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.


5 thoughts on “What do Japanese people think of Japanese tattoos?

  1. This is very funny to me, a Japanese lady.

    Thank you for your article on how Japanese think about tattoos. I would agree that there is a negative association with wearing tattoos in Japan.

    The only thing in this case, is the person with the tattoo is non-Japanese, so the negativity is not really there. The funny thing is he got a bad translation – unless “Crazy”t is what he requested.

    So now he’s back to a negative association if a Japanese person were to see it.

    I always tell people to be very careful when getting a Japanese name translation or any Japanese tattoo symbol.

    • I had wondered what kind of site you might have linked to in your comment, and it turned out to be a site to check Japanese tattoos with a native Japanese speaker! Great idea, that – perhaps it should be a mandatory pre-ink check.

  2. you should also take into consideration that people in the military get tattoos for many different reasons; sometimes as a group to proclaim their camaraderie; sometimes in memory of some foreign place they have visited while on tour; and sometimes just because their buddies got them drunk off their a** and then dragged them into a tattoo parlor as and had them tattooed with something ridiculous (like the above picture) as a joke. or maybe he really does think he’s crazy to be in the military supporting a “war” in the middle east. there is probably more to the story than your Japanese coworkers are considering. and there are probably plenty of other reasons to feel sorry for the guy in the picture other than his silly tattoo.

  3. Good points all. No matter what the reason, though, that was the natural, strong reaction of a couple of Japanese guys I work with.

    And for sure, this guy probably has a lot more pressing issues than a questionable tattoo.

  4. Pingback: A quantitative three year blog anniversary « 4000 Miles North

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