Asian cultures are cool, right? Japanese culture, especially! And to celebrate your love of Japanese culture, you're thinking of getting an ultra-cool mystical-looking powerful samurai-yakuza-hime tattoo! Don't worry. I'm here to help you decide on how to pick your perfect work of bodyart.
You're probably thinking of getting something solid, like "power" or "discipline" or "dragon" on your shoulder or bicep, someplace big and visible so that everyone can see it when you're out wearing your tank top (I HATE the term "wifebeater" for this style of shirt. I won't use it. It's a freaking tank top, okay?) I know, I know. I had that phase too. When I was 12.
But you're not 12. You're whatever legal age to get a tattoo is in your area. And you're going to get an AWESOME tattoo to show how awesome you are, with your deep, awesome, totally profound and superior love of this foreign culture.You know exactly what tattoo you want, or maybe you're not quite sure yet, but you'll know when you get to the shop and scan through their books to figure it out. Or maybe you'll use Google Translate and hope for the best. But one thing is for sure: the person giving you that tattoo isn't Asian, and if they are, they don't know Japanese. Or Chinese. And they're not the same language, even though much of the kanji is imported from China.
Then you get your super-cool tattoo. It reads "UNBREAKABLE". You're rough, tough, buff, and now everyone knows it. You're freaking Jet Li meets Ken Watanabe mixed with Bruce Willis.
Only one problem: it doesn't actually read "unbreakable" in the way you think it does. You lack cultural context. And on top of that, tattoos in Japan are still largely associated with criminals, and are somewhat of a taboo unless you were brought up or accepted into a certain type of subculture. So if you want to go over there with that in a visible place, expect to get a mixed reaction from people. Japanese generally know that foreigners are more accepting of tattoos, and tattoos are gradually becoming more acceptable because of foreign influence, and you're going back to your country soon anyways, but a long history of connotation is not going to just vanish in the face of one (usually white) guy's visit to Japan. I know, I know, "REVERSE RACISM!!1" But you're going back to your own country soon, right? And the people there understand your love of the culture of the country you just visited, even better than the people you just spent time with do.
On top of that, it's perplexing as to why you got something like that in kanji to begin with. You know that's an actual language, right? It's not like a Dali painting, full of subtext and symbolism. It's literally a word, just like English has characters that make words. Their characters for words just have different lines. Just like we have compound words, they have compound kanji. For example, our words like weekend is week + end to make one word. In Japanese, that's 週 末. 週 means 'week', 末 means 'end'.
Which brings me to a series of tips for the super-cool totally-relevant people who want (Southeast) Asian tattoos:
- If you would not write this super-cool thing on your body in your native language, don't do it in someone else's language.
- If the person giving you this tattoo doesn't read that language, don't have them do that tattoo.
- If you are not connected to the culture (and I mean actually connected, not "I really love Ozu movies and kawaii anime girls"), do not get that tattoo.
- If the culture you respect so much generally frowns on tattoos, you may want to reconsider getting that tattoo.
- If you think that translation works on a letter-by-letter transliteration basis with the English language, do not get that tattoo.
Hopefully this resolves the complex issue of what to get for your awesome Asian Tattoo.