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Kanji catching on all over, but frequently misunderstood

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"I've noticed how people seem to take delight when I hand them my business cards with kanji on one side and the alphabet on the reverse," chuckles Takuro Nagami, a photographer who often goes on assignments abroad. "When signing my name in kanji for credit card purchases, I get praised. People tell me it's cool."

But Spa! (June 29) notes that some of Nagami's compatriots find the unexpected appearance of kanji on foreigners' gear -- and occasionally on their skin -- to be somewhat peculiar. At an international pingpong tournament held in Moscow in May, one Japanese was bemused to see a foreign team manager wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words 人生卓球 ("jinsei takkyu," meaning life [is] table tennis). And in Tokyo's Harajuku district, a blonde foreign female garnered gazes while prancing about in a form-fitting shirt with the characters 日本海兵隊 ("Nihon kaiheitai," or Japanese marines).

There's even supposed to be a popular iPhone application that will convert one's Romanized name into Chinese characters.

But it's the misuse of kanji in tattoos, it seems, that are the source of particularly malicious glee. While at a motocross event in the U.S., the aforementioned cameraman Nagami spotted a man whose left arm bore the characters nonsense word ヌヌ子("nunuko"). Nagami deduced that the tattoo artist had inadvertently transposed the word 双子 ("futago" for twins), separating the kanji "futa," meaning double or pair, into two katakana characters that are read "nu."

Another Japanese relates seeing a woman wearing a silver pendant with the character 酷 -- read "hidoi" which means "cruel" or "terrible." When inquiring to the wearer, he was informed it was supposed to mean "cool." It seems the character forms the second half of the compound word 冷酷 ("reikoku" or coldhearted), a word that relates to "cold," and from which one can therefore extrapolate "cool." Doesn't that make perfect sense? Er. . . not really.

"This friend of mine from Spain had a kanji tattooed on his arm because he said it 'looked neat,'" another Japanese tells Spa! "But while traveling in China, he noticed people constantly snickering when they saw it. He finally found out it was the kanji 豚 ('ton,' meaning pig)."

Spa! also notes wryly that Cafe Press, an Internet mail order company, has been selling "fundoshi" (Japanese-style loincloths) embellished with the characters 過労死 ("karoshi" or death from overwork).

What is it about kanji that so appeals to people who have no clue whatsoever to what they mean?

In an impromptu survey, Spa's reporter showed foreigners sheets bearing single characters 尿、森、萌、豚、狂 and others (meaning, respectively, urine, forest, to sprout, pig and crazy), and invited them to pick the one they liked best. Reasons for their choices included "I like the shape" (from a German); "Whatever" (a Spaniard); and "It must mean something that's happy and nice" (an Australian).

The kanji that garnered the top vote was 呆 ("ho" or "akireru"). When informed that it means "a fool," the standard reaction was usually an embarrassed laugh, followed by an expression of relief. The character seemed to have appealed mainly because of its symmetrical form.

Among the surveyed foreign residents who were on more familiar terms with kanji, a gent from India gave an interesting reason why his favorite character was 幸 ("sachi" for good fortune).

"You can make it by writing a plus, a minus, an equal sign, a minus and a plus!" he explained.

© Japan Today

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59 Comments
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0 Good| Bad gaijinfoJun. 26, 2010 - 09:20AM JST

It read: 日本語

Hey, nice tat, what's it mean?

It's Japanese.

Dude, OK, but what's it mean?

It's Japanese.

Dude, OK, I got it, but what does it mean?

IT IS Japanese!

Kind of like that scene from "Dude, where's my car""

Sweet, dude, sweet, dude, etc.

Bad English What does it mean? The Japanese Language.

It's ..... doesn't answer the question.

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Tattoos are stupid.

No, they are good if done properly, it is art which looks good only on a man's muscular body.

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Tattoos are stupid. Engrish is stupid. Kanji isn't even Japanese. Learn your own damn language. That is all.

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Kanji is wonderful but it is like when you got to a tattoo place and they have "chinese" wording but do not know what it mean or where it from they just think it look cool that is what happing in the west now they do not know anything but just want to have it because it cool i do hate it when people do it and i now people of japan

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I have a character on my arm. I know it’s “okay” because a) it’s been my nickname for years and I do read Japanese and b) my wife (Japanese) is a calligraphy teacher and we stencilled what she drew (wrote?) onto my arm to get tattooed over. Not too shabby.

Even so, tattoos are not mainstream in modern Japan. They are slowly becoming popular with the younger generation, though I can’t think of any Japanese I have met with a kanji tattoo (don’t quote me on that). Mine was more a personal “joke” of sorts than any deeper pseudo-mysterious or macho meaning.

