Tattoo culture in Japan, especially among Japan's gangster element, has a rich history. While some young Japanese are breaking the traditional taboo and obtaining discreet tattoos, they almost never opt to have Chinese characters etched permanently on their bodies. Kanji tattoos are a Western phenomenon.

My own introduction to kanji tattoos began two years ago, when questions such as the following, in English and Spanish, came pouring into the newly opened Kanji Clinic Web site: "How do you write 'Crazy Witch' in kanji? My sister wants to tattoo it on her ankle." Or how about "Unconditionally Loved," "Agony and Ecstasy," "Unborn Child," "Larry," "Drink-Get Drunk-Vomit-Pass Out"?

During our family's summer vacation in my hometown, Asheville, North Carolina (pop. 68,000), I resolved to find out why kanji-illiterate Caucasian Americans have Chinese characters indelibly inked on their bodies. I instructed my 8-year old son, who currently can write 300 Chinese characters, to keep his kanji radar out for potential subjects. Sean's first sighting took place at a minor-league baseball game. "Hey, Mom," he whispered, "Why does that man over there have the kanji for 'leg' tattooed on his arm?"