Monday, November 22, 2004

"Exile Husband Retrievable Arrow with a String Attached to It"

Reader "Elton Joe" has emailed me a link to BMEZine (Body Modification Extreme Magazine) along with the following comment:

"I wonder why you never see native Chinese or Japanese with character tattoos? Maybe these misguided Westerners should ask themselves this first. But many of them obviously don't have a strong enough interest in the cultures to learn about them before putting a permanent mark of something they don't understand on their bodies."

The closest translation of the tattoo above (considering the first character is only a partial of ) is "exile husband retrievable arrow with a string attached to it", aka "manleash".

= flow, circulate, drift; class

= man; people; mankind; someone else

= man, male adult, husband; those

= catch, arrest; shoot with bow

Personally I don't have any tattoos. I do enjoy looking at some tattoos, even though majority of them are poorly done. Tattoos in Chinese (or Asian) culture have negative meanings attached to them.

Tattoo started in China thousands of years ago as punishment for criminals. Instead of modern day's local police to notify residents that a sex offender is moving into their neighborhood, the Chinese have tattooed their criminals on their faces with information such as name, crime committed, etc...

Asian organized crime groups such as Japanese Yakusa and Chinese Triad, require their members to have large tattoo done to prove their loyalty. Some Japanese businesses have signs posted to refuse service to anyone with such tattoos.

I can categorize the people who gets Hanzi or Kanji tattoos in following groups:

1. "To Be Cool"

These are mostly people that have very little knowledge of outside world, especially about the Far East. They got the tattoo because it was something new to them, and they liked how Hanzi or Kanji looked, without fully understand what they meant.

2. "Other Cultural is Greener"

People in this group are very intimated by their own culture (or the lack of). Therefore, they would borrow something for another culture and identify themselves with the new one.

3. "Show Off"

This group of people purely got the tattoo as show off piece. They could careless what it said, but it makes them stand out from a crowd. Any attention is better than no-attention, regardless if it is positive or negative.


  1. only three theories as to why people get kanji tattoos? well you're a wanker then. consider those people extremely interested in eastern culture and tradition and have a significant meaning for getting a kanji tattoo on their body. oh, perhaps you shoulf actually go to china and japan and get aonst the people who have tattoos, and you will find out that many japanese people have kanji characters tattooed on their bodies. git.

  2. Dear "Anonymous",

    I would like to re-emphasize that Hanzi Smatter is "Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Hanzi or Kanji) in Western culture".

    Your comment of "oh, perhaps you shoulf actually go to china and japan and get aonst the people who have tattoos, and you will find out that many japanese people have kanji characters tattooed on their bodies. git." does not really making any sense here. Of course they would be able to tattoo Hanzi and Kanji on their bodies, it is their own language!

    When is the last time you have seen an Asian person with random English (or Engrish) phrases tattooed on his/her body?

    ps. The number of typos increases with person’s anger.

  3. "organized crime groups such as Japanese Yakusa and Chinese Triad, require their members to have large tattoo done to prove their loyalty. Some Japanese businesses have signs posted to refuse service to anyone with such tattoos."

    I think you mean "Yakuza" not yakusa. Japan has the same culture of branding criminals, and tattoos will keep you out of most reputable public baths.

    I have met people of Japanese ancestry who got their clan crests tattooed on their backs to remember their heritage. It didn't go over too well when they went back to visit their Japanese relatives! Still, they were genuinely trying to rediscover their roots.

    I think it would be great if Asians got bizarre English tattoos. They get T-shirts, why not tattoos? Maybe with designs from ?


  4. Hey, Anonymous -- the problem is not that people are getting characters tattooed on them; it's that people who don't understand the characters are getting characters tattooed on them by other people who don't understand the characters. To those of us who do, it's a cause for mirth and head-shaking. (And similarly, to those of us with English as a native language, the wide-spread, albeit non-tattooed, misuse of English in China is another source of levity. Fair's fair.)

    Tian - are you sure that second character is supposed to be 人? It looks a bit too twisty for that to me, but I can't think what else it'd be supposed to be. An aborted 大, perhaps?

    Also, as far as tattooing goes, it might be worth noting that the word for written language, 文, was originally a picture of a man with a tattooed chest. (The meaning survives in the literary term 文身.) So if someone (not me) feels like it, they can always argue that Chinese culture is built on tattooing.

  5. It is still a big no-no to get a tatoo in Asian culture If you've studied Asian culture enough, or spent a good amount of time there, you'll realize this.

    Brendan, Origins count for a lot, but they have little bearing on modern meaning and use... Does "gay" still have the meaning it once did in English? I don't think so... there are any number of words like this.

    This is complicated by the fact the constituent parts of a Chinese character are usually markers of phonetic value rather than semantic value...

  6. Oh, sure - I'm well-aware that tattoos are shied away from in China. I just thought the etymology was neat.

  7. What category do you put the man who had "When yo do nothing, you have done everything" tattooed?

  8. Wow, fascinating. That first character actually does exist as drawn, although I've never seen it before and can't make my computer produce it so it must be archaic and/or very rare. It means "flow" or "travel". (And it pictorially represents a baby being born as amniotic fluid flows out.)

    Even if that wasn't a mistake, though, the actual meaning still totally baffles me. (I also thought that second character looked more like 美, but a Japanese friend disagrees.)