My wife on the other hand has a small tattoo of a plum blossom. It’s her favourite flower and rather becoming. I think she copied the picture from some ukiyoe. Speaking of which, I think that tattoos of ukiyoe (depending on the subject and size etc) look nice. Probably less is more though.

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well established argument. but the author should have done a more thorough research on kanji tatoo because 酷 in chinese actually means cool.

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While I am here i will ask..how can romanji, be translated?..i can translate kanji, on google but not the romanji..anybody???

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I have the words ketsu no ana tatooed on my butt. It is hit at the onsen.

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Yeah, because the Japanese never wear English t-shirts with words they don't understand. That's just what foreigners do.

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As everyone has mentioned, their "Engrish" is shocking. The kanji is indeed funny but we don't spend the better part of 6 years learning Japanese and kanji now do we? Jokes on them I think.

I guess that's true if that person wears the same t-shirt for rest of their lives.

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It's rather unfortunate that when a person doesn't know kanji, it's cool. When they learn it, it loses it's magic. Due to this, people who don't know kanji are far more likely to be the ones getting them tattooed on without knowing the actual meaning.

But how hard is it to research before getting ink done?

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Well, I guess this is revenge for the other mutilations of other languages by the Japanese. As Cleo said, "Shoe on the other foot" heheh.

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well i think that kanji just looks beautiful,it is like art in itself...but sad that the translations are often so mixed that ppl need to be careful, especially if someone is mean spirited imagen going to get a kanji symbol for love and the guy puts something like bitch..you wouldnt know the difference!...i love tattoos only have one but if i were to get kanji, or any foreign letter on my body i will make sure it is the right one..

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lostrune2

Can we see that pic? ;)

Your wish is my command: http://adult.engrish.com/2000/07/02/spread-beaver/

Fadamor

Well, unless she's a moron I don't see a 17-year-old putting a shirt on with a lot of foreign text on it without at least TRYING to determine what it says. "Vaginal' should have raised alarms if she truly was "innocent" and caused her to investigate further. Methinks she's not as innocent as you think.

The funny thing (aside from the shirt) was that she wore it once and I took her aside and explained that it was REALLY inappropriate if there were any English speakers around. I regretted not having my camera with me to have photographic evidence.

Then she wore it again my last day there, when I was taking pictures of all my students....

Maybe she wasn't as innocent as I thought, but this was a small town (by Japanese standards) and she was putting in a lot of 18-hour days preparing for university entrance exams, and I never had a saw of any rebelliousness -- or even makeup! She came to a class with one of her friends who was equally earnest and bland.

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"Hidoi" has been used colloquially in Japan for a long time to mean "really cool", or I guess "aswesome." At least with the teenagers. It's a lot like "sugoi"'s double-meaning.

Aren't you talking about 'yabai'? I never heard 'hidoi' as cool.

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Yeah I'm not a fan of the tats in Japanese... particularly when the branded cow can't even read Japanese, but they still feel that kanji will make something more meaningful.

A guy I know came to Japan with pale white skin... nerdy guy, but on his back had some weird kanji + a picture of some anime guy. I think he thought this would make him cool... in reality it just meant he couldn't go to the onsen, and stuck out as an even weirder geek.

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Spa articles are also so terrible ... why would a foreigner overseas understand the meaning of a kanji character.... it is just like the t-shirts with Japanese english on it I see it stores throught Japane.... or even the engrish I see around Japan.

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The kanji is indeed funny but we don't spend the better part of 6 years learning Japanese and kanji now do we?

Indeed. But to be honest I don't see a great deal of erudite English from native speakers, who presumably received an equal amount of schooling in their own language.

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As everyone has mentioned, their "Engrish" is shocking. The kanji is indeed funny but we don't spend the better part of 6 years learning Japanese and kanji now do we? Jokes on them I think.

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Just shows how important to do the research yourself than trusting anyone else to select the chinese characters for you.

Nothing funnier than seeing 'moo shu pork' or 'pot sticker' written on some clueless gaijin's bod.

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Meh. Next you'll be running an article about how Japanese people were clothes with weird and inappropriate English! Now that will be a scoop.

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"Hidoi" has been used colloquially in Japan for a long time to mean "really cool", or I guess "aswesome." At least with the teenagers. It's a lot like "sugoi"'s double-meaning.

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Gramie,

Can we see that pic? ;)

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It read: 日本語

Hey, nice tat, what's it mean?

It's Japanese.

Dude, OK, but what's it mean?

It's Japanese.

Dude, OK, I got it, but what does it mean?

IT IS Japanese!

