Sunday, April 11, 2004

It's the Things You Don't Know That Hurt You

Via Metafilter, I've just come across this Chicago Tribune* mini photo-gallery, the focus of which is on the inadvertant messages the Kanji-ignorant bearers of Japanese tattoos often carry. None of the tattoos featured actually says anything grossly insulting, but they do show up the amusing (for me; Asians might think "annoying" more appropriate) tendency of many Westerners to exoticize Asian cultures they have little to no real understanding of.

I have absolutely no intention of ever getting a tattoo, but if I were ever so moved as to want Kanji characters permanently etched unto my skin, I'd at least have the foresight to look up the characters in a dictionary beforehand, to ensure that what I was getting and what I asked for were the same thing. Culture isn't genetically transmitted, and just because a person seems of Asian extraction doesn't mean he or she knows anything about Asian culture per se, nor does knowledge of one Asian culture automatically imply knowledge of all the others - a fact I'm always reminded of whenever I see a "Japanese" restaurant advertising 日本料理 ("Japanese cooking") written with katakana characters, or hear "Japanese" restaurant workers speaking Cantonese.

*Yes, I'm aware that the story is actually being carried by the Sun Sentinel; it's still a Tribune story, as can be seen by looking at the bottom of the page. I replaced the original Chicago Tribune link with this one because of the Tribune's insistence on requiring registration.