Monday, October 8, 2012

Irezumi: Grimm Akira Kimura's Tattoos

The first thing to note about Akira Kimura's tattoos is that they're fucking backwards. I didn't notice this immediately upon watching, I was too busy watching the actual episode, but when I started analyzing I automatically tried to read the hiragana, which is when I noticed they were all backwards. The only way this makes sense at all to me is that the transfer sheet on which the tattoos were originally inked was put on backwards, or someone forgot to reverse it initially. Either way, this caused about a minute or three of confusion when I started translating before I remembered to flip it. Then it caused about a minute or five of swearing. The second thing to know, not to note, in order to translate properly is that not all of those are pictogram symbols. The third thing to note is that Japanese is my least proficient language currently; fortunately we have eagle-eyed readers whose skills are much less rusty than mine! See the bottom for one reader's interpretation.

Japanese as I learned it in school, and I think as it is taught in school, is made up of three types of writing (well, two, but we'll treat it as three for now). The first two are alphabetic: hiragana and katakana. All Japanese words can be spelled with hiragana, they are like the English ABC's. They are made up of what we would think of as one consonant and one vowel, (e.g. ka ki ku ke ko, ma mi mu me mo) except for five which are all vowels (a i u e o) and one which is a single consonant (n). Those previous examples are pronounced kah, key, koo, keh, koh and mah, mee, moo, meh, moe. The vowels are pronounced ah, ee, oo, eh, oh. And yes, the consonant is pronounced nn. The katakana alphabet is made up of the same sounds, and the letters often look similar to the hiragana. The katakana alphabet is usually reserved for loan words from other languages, or at least, I have yet to find an exception to that rule. Not all loan words are from English, but many are. Both of these alphabets are referred to as kana, phonetic symbols, which is what I mean when I say it is made up of two types of writing that, initially, are often treated as three; hiragana and katakana are taught separately.

The third type of writing is the type that I suspect many people think of when they think of Japanese, and I know I did before I started studying the language. It is not an alphabet as we know it in English, and it is incredibly complicated to learn and write. This is the kanji, the set of pictograms with each pictogram having its own meaning as a word or concept. There are several thousand kanji, actually anywhere between 13,000 and 50,000 in various official records, but only two or three thousand are in common use. A kanji is made up of one to several radicals, which are in the most simple of terms smaller individual pictograms. These are then grouped together to make a larger concept, the kanji itself. For example, the radical/kanji symbol for heart or core appears also in the kanji for blessed and the kanji for kindness. There are approximately 214 major radicals (making them much easier/simpler to memorize!) and they are often sorted in stroke order. This means they are sorted by the number of brush strokes it takes to form the radical, and yes, there is a specific order to how you write a kanji, or part of a kanji. Incidentally, kanji can also be sorted by stroke order, but it's easier if you know how many strokes are in the kanji and/or how to write it first, if you want to look it up in the dictionary.

So! With that all in mind, well, first of all you can see why it was so irritating that the writing was all backwards. A kanji with a radical in one place is in a different location in the dictionary than a kanji with that same radical in a different place. But secondly, if you have a high-definition/high-resolution copy of Kimura's tattoos and feel like playing along at home, you can now find a kanji dictionary in your local library or online and try it out for yourself! On to the actual tattoos.

Like I said, I noticed they were backwards when I tried to read the hiragana, the phonetic alphabet part. I've highlighted them here for you, but these are easiest to deal with because they're simple words that can be looked up in a dictionary. Or at least they could, but I suspect those aren't actual words. Japanese words tend to be made up of a kanji which gives the theme or the concept of the action and then one to three hiragana, completing the word. To go back to the examples above, in 'megumareta' only the 'megu' part is rendered as a kanji symbol, and the 'mareta' is spelled out phonetically. Likewise with 'omoiyari' only the 'omo' is rendered in kanji, and the rest is spelled out as 'i-ya-ri.' I suspect the longer strings of Japanese that I've highlighted are verb endings based on my limited vocabulary and my knowledge of grammar, and possibly infinitive verb endings. Practically speaking, it could all be indecipherable without the other kanji.

Both the longer strings of hiragana say the same thing, which is transliterated as 'gotoku.' Out of the other two hiragana that appear (one appears twice) the 'no' is a particle that denotes possession, and I'm not sure what the 'ru' is, it could be several things.

The kanji I was able to decipher:

Out of the first two, the lower one seems to be the kanji for "tongue", in Japanese, setsu. 'Setsu.' In theory this should make the kanji directly above it dragon, which would be ryu 'ryu', but it isn't. I can't actually tell what that first kanji is. I can see what look like the bottom two radicals, the right one of which doesn't look like any radical I can find in my dictionary, but I can't make out the top part.

Then there's a bit I can't decipher, although I can make out the left and therefore likely to be the first drawn radical. Ideally, this would be how I would look it up, by that radical, but I couldn't find anything that looked close enough to my satisfaction in my dictionary. Then there's the hiragana 'no', which is a particle denoting possession. (It does other things as well, but for the moment it looks as though it's indicating possession.) The way it does that is as follows [Noun 1] no [Noun 2] meaning [Noun 2] of [Noun 1]. Assuming the first kanji from the previous paragraph really is a not-in-my-dictionary form of 'dragon', it should read 'dragon' no 'tongue.' Which basically means what we have here is, I think, unknown-noun of unknown-noun. Don't you feel informed? There follows another kanji I can't make out, the letter 'ru', another kanji, and gotoku.

