The Kanji Tattoos

The Japanese tattoo.

In the West, the exotic look of a Japanese tattoo is the main allure that has caught on worldwide since the 1980's and has continued unabated ever since.

Japanese Tattoo History

While Japanese designs are now considered a cool fashion must-have, the practice of tattooing has been going on for thousands of years in Japan.

It's earliest beginnings can be traced back to Japanese prisoners who were identified with permanent tattoos, which evolved into more elaborate designs favored by a Japanese underground of prostitutes and gangsters.

From there, artisans and laborers adopted the tattoo among the working class, among them the colorful Edo firemen. They, in fact, were the first Japanese to adopt full body tattoos in a superstitious effort to protect them against danger.

By the 19th century, there was a widespread government crackdown on tattoos as "barbaric" - but the practice didn't end there. At the same time, Japan began opening up to a stream of foreigners (most notably navy men and officers) who were themselves more than willing to submit to a Japanese tattoo!


Today, the American version of the Japanese tattoo can be generally classified into two groups - artwork and callligraphy - with the kanji letter form tatoo becoming by far the most popular. Characters can spell out a person's name phonetically or used as a representational symbol, and may be written both vertically and horizontally.

However, among those who know the language, kanji can become somewhat of an alphabet soup of jumbled phrases and meanings, such as when Britney Spears received her first kanji tattoo. It was supposed to mean "mysterious", but instead translated most often to the Japanese as "strange".

Little wonder, then, why experts always stress that a mere brush stroke can change the meaning of a tattoo, and strongly advise securing the services of an expert kanji tattoo studio, if only to avoid unintentionally funny gibberish!


In traditional Japanese artwork, the koi or carp is a classic fusion of design and meaning.

Generally regarded throughout the Far East as a symbol of struggle & triumph as the fish swims upstream, the koi (see illustration, above) remains popular among women for its delicate design, as well with men who are drawn to its "macho" symbol of strength against adversity.

Each year, the character-building message is also incorporated into the annual Children's Day celebrations in Japan with carp banners flying to mark the day.

On the Web

Elsewhere on the Web, learn more about what else is popular in Japanese tattoo design today at a growing number of Internet photo galleries devoted to the subject, along with personal stories and interviews, featured video clips, and a look at the long history of tattooing in Japan with related illustrations, pictures and clip art ...

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