Kind of like that scene from "Dude, where's my car""

Sweet, dude, sweet, dude, etc.

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As I was visiting an elementary school last week, one of the students sent to take me up to the classroom had "World's Greatest Boobs" written across the chest of her T-shirt. Kids/parents really need to check the meaning of what they are wearing.

Do you mean to say that she did not, in fact, have the world's greatest boobs?

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As I was visiting an elementary school last week, one of the students sent to take me up to the classroom had "World's Greatest Boobs" written across the chest of her T-shirt. Kids/parents really need to check the meaning of what they are wearing.

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Although I couldn't help taking a picture of my cute, innocent 17-year-old student wearing the "Spread Beaver: showing the vaginal area" T-shirt. That's one for the ages.

Well, unless she's a moron I don't see a 17-year-old putting a shirt on with a lot of foreign text on it without at least TRYING to determine what it says. "Vaginal' should have raised alarms if she truly was "innocent" and caused her to investigate further. Methinks she's not as innocent as you think.

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people who can't read kanji like to permanently tattoo it to themselves. it makes perfect sense, right? t-shirts are good fun, but, dude, writing on yourself isn't cool.

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maybe before all the japanese start giggling and pointing and laughing at the silly kanji foreigners get on their shirts and tattoos they should learn what they are writing on their own t shirts,cars,bags, and accessories in english.

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"Gland Canyon USA" on the T-shirt of a young lady who would unfortunately have been better off either going to "Ras Begas" or getting a T-shirt bearing the legend "2 bee stings"

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My tendency is to be understanding towards people who make language mistakes when they are sincerely trying to communicate, but deride those who make mistakes when trying to get attention or use it for commercial purposes.

Although I couldn't help taking a picture of my cute, innocent 17-year-old student wearing the "Spread Beaver: showing the vaginal area" T-shirt. That's one for the ages.

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Wow, kanji tattoos because they're cool: permanent ink adolescence.

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slizzer, don't forget professional basketball players and hard rock band members.

I'm just starting to learn kanji and I'm amazed at how one swoop at the end of one line can drastically change the meaning. These people who wear kanji (permanent or not) without a clue as to what they mean risk embarrassment if they come across someone who DOES know.

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Two stories from me:

An English newspaper once had an ad for Chinese or Japanese tea. There were Chinese characters, but they were upside-down. Jesus! Needless to say, it was a tabloid.

I once saw a Japanese obaasan wearing a T-shirt with the words JUICY written on the chest. Oh dear.

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Reasons for their choices included “I like the shape” (from a German)

Oh boy, here we go again

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Tattoo's are historically associated with whitetrash, ex-con's, people who live in trailerparks, and wear sleeveless T-shirts. Nowadays it seems cool, but when the fad is gone, it's just going to revert back to whitetrash.

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I see some hilarious things in English. I saw this woman who must have been in her 50s today ( a bit of a yankee but nevermind ) and she was wearing this t-shirt which said " I Got Lucky Last night."

I was wondering if she thought it meant pachinko...

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Just like Japanese change the spelling, pronunciation and meaning of English words using katakana, they also change the pronunciation and meaning of Chinese kanji. Who cares what they think.

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I bet money that "hidoi" will start becoming an expression for "cool" or "kakkoi" in Japan, as the cultural dominance of China exerts itself in the future. Could it even become uniquely Japanese, an expression of coolness tinged with some meanness?

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nonsense kanji. i feel it is EXACTLY the same as nonsense engrish is the fad here. the stuff i see (both kanji in my native country and engrish here) boggles my mind.

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With smart phones linked to the internet and about 15 minutes of training on how to look up kanji, these sorts of mistakes can largely be avoided even if the choice is made in the tattoo parlor - provided the effort is put in and the right translation site is used. Of course, avoiding the tattoo in the first place is best solution.

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On the other hand, I remember years ago while walking around Osaka, seeing a kissaten/ coffee shop called "うりね" and I thought, no way am I going to buy a cup of coffee from that shop! Must have been the owners' family name and they had sign written in romaji, not with kanji, so it was spelled out "Urine" - I kid you not! I still giggle thinking about that sign...

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Kanji "II Kanji" I like Kanji tattoos http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uSdn4Rsj54

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Well, the Japanese screw up their English(with t-shirts,etc.) but at least they have the sense not to do it with tatoos(maybe due to the obvious cultural implications).

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Probably because google translator doesn't translate context, just strict definition.

Anyway, I look forward to the Spa article about hilarious Engrish. I won't hold my breath ...

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@UdaMan -- shucks, I only use "cool" to mean "mildly cold".

