Japanese Tattoo Meanings
Japanese tattoo meanings can be hard to decipher, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the Japanese language. There are many different types of Japanese-inspired tattoos, and if you opt to go for the written type, there are literally thousands of symbols to choose from. Meanings can be incredibly ambiguous and refer to many different things, as well. Choosing the wrong symbol to represent yourself permanently on your skin can lead to disastrous results–something that won’t be fixed with proper aftercare or tattoo know-how, even if you use the best lotion for tattoos! This article should serve as an introduction to the Japanese language and Japanese tattoo meanings, and should help alleviate a lot of the stress of picking a Japanese tattoo.
Japanese Lettering Tattoos
We’ll focus on the written section first, and then move on to images that are common in Japanese style tattoos. The Japanese language has three distinct alphabets. The first one children learn is called Hiragana, and represents words spelled out phonetically. Each Hiragana letter is made up of a consonant followed by a vowel. So, instead of having A, B, C, D…they have A, I, U, E, O, and then it cycles into KA, KI, KU, KE, KO, with each consonant having a symbol for each vowel. Since it would take forever to memorize symbols for every single consonant sound and vowel, some letters are combined and differentiated with the “ or ° symbols. There is also a separate alphabet, called Katakana, that is used mainly for foreign words that do not have a Japanese counterpart. It has special characteristics that let it depict foreign syllables, too.
If that all sounded confusing, don’t worry about it. It takes months to learn that sort of stuff. What you need to know for the usual tattoos comes from the third writing system, which is actually more similar to hieroglyphics than the alphabet. These letters are called Kanji and they originated in China. They were originally pictures that showed what they were describing—exactly the same as hieroglyphics—but after millennia of efficiency and refinement, some of the original images are very difficult to recognize inside the Kanji. Since lots of kanji still use intricate lines and markings, I highly recommend looking into lidocaine cream if you get a kanji tattoo for your first design. If not lidocaine cream, general numbing cream will do the trick for most people.
Each Kanji symbol has many different meanings, and the way they are pronounced changes depending on the context. Two people might have the same Kanji in their names, but the pronunciations and meanings could be completely different. This is the main reason that you have to be wary of getting Kanji tattoos, since the Japanese tattoo meanings can have many different interpretations. You also have to be wary of supposed meanings you find online, as these people likely just looked into a Kanji dictionary and singled out what they thought was cool.
In example, 夭 has the meanings of: young, fresh-looking; tender, gentle; and to die young or prematurely. Japanese tattoo meaning charts will only say the last one, even though it more broadly represents the word ‘vigor.’ Can you imagine tattooing that to your skin? What’s more, the symbol is not used very commonly in this context, so native speakers of Japanese will likely get the wrong meaning out of it, since there are no other symbols to say you meant ‘Dying Young’ instead of ‘Gentle like Spring.’
For this reason, you always want to check with a native Japanese speaker to see what the Kanji means on its own or in a context. This can save you a lot of strife in the end. These tattoos are permanent, so it makes sense that you would go out of your way to learn their precise meaning. Tattooing a random symbol onto your skin without caring about its relevance, usage, or true meaning just shows everyone else that you want to be that guy with the edgy Japanese tattoo. Don’t be that guy! Make sure the tattoo has significant meaning to you, and make sure you have a good reason to use a Japanese symbol instead of an English word!
Koi Fish, Cherry Blossom and Fu Dog Tattoos
Phew. Now then, Kanji tattoos are not the end-all be-all of Japanese tattoos. As you may have read in our History of Tattoo series, tattooing is an ancient tradition in Japan that has very specific words, uses, and techniques associated with it. Japanese tattoos are traditionally called Irezumi, and they have vastly influenced modern tattooing around the world. One of the most distinguishing styles of Irezumi is the Sujibori tradition: thin, deliberate lines that depict the outlines of a tattoo. They differ from western tattoos because they are rarely weighted lines, and are generally not meant to be colored at a later date. While it might seem strange that they would use skinny lines for this style of tattoo, the style is actually perfect for illustrating major themes of Japanese tattoos. Artists use specialized tattoo chairs and tattoo beds so that they can draw out their sessions for as long as they need. You can find the major subjects below, as well as their meanings:
Koi : These fish are called carp in the west. Koi fish represent good luck and fortune. Legend has it that a koi fish that climbs a waterfall will become a dragon. Different colored fish have different meanings, with red representing love, black representing success, blue representing prosperity, and so on. The direction that a fish is swimming also carries huge importance: a fish swimming up represents facing problems, while a fish swimming down represents problems that were overcome. It is common practice to have two fish swimming both directions in koi fish tattoos, as having only one direction can be considered prideful.
Sakura/Cherry Blossom : The life cycle of the sakura tree directly parallels our own. The pink blossoms of Spring are very fleeting, while the barren skeleton of winter represents death. No matter the season, these trees are beautiful, but they are also a reminder that life is fleeting.
Fu Dog : These dogs are usually the guardians of temples. They are also called ‘Lions of Buddha,’ and represent a mix of every four-legged ferocious beast. They are known for their incredible loyalty and courageousness, and these tattoos are used both as a form of protection and intimidation.
Of course, there are many more symbols than that. Japanese tattoo meanings are literally as in-depth as an encyclopedia, and the mythical and ancient qualities that these tattoos have are more than enough reason to consider them. If you are interested in tattoo meanings, be sure to check out our image gallery articles, which usually have a few extra meanings! Skulls, dragons, phoenix, and many other tattoo meanings are available there. You will also other ancient tattoo art styles there like our article about Polynesian Tattoos. As always, thanks for reading!