Info & Opinion on Asian Name Tattoos (Chinese/Japanese)

Want to know what your Chinese or Japanese tattoo says? Need info about Chinese Character / Japanese Kanji tattoos? See also: Asian Tattoo Template Service
User avatar
The Boss
Posts: 6091
Joined: Oct 30, 2007 11:30 pm
Location: San Diego / Beijing

Info & Opinion on Asian Name Tattoos (Chinese/Japanese)

Post by Gary » Oct 7, 2010 12:15 pm

I get asked for English names in Chinese or Japanese all the time. There are a lot of issues you should consider before getting such names on a tattoo.

The first thing to consider is that some names can be translated by meaning, other names must be transliterated by sound.

By meaning:

If your name is Angel, Summer, June, Autumn, April, Jade, Jasmine, Bear, Stone, Scout, Denver, Grace, Lily, Hunter, Bella, Trinity, Christian, Faith, Genesis, Serenity, London, Violet, Piper, Zion, Eden, Israel, Hope, Cash, Harmony, Phoenix, Sage, Iris, Ivy, Lyric, Georgia, Jewel, Rose, Dallas, River, or Colt, you can use the meaning of your name translated into Chinese or Japanese.

And yes, parents are really naming their kids with variations of all of these names.

Let's use Angel as an example:

If we translate this name, we get...
Heaven / Sky

This is the word for angel in both Chinese and Japanese Kanji. In fact, it's also angel in old Korean Hanja (Korea used to be written only in Chinese characters for about 1600 years).

The literal meaning is "Heaven's Messenger".
The romanization from Chinese is "Tian Shi". The romanization from Japanese is "Ten Shi". As you can see, Japan borrowed not only the characters but the pronunciation as well from Chinese.

I prefer to use this method of translating names by meaning whenever possible. It makes the resulting name more universal (in Chinese, Japanese Kanji, and old Korean Hanja). There will be no secondary meanings that can be derived. It's really the best way.

Now, "Tian Shi" does not sound like angel, but it means angel. So what if you want the name to sound like angel?

Transliteration is not translation (note the difference in spelling).

Transliteration takes the sound of a word or name and approximates the pronunciation using native sounds from another language.

What we are really doing is plugging in Chinese characters that sound like the English version. Let's look at Angel again:

calm / still / quiet / peaceful
white gem

This is "An Qi Er" from the Chinese romanization. The official romanization does not always tell you how it really sounds, so this is more like "Ann Chee Ele" using English sounds. This is as close to the pronunciation of angel in English as you can get using Chinese sounds.

Notice that the meaning of each character does not correspond to the meaning of angel. These are sounds only. In the case of some names, the meanings can be kind of crazy.

Because pronunciation is often quite different between Chinese and Japanese, this will be totally meaningless in Japanese. It will just look like random characters. In fact, a Chinese person will have to think for a moment to realize this is a name in Chinese.

I don't like this method of writing names for tattoos, as you are getting something that only can apply to one name, and if read by a Japanese person may look like total rubbish, or have unintended meanings/perceptions.

What about Japanese?

Note: If you are having trouble deciding between Chinese and Japanese, please read my post here: Chinese or Japanese for my Tattoo?

In regular Japanese, they use a lot of Kanji (Chinese characters borrowed by Japanese - these contain meaning) and a bit of Hiragana (a simpler character set that only contains pronunciation information).

They also use Katakana. This character set is used exclusively to transliterate western-language (usually English) words and names using Japanese sounds. With Katakana, nobody will make any mistake that it's an originally-English word or name written in Japanese. The appearance of Katakana is a bit squared off and different from Hiragana.

This is what Angel looks like in Katakana:

This would never be written this way in Japanese, but just as an example, this would be Angel improperly-written in Hiragana:

Notice how different Katakana looks compared to Hiragana?

Some may want to transliterate using the sounds contained in Japanese Kanji. In the old days, there was a set of Japanese Kanji used for this (called man'yōgana or Ateji). However, during this language reformations after WWII, this practice became technically illegal in Japan (though nobody would be thrown in jail for doing it). Katakana is the official and only authorized method for writing western names in modern Japanese.

Summary and Final Thoughts:

Using Chinese or Japanese characters for words or phrase tattoos is usually no problem, and often universal between the languages. However, always double check with a native person from China or Japan to make sure you're not going to make a fool out of yourself. Never trust the flashers at tattoo parlors in regards to Chinese or Japanese characters!

Using Chinese or Japanese characters for name tattoos has many pitfalls, and should only be used with extreme caution, and only when absolutely necessary.

To be honest, I always feel uncomfortable when someone purchases our Asian tattoo template services for their name or the names of family members. I wish they would just get a tattoo that says "family" in Chinese/Japanese, or something meaningful like that.