What do Japanese people think of Japanese tattoos?

Tattoos using Japanese or Chinese characters have been popular in Western countries for some years now, but I hadn’t ever really talked a great deal about this trend with my Japanese co-workers.  Tattoos aren’t too common here, still having a strong connection to yakuza crime gangs.  Not having any interest in tattoos myself, I didn’t know much about it except for the urban legend of the Chinese tattoo artist who, fed up with people asking for tattoos with Chinese characters, started secretly  interpreting requests for “Princess” to mean “Spoiled Decadent Western ****”.  I’m assuming he had very small handwriting.

To relieve a patch of boredom waiting for a delayed flight recently, I decided to see how Time magazine was getting along these days.  After I was done picking through it, I brought it back to the office for people studying English.

The first person I showed naturally zoomed in on the Japanese tattoo on the soldier’s arm:

In Japanese, this is pronounced “kichigai”.  The first part, “ki”, means “spirit”, “feeling” or “mood”.  The second part, “chigai”, means “different”.  Put them together and you have a person with a “different feeling”, which is  a way of saying someone is mentally deranged.

Now, when you look this up in a Japanese-English dictionary, it says “madman”.  In Western culture, we can take this to mean a risk-taker or a daredevil, but in Japanese, it literally means someone with a serious mental illness.

“I feel sorry for him”, one of my co-workers said, “he has no idea he’s walking around with such a stupid tattoo.” To his eyes, it would be like deciding to get a tattoo saying “I am certifiably insane” on it.  He advised me not to even remember the word, lest I accidentally say it.

Of course, Japan has the opposite trend that anything bearing English words has its cool quotient raised considerably.  Walk around Tokyo for a day and you’ll see any number of T-shirts with grammatically “creative” and offensive English on them.  However, at least people here have the good sense to do such things in a non-indelible fashion.


Bowing Japanese style

If you’re like me and did archery when you were in school, you might have thought it basically wasn’t too hard.  Swagger up, notch an arrow in there, away it goes, then off to geography class.

In Japan, they worked out how to make archery much harder a long time ago, and they called it kyuudou. The Chinese characters that make it up can be translated as “way of the bow”.  There’s something wrong with you if you don’t think that’s awesome.

Archery (Japanese transliteration: aacherii) and kyuudou are two completely separate sports in Japan.  Archery uses modern equipment (composite bows and range finders and whatnot), while kyuudou is very traditional. The thought process is similar to a martial art.  You don’t just loose off arrows willy-nilly: each shot follows a careful, strict procedure, not dissimilar to a karate kata.  You bow when you enter the kyuudou range, precisely pace out the steps to your allotted position, and follow the rigid set of steps for stringing your bow.  Every stage is done with precision and thought (or thoughless-ness, depending on how zen you’d like to get).  It’s not surprising to learn, then, that kyuudou can be performed for meditative reasons too.

The way of doing is very important: my teacher several times remarked on one student or another having “beautiful” form, the arrow hitting the target apparently secondary.  Or, so the philosophy goes, a beautiful form will inevitably hit the target.  So, as in many Japanese activities such as tea ceremony, the manner of doing, rather than just the result, is highly prized.

One the major differences to “regular” archery is that kyudou bows (yumi) are much bigger than regular bows – they stand well above head height when strung.  So, it draw it successfully, you need to lift it above your head, pushing out your front arm first:

Then extend your back arm as you drop it into place beside your cheek.  Your back hand is extended past your shoulder.

Then, when you let the arrow (ya) go, it’s apparently important to fully extend your rear arm, though I forgot this on each of my attempts:

Just to make things harder, targets (mato) are only 36 cm in diameter, about half the size of regular archery targets:

Here, the various stages of preparation are neatly presented.  The guys on the right are sizing up their targets and notching their bows:

When it came to my turn to have a go, it was challenging to say the least.  My Japanese has improved a lot in the last two years, but hasn’t extended to words like “the notch in the end of an arrow” (mizo) and the three fingered glove (yugake) you use to draw the bow.  My teacher was an old Japanese lady who apparently decided not to show much mercy to my less-than native comprehension skills.  Still, by pushing and prodding me into place when necessary, I ending up doing something approximately like actual Japanese archery.

After 30 minutes of practice on a straw target only 2 metres away, my teacher decided to give me a shot at the real thing.  It was interesting that while I thought none of the Japanese kyuudou students who were there really paid much attention to me, I heard later that when my back was turned and I was shooting, this foreigner was well and truly the center of attention, everybody wanting to see if a gaikokujin had what it took.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I represented the rest of the world with aplomb.  I had three attempts:

Attempt 1: I make lots and lots of mistakes.  I walk to the wrong place, I move the wrong foot, I drop the arrow at least three or four times.  In kyuudou, you don’t grip the arrow between your fingers; it just sits there on the string by itself.  There’s something very anti-climactic about drawing the bow back, feeling the tension and power running through it, you’re ready to shoot… only to hear the dull thunk of the arrow hitting the ground beneath your feet.  Result: my arrow hits the wall about 20 cm from the target.  Okay, it’s a miss, but as a first attempt I’ll take it.

Attempt 2: I drop the arrow another couple of times.  My teacher comes over and shows me how to grip the arrow again.  I’m getting quite embarrassed.  I shoot, but over-correct for my missed shot last time, and my arrow goes thudding into the wooden barrier above the range designed to stop stray arrows from skewering any kids in the park next door.  My teacher does not look impressed.

Attempt 3: I hit a target!  The only problem being, the target belonged to the person shooting in the next lane, not me.  Still, the feeling of actually hitting something resembling that I was trying to hit is exhilarating.  Perhaps I look a little too happy with myself, because my teacher ends up reminding me three times “…but it wasn’t your target”.

So, hopefully at some point I’ll be able to go back for another go.  Compared to my high school days, the two metre bows used in kyuudou feels frighteningly powerful; that when you release the arrow you’re not sure if the whole bow isn’t going to shatter into splinters on you.

So, now that I’m a kyuudou expert, I think it’s time for me to move on. Maybe it’s time for yabusame – Japanese horseback archery.  Although I don’t even know how to ride a horse, let alone without holding on, how hard can riding a horse while firing a bow be?  Look for the answers in the outpatient report of my local hospital.