The first kanji in the third column is 'ko' or 'ki' phonetically and as part of a word, individually it is a pronoun that translates to 'onore', and it means 'self' or 'oneself' in the pronoun form. This would be much more helpful if I could read the second kanji, but as it is I can only make out about one and a half radicals. It appears to be the same, however, as the third kanji in the previous column. As a point of interest, when that kanji appears as part of a larger word, the 'ko' or 'ki' syllable is almost always the second syllable in the word, meaning that kanji should come second if it were the 'ko/ki' reading. Since it comes first, I think it actually means the pronoun 'oneself' or implied to be 'myself,' something as a personal marker for the rest of the sentence if not the rest of the tattoo. Then there's another 'ru', then what looks like the fourth kanji down from the previous column, and again with the gotoku.

The first kanji in the fourth column I'm not sure on, but the second one looks like a fairly ugly version of 'rin', which is 'forest.' The next two I know by heart, the first one is 'ka' or 'fire,' and then the last one is 'yama', which is 'mountain.' And for those of you who haven't put together the symbology yet, fire + mountain = volcano. It's Mount Doom, people! Which goes right along with the coins being like the One Ring. Sort of.

And that's about all I've managed to decipher. Now, Japanese is actually my fourth language, fifth if you count Latin, and it's the one I've had the least practice at over the years, so if a fluent speaker would like to take a crack at this or correct my somewhat haphazard explanation, by all means, please do. (Oct 9 2012: One skilled reader already has! Thank you, dear reader!) One final thing I'd like to note about Kimura's tattoos, though, irrespective of language: those are not typical of a yakuza member's tattoos. They might be typical of the Dragon's Tongue, or they might be something that was applied to Kimura as punishment, warning, or reward. Or it might be something entirely different. But you only need do a quick google image search for yakuza tattoos to find a representative sampling of the designs typical of that form of art. It does not involve writing messages in plain Japanese. It involves elaborate mural-like pictures on the body, weaving together historical scenes, persons or legendary figures, and symbolic items, often taking several years and a great deal of money (think, tens of thousands of US Dollars) to complete.

artsiesforever on tumblr writes in:

龍舌 Dragonʻs tongue
汝の敵 / oneʻs enemies/ 知ろ /know (I found the ro ending is some nouns made from shiru, so Iʻll leave it at that/ がごとく /is a virtue - though gotoku is originally the five virtues, I allow some space for interpretation, seeing as this is a fantasy tv series/
> to know oneʻs enemies is a virtue
this is such a guess itʻs not even funny; the first kanji though usually means self, also has the meaning of serpent, the second seems to be 如ろ (もころ) meaning like, same as
> being like a serpent is a virtue?
Kitty adds: This is a good guess, and given that the organization is the Dragon's Tongue I wouldn't rule it out. My personal guess, given that I initially thought the second kanji was the same as on the first string, and given that this is coming from the perspective of Western TV writers, would be 'to know oneself is a virtue.' But back to our reader's translation!
風林火山 (ふうりんかざん)
> this is actually a proverb: as fast as the wind, as quiet as the forest, as daring as fire, and immovable as the mountain

So, there you have a second possible translation from a more skilled speaker than myself! Thank you, artsiesforever!

Of course, I have no idea what the writers and show staff know of the yakuza or their tattoos, let alone what they might have made up for the purposes of building this Dragon's Tongue organization, so this is all conjecture. It might be that it all means something entirely different. We may never know...


  1. I think that is the character for dragon. If you do a google image search for "dragon in kanji" it comes up.

    (Can't believe they got them backwards... really, people!)

  2. Another reader who is currently studying Japanese at Uni took a stab at it, and concurs!

    (Their language skills, at least for languages the actors aren't fluent in as far as I can tell, leave quite a bit to be desired.)

  3. Hey, I was just watching this bit on Amazon Instant Video, and they've fixed the tattoos! I guess they'll be right-way-round on the DVD. (Freaky)

  4. 'Lo! I'm late; I just watched this episode on the DVD, and the tattoos really are the right way around there.

    My two cents on the long tattoo: It was a mildly botched attempt at "Know thy enemy as ye know thyself." (The literal reading is "Onore shiru ga gotoku, nanji no teki shiru ga gotoku.") It reads oddly because 1.) they're using King James-type pronouns (Onore = oneself, nanji = you/thee), and 2.) it's structured as two separate phrases rather than as a comparison, so it's technically more like "As ye know thyself, as ye know thy enemy". (Credentials: I'm not a native Japanese speaker, but I did pass the JLPT Level 1, and I've been translating professionally for seven years.)

    1. That's okay, we're not terribly prompt on commenting ourselves. As you can see. Sorry. :/

      At least they did fix it in post-post! It's been a while since I broke out the S1 discs but I'm glad to know they did. As far as the interpretation goes, that seems likely both in context of the character and the episode, and in the context of that seems like something would want on a tattoo. And don't worry, your credentials are better than mine at the moment.