a tattoo of writing in English that said “water”, but in Kanji it is okay.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1633382380 Joseph B. Cole

      it is like the scene in Moon Child when the guy gets a tattoo that he thinks reads “ninja,” but in fact reads “kitchen.”

  • Rachelle LeMond

    Unbeknownst to me, my then 18 year old son, got a tattoo while we were on a cruise to Mexico. Jeremy requested the tattoo be done in heavy Old English script and wanted it to say, “love is pain”. He was so proud of his accomplishment and wanted to see my reaction. He flung open is shirt to show me his chest which read, “Lope is Pam. I looked at him and said, “Who is Pam?”. Not quite the reaction he was looking for but it has provided for a great cautionary tale of not getting a tattoo with Old English Script in a Mexican city and many chortles from the whole family.

  • y not

    真悪 … I would say badass is probably not ill advised, just go with what god gave you!