  9. Tatoos are not seen as a bad thing throughout Asian culture. Here in Tokyo there are plenty of younger people, mostly involved in music and fashon, who get tatoos, and look upon them pretty much as someone of similar tastes in New York would. Just last night I met a girl at a club who was quite proud to show off a dragon or something similar that covered a good part of her back.


  10. Does anyone here know of anyone of Chinese/Japanese/etc. origin who *does* have a tattoo? Of any description?

    Just curious!

  11. btw, your home page seems to have disappeared ;-)

  12. Hosting a few too many videos and MP3s it seems.

    - Chad

  13. badly dubbed boy -- personally, no, I've never befriended an native-born-Asian person with a tatoo. That's not to say that I don't want to befriend an Asian person with a tatoo; it's just never happened yet.

  14. I live in Japan and a few of my (local-born) friends have tattoos. They're definitely in the minority, and they don't exactly flaunt them at job interviews, but they're not yakuza. They're just regular folks who like tattoos, like their English-speaking peers in other countries.

    That said, none of them have any kanji (or roman letters) in said tattoos. They mostly seem to go for inoffensive celtic designy stuff.

  15. I actually have seen some Asians (well, Asian-Americans) with tattoos. Back in college I remember seeing this one guy who had his Korean name or something related to his roots written on one of his arms. I've also seen Asians wearing the t-shirts with the Asian characters. (I have to confess I actually bought one a long time ago me self but I haven't worn it in ages. I realized how silly it was and how the character had multiple meanings. :P) I also have a cousin who has a few small tattoos on her leg, but they're not Asian characters, just stuff like a flower, crescent moon, things like that.

    I think you also have to take into account the generation and culture some Asians are coming from. Like, those Japanese people in the music business someone else posted are probably relatively young and they're in an creative art culture. My cousin is pretty young as well. To young folks, there's nothing wrong with tattoos. To folks like my parents, they think it's disgusting and a sign that that person is "bad".

  16. I think the second character looks like a cursive 美. In cursive writing, the character 美 has a big, flowing loop on the bottom left.

  17. oh brother... well in case you care... (white guy with japanese tattoo)

    i started a tatoo on my arm with a traditional japanese background (much like the yakuza tattoos) but it mainly features the robots of the cartoon Getta Robo. as this was a show i was raised watching (english translated). as it was a huge part of my growing up, and still something i am interested in i decided to put it on my body. i mean i guess you could call it cultural theft... but i was raised with it mainly cos when i lived in Europe a lot of asian and euro cartoons were all that were available for kids to rent/watch. so it's really pretty much a part of MY culture and family life?

  18. I must say that I agree with the anonymous party responsible for the first post, if only on principle. There are, obviously, more than just three categories into which we can classify people with kanji tattoos. I'm sure, however, that Tian and his readers are aware of that. But the purpose of this website is not to explore the possible psychological motivations of an immense number of people, but rather to point out the inconsistency and abuse of hanzi and kanji in Western culture. Thus, it's not altogether unfair to generalize things for the sake of argument. ;)

    Concerning tattoos (of any kind) in Asian culture, Badly Dubbed Boy: I can say that I am aware of (but do not have personal contact with) a number of native born Asian people who've seen fit to adorn themselves with assorted inkings. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these are semi-famous individuals heavily involved in the music industry, specifically the rock-metal and visual kei genres. Much like the celebrities here in the US, these people tend to view themselves as icons and feel the need to perpetuate a certain image. They're also held to entirely different standards than those of your average Joe, and, as such, cannot accurately represent the whole of Asian culture any more than the smattering of open-minded, pro-tattoo/piercing youths in Tokyo can accurately represent the whole of Japan. (Sorry, "CJS." Let's be realistic.) Sure, you can find tattoo enthusiasts virtually anywhere in the world, as long as you know which social circles to run within -- but the idea has yet to become common or acceptable in Asian countries, and people with tattoos of any kind (other than the sacred and religiously sanctioned) are still viewed as "dirty" and potentially unsavory types.

  19. I have a long-running plan to have the kanji '雨' tattooed simply because it strikes me as an elegant representation of rain on a window- as may very well have been intended considering the meaning. If that makes me a trend-whore, trying to escape my native culture, or out for shock value, such are the sacrifices for minimalist beauty.

  20. My girlfriend (Japanese) told me she'd dump me if I ever got a tattoo... well, I shouldn't have joked about getting "sonno joi" on my arm. Stupid. Looks like not everything thats funny for a gaijin is funny for Japanese.

    What amazes me most is people who get their kanji tattoo, but the characters are either mirrored or upside down! How can that happen? Even if I knew nothing about Kanji it would be so obvious that something is wrong... they just don't look right.

    The definitely strangest tattoo I've ever seen was on the arm of a gaijin that passed me in Shinjuku station. It was Katakana. While this is strange enough, it read: "mini-moni". Yes. The band. It's so unbelievable.

  21. re: tattoos in Chinese culture

    There was Yue Fei who was a hero in the Southern Song. His mother tattooed his back with "serve the country".

    But then, this
    China Daily article
    says he was the notable exception.

  22. "They mostly seem to go for inoffensive celtic designy stuff."
    most Celtic designs also carry meaning, I have seen my fair share of botched Celtic meaning as well!