I must concede your point this time: the Google translator will translate 酷 as "cool", but when translating from English into Chinese the process is not reversed. Typing "cool" gives you 涼 (liang) in Chinese.

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Obviously no country or culture has a monopoly on ignorantly bungling another's language... Be it Engrish on t-shirts or misguided kanji tatoos (although the latter, being permanent and applied directly to the offender's body, does seem to be the more egregious offense), there always seems to be plenty of stupid to go around. As for going "mideavil" on the "jackass who marks someone with a kanji 'joke' ", I'd suggest it's probably more ignorance than malicious humor at work, and that anybody who elects to have a tattoo without doing the research into what it means for themselves probably deserves whatever they get.

I personally have made for myself a t-shirt reading "超酷”, precisely because it could be read as "exceedingly cruel" by a Japanese reader but "exceedingly cool" by a Chinese. Because I'm just that big of a dork.

(Side note @Beelzebub: The latter kanji may be used as a phonetic equivalent to the English "cool" in Chinese, and the original meaning may have been the same as in Japanese, but to imply that "cool" is not its "meaning" now in Chinese is incorrect -- roughly analogous to claiming that "cool" itself doesn't really "mean" "stylish or appealing in form" but only "mildly cold".)

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OK. It is funny. Most of us probably know that this is pretty old news, right? There are several sites on the web where you can see many examples, so have a go everyone.

Why in the world anyone would trust a relatively unskilled, apathetic person who is probably illiterate in Japanese to transfer something illegible to their own skin is beyond me. It takes a special kind of stupid. Most notably it is the gullible kind.

But you know something even dumber? Many times people can't even get their own language right in tattoos.

CrazyTown: Your comment about the Dominican Republic reminds me of a joke involving tattoos.

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looks like there are some assinine creeps translating kanji onto unfortunate people who want tattoos . I think I would go mideavil on the jackass who marked me with a kanji "joke" . removing the translators brush fingers comes to mind . I think the fascination is that westerners have only letters to spell out concepts . kanji are the meaning and pictogram and word all at once . as an artist this is a powerful combo . magical almost . combine with the freedom and beauty of the brushwork and you have something unique, artistic , meaningful, mysterious and lovely . you cannot do this with a written word . if i ever get one i will carefully check the meaning . but my body is sculpture not canvas so not very likely . i would like one of those nice stamps though .

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CrazyTown: maybe he uses it when going to Japan or Japanese speaking establishments to let the people know can speak Japanese. heh.

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Sorry,

It read: 日本語

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I went to the Dominican Republic with my wife last year. In the pool there was some guy with three big kanji across his back.

It read: 日本誤

I decided against enlightening him to real meaning of his huge tattoo. Ignorance is bliss.

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zanza - this is from Shukan Post, so don't hold your breath waiting for quality writing!

It's from Spa!, not Shukan Post.

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The kanji 酷 DOES actually mean "cool" in Chinese.

It doesn't "mean" cool, it's pronounced ku (in the 4th tone) in Mandarin and used thusly for the phonetic similarity to the English "cool". The actual meaning is essentially the same as in Japanese.

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zanza - this is from Shukan Post, so don't hold your breath waiting for quality writing! Bug thanks for the info on the Chinese use.

I have seen some REALLY bad kanji tatoos. Poor ...er.. penmanship? combined with absolutely wild combinations. One guy on a flight had four kanji coming down the right side of his neck with after a long time of guessing we decied must have been an attempt at "Kiss my (oshiri)". I wish we hadn't been too afraid of him to take a photo. I didn't think at the time that it would be possible to ever forget what it was he had there

The worst is when someone shows a tatoo they're very proud of and another person (usually my mom) says, "oh, my daughter reads Japanese, what does that say, Taj?". Right in front of the person with the farked up mess. Awkward.

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I always laugh at botched kanji tattoos on people, but then feel bad about it later. Though I feel like if you're going to get something permanently etched into your skin, you'd want to make sure it means what you want it to mean, and most importantly, that it's written correctly. I've seen some tattoos that were totally written wrong or backwards.

It is fair that Asians find it amusing, because I will laugh out loud at bad Engrish, haha.

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Yeah, shoe on the other foot I suppose.

My favourite kanji - 愛(love) 感(feeling) 恵(blessing) 慧(intelligent) 母(mother)

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Now who's ignorant? The kanji 酷 DOES actually mean "cool" in Chinese. Kanji does not extend only to Japanese... Hopefully next time the writers will do enough research before writing their articles.

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Well I suppose it's only fair for the Japanese to get a chuckle out of foreigners mutilating their language given how much amusement the "Engrish" on their T-shirts and elsewhere gives us, eh?

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