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.