Japanese letter tattoos – ideas, pictures, dos and donts to get yourself a cool kanji tattoo

I’ve seen a lot of Japanese letter tattoos. Some of them aren’t pretty. Some of them are pretty. And some of them are pretty meaningless. 

So here I’ve put a list of my favorites, and some notes about what is, erm, probably best avoided. I’ve also got a list of what I consider bad or cringey Japanese kanji tattoos.

Cool Kanji Tattoos

The first thing to note here is that what would be considered a “cool tattoo” by one person might not be by another. It’s largely subjective right.

What we can agree on is that there are very few people that think a tattoo that they intended to mean one thing, but actually meant another thing completely, would be “cool”. So don’t make that mistake.

So what we are trying to do here is not so much “decide” what is cool for you rather than a. Make you think about what you should do to avoid getting something embarrassing and b. give you some options for what you might want to get and how you might want to approach the whole process.

The first thing we should clear up is what do we mean by “Kanji Tattoo”

What are “kanji tattoos”?

So the first thing to be aware of is that “kanji” is the Japanese word for “Chinese Character”. “Kan” is an old word for china and “ji” means a letter, such as an alphabetic letter, or a character, such as a Chinese Character.

Why is this important? Well, we are basically dealing with Chinese writing here, but as it is used by Japanese people. So the first thing to decide when thinking about when trying to find a cool kanji tattoo, is whether you are writing in Japanese (potentially using Chinese Characters) or in Chinese (definitely using Chinese Characters).

What is the difference between Japanese Kanji and Chinese Characters?

First of all, over more than a thousand years, characters have developed slightly differently in different countries. Most significantly, in modern times, the Chinese government decided to massively simplify their characters to make the process of learning to read and write them easier. This means that modern Chinese characters can look drastically different from those used in Japan. 

In fact, the kanji that is the number one most popular choice is the character that most closely translates as “love” in English has been simplified in China but not in Japan. 

So the Chinese version of “love” looks like this:

And the Japanese Kanji for love looks like this:

So you can see how you really need to make a choice about whether you are writing Chinese with Chinese Characters or Japanese with Chinese Characters. 

The funny thing about this particular example is that the part of the character, or “radicle” that the Chinese chose to remove from “love” is the part that means “heart” (yes, each of the bits that makes up a Chinese character has its own meaning). Kinda sad that the Chinese chose to take the heart out of love right?

Can you write Japanese without using Chinese Kanji Characters?

Yes, you can. Japanese has three scripts they use for writing:


Mostly used for the “joining” bits of words such as the “ing” in writing, or the “ed” in “lifted”. Also used for words that don’t have kanji etc.


Used for writing loan words from languages other than Japanese. So all loan words from English fall in this category, such as テーブル for table or スニーカー for sneaker.


Used for the parts that provide most of the actual meaning in words and sentences, such as nouns like “house” or “bridge” or verbs like “eat” or “drink”

In practice, these three scripts are completely mixed within the written Japanese language. They look like this when mixed in a sentence (this one reads “about Kanji tattoos”):


We’ll go into more detail about the things to watch out for when choosing your cool kanji tattoo below. But for now let’s go ahead and show you some of our favs.

Cool Kanji Tattoos Top 10+

No. 1 因 (In) ·果 (Ka) – Cause & Effect, Karma

Here is an example of a cool kanji tattoo where design and meaning work together. It is done in a very rough calligraphy style that makes the characters almost illegible, but looks very striking. 

The characters themselves mean “cause” 因 (In)  and effect 果 (Ka). These characters have more nuance to them in Japanese though, because they are associated with Buddhist philosophy and ideas of karma and consequences to actions that reverberate through multiple lives. The word for karma is actually written using these to characters in Japanese as 因果. 

Kinda clever huh?

No. 2 知恵 wisdom; wit; sagacity; sense; intelligence; prajna (insight leading to enlightenment)

No. 3 不動心 imperturbability; steadfastness, cool head in an emergency; keeping one’s calm (e.g. during a fight, Martial arts term)

There are a few things to like about this Kanji tattoo. First, the meaning of the word – something like “unmovable” or “unshakable”. The three characters that make up 不動心 stand for 不 un 動 move 心 heart. 

It is particularly good for anyone that wants a martial arts related tattoo that is not too as over-the-top of something like the popular 武士道 meaning “way of the samurai” or 武道 meaning “martial arts”. Fudoshin can be used in a wider range of contexts and says more about a person’s inner state than their outer state or appearance.

The other great thing about this kanji tattoo is the broad, rough brushstrokes. It’s like having a piece of zen calligraphy inspired artwork on your body!

