Language is a tricky thing, since while words have specific meanings, we determine by cultural practice how we use different words, and in which contexts and settings. In a given language, some words may well exist but are rarely used – people may prefer euphemisms instead of words which carry too much potency perhaps. Like in England the word ‘fanny’ carries connotations quite different than in the US, and thus the word is not likely to be heard as often in the UK, and certainly not in the same contexts.
If you look in an English-Japanese dictionary, and find the word ‘carpenter’ the seemingly equivalent term listed is ‘daiku‘. This word is written in Japanese characters as ‘大工’, the first character, ‘大’ read dai and meaning big, great. The second character, ‘工’ is read ku and means construction, craft, artisan. In fact that character is a pictograph showing a horizontal beam with a post, atop a sill. Thus, the direct translation of the term daiku might be ‘great craftsman’.
So, there you have a word and its definition – what the dictionary doesn’t mention is how that word is used in the context of Japanese culture. If a Japanese person asked me what I did for a living, I would NOT say ‘I am a daiku‘ (私は大工です／watashi wa daiku desu), because inherent in the term daiku is the sense of ‘greatness’ and thus to call oneself a ‘great carpenter’ is well, it’s bragging, a definite no-no in the Japanese culture, and hardly a shining character point in Western culture for that matter. No self-respecting carpenter would call himself by such a term – he would more likely say that they worked for such-and-such construction company, or if they were a freelancer, might use a term like watashi wa daiku no tsumori desu, “I have the intention of becoming a good carpenter”. The way that the word daiku is used in a Japanese cultural context is one of praise – the customer, for instance, might say in a discussion with a friend about the carpenter, kare wa daiku-san desu, “He’s the honorable carpenter“. The Japanese use terms of respect when taking about or towards out-group members, and terms of humility when talking about oneself or ones in-group members, whether of co-workers or family members.
This topic comes to mind for me today after a conversation last night with a furniture-maker friend from New York City. He mentioned seeing a white guy at a recent conference with the characters for daiku, ‘大工’, tattooed on his arm(!). I suspect, if someone showed up at a Japanese construction project with that tattooed on their arm, they would be likely, at least, to be the subject of continuous ridicule. This would be similar, irregardless of how skilled a carpenter a person might be, to showing up to a western construction site with the phrase “Great Carpenter” tattooed on one’s arm.
I can accept the simple misunderstanding in terms of using a foreign word – it’s a normal part of the process of learning a language, and I can tell you that I continue to make numerous blunders when I speak Japanese. To permanently tattoo something on the body, done in characters and words from another language that one does not fully understand, perhaps only for the ‘cool factor’ of the exotic looking characters, or something like that – well, that’s a step I find hard to understand. If one chooses to culturally appropriate something from another culture, to exoticize that which is foreign, is an area fraught with some pitfalls.
Further compounding this problem is the fact that while Japanese and Chinese share several thousand characters, the meanings and use of those characters often varies from one culture to the other. This is similar, say to the use of the word ‘fanny’, which has a meaning of ‘buttocks’ in the US and Canada, but a very different meaning in other English-speaking countries, where the use of that word in many settings might well provoke embarrassment or even anger.
Since only about 2% of the world’s population are Japanese and 17% are Chinese, one ought, I think, be most careful with tattoo choice, and it would be wise to err on the side of the Chinese meaning of a given character. The word samurai, for instance, is written with the character, ‘侍’, which in Chinese means waiter or servant. How cool does that look? For a woman wanting to have a tattoo of the characters meaning magnificent Geisha or her flesh, she might want to take note that the meaning of those characters in Chinese is apparently talented whore. I’m sure there are also many examples of words that in Chinese mean something just fine and in Japanese are either rude or complete nonsense.
Now, having lived in Japan for a chunk of time, I have seen much of this cultural appropriation process in reverse – there they think Roman characters look really cool, and one often comes across completely nonsensical billboards and t-shirts. Here’s one from a road in Hokkaidō – it’s an advertisement for a men’s cologne I think:
Then there’s this one from a highway rest stop:
There are entire websites devoted to this topic.
Well, I hope I’ve made some headway in preventing some further embarrassing gaffes, though, hey, a little humor definitely spices life up, so I look forward to seeing some more bizarre tattoos and signs before I’m done. In the end, what can I say to top this comment, seen emblazoned on a woman’s carry bag in a Kyōto train station: