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Chinese or Japanese for my Tattoo?

Posted: Dec 12, 2009 8:34 pm
by Gary
Consider this when deciding between Chinese and Japanese for your tattoo:

If you go Chinese with a tattoo, it makes it more universal. Basically, one third of the world's population will be able to read it. This includes all of China, Taiwan, Singapore, much of Malaysia, and Hong Kong. Well-educated or those of the older-generation in Korea and Vietnam will be able to read it too (both cultures absorbed Chinese characters as their written language over 1500 years ago, though in the last hundred years, Korea has transitioned to Hangul, and Vietnam has Romanized).

If you choose a specifically Japanese phrase, less than 2% of the world population will be able to read it (Japan having under 2% of the world population). Note that Japan absorbed Chinese characters into their language at a time (during the 5th century) when Japan had no written language.

Many characters and words do crossover between the Chinese and Japanese languages and keep the same meaning. So if you are looking for a single word, chances are good that it will be written the same way, and understood the same way in both languages. The grammar differences between Chinese and Japanese are where it gets tricky.

One way to see what a word might look like, and if it is written the same in both languages is to look it up in our free English to Chinese/Japanese/Buddhist dictionary:

Always consult a professional translator, or at least a native Chinese or Japanese person before you get a tattoo. Never trust tattoo parlor flashers - they are almost always wrong!


Posted: Dec 21, 2009 12:57 pm
by Gary
You should get Japanese if:
1. You have Japanese ancestry.
2. Practice a specifically-Japanese martial art.
3. Don't like Chinese for some reason.
4. Feel somehow more connected to Japanese language and culture.

You should pick Chinese if:
1. You have Chinese ancestry.
2. Want your tattoo to be universally understood.
3. Want the "original" Asian language.
4. Don't visually like the simple phonetic Hiragana characters as mixed with Kanji in some Japanese words/phrases.
5. Practice a specifically-Chinese martial art.

Re: Chinese or Japanese for my Tattoo?

Posted: Apr 11, 2012 12:54 pm
by Gary
FYI: They were Chinese characters first!

Japan did not have a written language, and simply absorbed Chinese characters into the Japanese language by meaning around the 5th century. The word Kanji in Japanese actually means "Chinese Characters".

A similar thing happened in Korea (though traditional Korean Hanja characters were almost replaced by Hangul characters in the last century). The word Hanja in Korean means "Chinese Characters" and these are still used in Korean classic literature and certain proper names in South Korea.

There was even a time when Vietnam used Chinese characters as it's form of written language before French missionaries convinced them to romanize.

This explains why words are often written exactly the same way in both Chinese and Japanese. In the same way that many western languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and somewhat English) have a Latin root, you could say that Japanese and Korean have a Chinese root.

A big disclaimer: Languages evolve. Meanings can diverge over time. Today, probably 85% of Japanese Kanji words have the same meaning in the original Chinese. However, 15% of the time, they are very different.
Caution should be used. One example is the Japanese word, 侍 Samurai.
In Chinese, this Samurai character would be perceived as an antiquated word for "servant" or "waiter". So you ask yourself, "How can this character possibly be from the same origin?"
Well, Japanese Samurai were servants to their shogunate and servants of the people. Over time, the perceived meaning went from "servant" to "warrior" in Japanese.

This kind of language evolution is not unique to Asian languages. In English, the word "gay" originally meant "happy" or "joyful". In the past generation or so, this word has come to mean "homosexual male" and finally, a generic term for all homosexuals.