No. 3 Design with fine calligraphy of person’s name

This one features a delicate picture placed beside an equally delicately written piece of calligraphy. The two characters here are simply part of a name of a person important to the person with the tattoo. The effect is striking, without being too much.

No. 4 Kanji Tattoo as a picture

Some Kanji tattoos have become so abstract that they are all but illegible to everyone other than the person that has or drew the tattoo itself.

This design is a case in point, with a small explosion that could be a wild plant stem, or could be a character with meaning holding up a crimson flower.

No. 5 林 woods; forest; copse; thicket, bunch; line (of something); collection

This Kanji tattoo shows that size matters. And position.

With a tiny character nestled in the top of the ear, this is a subtle statement that speaks in more of a whisper than a shout.

The character itself is also quite tasteful 林 which describes a small forest, or copse of woods. 

Interestingly, this kanji is made up of two characters for tree 木 put together 林. If you wanted to get make a thicker forest, three is a Chinese character which adds yet a third tree to make 森, which is read as mori in Japanese and is probably closer to what we would call a forest in English.

It’s read as “Hayashi” in Japanese, which is a word unrelated to any Chinese pronunciation. 

This character is also used in the word for apple 林檎 “ringo”, which sounds cute in both Japanese and English. The word “ringo” is only rarely written in Kanji, more often being rendered in katakana script as リンゴ.

No. 6 安靜 (In Old Style Chinese Characters) At rest, repose, stillness.

Chinese characters have changed a lot over the thousands years they have developed. There is no rule that says you have to use them in their most current form. You might want a Kanji tattoo that uses an archaic form such as this one. This tattoo written in current Japanese kanji format is 安静, and obviously looks quite different to the form shown in this tattoo.

There is something mysterious about a tattoo in the palm of the hand. Certainly when you think about the implications of holding stillness in your hand…

No. 7 無為 (In Old Style Chinese Characters approaching abstraction) idle; inactivite, letting things take their own course

If you’re going to go with a chinese character tattoo that uses archaic forms of the characters, you might want to go all the way back to super primitive forms such as the one above. These can have the effect of looking like they have been drawn with a stick in the sand, or etched on a surface with a stick.

This particular one uses the characters 無為. Using these ones demands a level of commitment, as together they can take on what are considered by many to be “negative” connotations of “idleness” or “inactive”. Some people might interpret this as saying that you are a “do nothing”. 

But if you take a Taoist interpretation of these, you get something more like “going with the flow” or “letting things happen”. 

Ultimately, whether the concept of idleness is positive or negative is open to interpretation.

No. 8 無為 (In Old Style Chinese Characters approaching abstraction) idle; inactivite, letting things take their own course

Chinese symbols have been incorporated into seals, or official stamps, for hundreds of years. This is another way to incorporate a kanji into a tattoo without being too literal.

No. 9 Multiple Primitive Kanji Tattoo

Can’t decide on one Kanji for your tattoo? How about 50? 

Here is an example of using a large amount of kanji in their primitive form to create something that looks like a mysterious ancient message inscribed on a temple wall.

No. 9 龍 Dragon

A cursive, brushstroke take on a classic Kanji character tattoo – the Dragon 龍. 

Dragon’s are pretty badass, and have particular connotations with Yakuza tattoos in Japan. This one takes the familiar character and makes it into something much more free flowing, fluid and less monolithic.

Types of Kanji Tattoos: Which Style Is For You?

The first thing to appreciate with Chinese character tattoos is that it’s not one-size-fits all. Looking through the many, many kanji tattoos you see around, it’s amazing how many use a fairly standard, moderately thick writing style.

Really, the possibilities are endless with how you can design your characters, so it is worth exploring. To list a few of the styles:

Light Brush Stroke “Cursive” kanji tattoos


Kanji don’t have to be written don’t have to be written in a large thick type. They can be very delicate and light. They can also be written in separate defined strokes, or run together in highly cursive styles.

Heavy Brush & Abstract Kanji Tattoos

Chinese characters are synonymous with bold type. Within thicker writing styles you will find everything from highly abstracted, purposely rough brush strokes to highly controlled styles.

Simple Kanji Tattoos

Kanji themselves can be either very simple or very complex. This is true of the style that they can be written in as well. You have a choice to either “go with” the simplicity of the characters, as in the example above, or “work against” the simplicity by adding embellishments. Sometimes it’s fun to keep things simple though.

Ancient Kanji Form Tattoos

Kanji have taken many forms over many, many generations. It can be a point of difference to go back into some of the early forms of these characters. You can go as far back as finding the point at which the characters exist in a place somewhere between pictograph and an out-and-out picture.

