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How to Understand Japanese Calligraphy Symbols

If you've ever wondered if that tattoo artist lied to you, this guide will help set the record straight.


  • Step 1: Understand kanji Understand that Japanese calligraphy symbols, or kanji, are simply basic representations of everyday objects; essentially, they are pictographs.
  • TIP: Remember that, although Japanese kanji and Mandarin Chinese symbols are similar, the translations are often vastly different.
  • Step 2: Focus on larger characters Focus on the larger parts of a character rather than smaller strokes or dots -- these carry more meaning.
  • Step 3: Look for familiar pictures Look for familiar objects in nature, such as the kanji for "mountain" with three vertical lines, or the kanji for "sun," a box with one horizontal line.
  • Step 4: Separate into parts Separate the whole character into parts. This can mean breaking the top and bottom apart or separating multiple characters.
  • TIP: Two or more symbols can be smashed together to form a single word -- the kanji for "big" and "school" are combined to form "college."
  • Step 5: Take a class or buy a dictionary Take a class and buy a dictionary. A little studying can help you understand more than you think.
  • FACT: There are an estimated 1.2 million people of Japanese descent living in the United States.

You Will Need

  • Patience
  • Analysis
  • Foreign language class
  • Japanese-to-English dictionary

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