How to Choose the Right Kanji Tattoo Design Style

Obviously there is a lot of personal taste in choosing what you consider to be a “cool kanji tattoo”. 

Some of the considerations though are:

What is the relationship between the meaning of the characters and the style you are choosing. The character for “flower” written in a delicate cursive form versus written in a heavy, rough style conveys a very different meaning.

Do you want a simple character with a few strokes, or something very “busy” with many strokes?

How to not choose a bad Kanji Tattoo?

You see a lot of quite cringy tattoos around that feature kanji.

  • Probably the biggest pitfall is people asking “how do I say such-and-such in Japanese?” and then getting the “equivalent word” written. The problem is that words have totally different nuances in a different language. They rarely translate in a completely satisfactory way.
  • One example would be the word God. You often see people with a 神 kami tattoo, which is probably the closest equivalent in Japanese. But the problem is that if you come from a monotheistic country and have an idea of “one God” and you try to transplant that to a polytheistic country like Japan that believes that there are countless gods that exist everywhere kami actually means something quite different. 
  • Then there are problems of translating words that have different senses of meaning. One classic in this realm is people trying to translate “free” or “freedom” and coming up with something like 無料 which can mean “free” but only in the sense of “free of charge” or “at no extra cost”. Obviously “freedom” and “free of charge” are two quite different things.
  • Another big one is that it is easy to lose the nuances of the original English word you are trying to capture. So, staying with the same example, you are much more likely to want to get a tattoo of “freedom” than just “free”. But the equivalent word 自由 is probably closely just “free”, which begs such questions for most people looking at the tattoo as “free what?” or “who or what is free?”.
  • Or take this example:
  • We can assume that the person with this tattoo intended this to mean “breathe”. But in Japanese it is probably closer to breath. 
  • Words in English can often be interpreted either as verbs or nouns. So if you saw the word “dream” as a tattoo, you would probably assume that the person was suggesting that you “dream a dream”. But if you write 夢 yume in Japanese you are actually writing something that would be similar to writing “dreams” in english. Which seems kind of strange. Dreams are cool and all, but would you get a tattoo that just abstractly said “dreams”?
  • Another pithole that you see people fall into is that, because each Chinese character has its own individual meaning, people try and put several unrelated characters together side by side. They might do, say, earth, wind, fire as 地風火. The problem with this is that, because kanji are routinely put together to create longer words, anyone seeing these characters is naturally going to try and put them together to “spell out” a piece of vocabulary. But there is no such word as 地風火, so it just comes across as confusing and, well, just weird.
  • So in light of all of this, I think it is best to ask a Japanese person what they think are some interesting words that exist in Japanese.
  • For example, there are many 四字熟語 yojijyukugo combinations of 4 characters that when placed together have some kind of poetic meaning. Probably the most famous example, which you sometimes see people using in tattoos is 一期一会, which means something like “one chance, one opportunity”, and which means you should do everything you can to make the most of every single chance meeting you have.

Are tattoos offensive in Japan?

Tattoos are still somewhat taboo in Japan because of their long standing connection with Yakuza gang culture.

That being said, the culture of tattoos in Japan has changed over the past decades. Tattoos are not as offensive as they used to be. Culturally there is even something of a movement for people to get tattoos as a way of celebrating the country’s cultural heritage.

A list of things to be careful of when getting a Chinese Character tattoo

  1. Make sure you know at least roughly what your Kanji tattoo means
  2. Check your kanji tattoo with a native speaker to make sure it is grammatically correct
  3. Don’t try and find Direct A=B equivalents between words in different languages. The Japanese symbol for faith for example will have very different connotation in the East than in the West.
  4. Remember that two, or more, Chinese characters placed side-by-side have different meaning a Chinese character by itself
  5. Don’t write from bottom to top – no one reads that way
  6. Don’t write something in Chinese characters because you are too afraid to write it in English
  7. Make sure the person that does the tattoo knows how to write Chinese Characters correctly

Ideas for kanji tattoos

Here are some of the most common kanji that you tend to see around (which might make them good or bad, depending on your perspective.

愛 (ai) Love

神 (kami) god, spirit, deity etc.

信 (shin) faith, honesty, fidelity

浪人 (Ronin) The modern meaning is usually a person who has failed their university entrance exam and has to resit a year later. It was traditionally a word for a “masterless samurai”, which is why it has become a popular tattoo

福 (fuku) fortune, good luck

父 (chichi, tou) father

母 (haha, kaa) mother

兄 (ani, ni) older brother

姉 (ane, ne) older sister

(imouto) younger sister

弟 (otouto) younger brother

虎 (tora) lion

龍 (ryu) dragon

武士道 (bushido) way of the samurai