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 The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #14 (March 30, 2004), page 11.

Japanese letters for the unlettered

Designing with Kanji: Japanese Character Motifs for Surface, Skin & Spirit

By Shogo Oketani and Leza Lowitz

Stone Bridge Press, 2003

Paperback, 144 pages, $14.95

By Oscar Johnson

Special to the Asian Reporter

The guy who thinks his tattooed forearm says "wind god" (fuujin) in Japanese when it really reads "wife" (fujin), or the fabled feminist whose calf is artfully scripted with a character for "woman" that literally designates the ladies’ room, may argue that Designing with Kanji is late in coming. It may be for them, but not for most.

Nonetheless, some of the thousands of Japanese characters known as kanji are presented in this book. Complete with more than 140 kanji and their combinations, stylized script variations and — most importantly — their definitions, the book is a useful tool for those wishing to decoratively write or be written on in Japanese.

It’s also handy for those who want to add a few stylish pictographs from the Land of the Rising Sun to a bicep or backside, or are seeking to illuminate a literary work or work of art with that certain Japanese phrase or look, or for someone simply aiming to impress fellow partygoers with tidbits of quasi-literacy in the language.

Designing with Kanji is peppered with linguistic facts that offer tantalizing zoom-lens snapshots of the vast cultural landscape from which the language springs. The intent is to intrigue if not inspire as well as inform. One out of three isn’t bad. While it is neither a must read nor encyclopedic, it is what it claims to be: a rudimentary guide to "over 130 kanji for tattoos and other fun stuff."

The book’s brief foreword can be a superfluous burden at times. Yet it does informatively survey past and present uses of these alphabetic ideograms that Japan borrowed from China more than 1,500 years ago, and which are now the aesthetic fancy of so many in the West.

Designing with Kanji is geared for just such fancies. It’s divided into four basic, if not stereotypical, chapters: "The Way of the Warrior," "The Way of the Heart," The Way of Nature," and "The Way of the Spirit." A short bibliography of both off- and online sources is provided for the more serious linguistic student, and the book is not without a few pointers on penning the script. With the non-native writer as well as reader in mind, it displays the characters in oversized picture-book proportions against a grid backdrop — ideal for the untrained eye of a novice.

This virtual "idiot’s guide" to popular kanji shows the proper characters and words with meanings, ranging from air to Zen, and from samurai to sex. And while contemporary Japanese may not share the same affinity for astrological signs as their Chinese neighbors or Americans, with the latter, no doubt, in mind, kanji for the animals of the Asian zodiac are included just the same.

So, if those unlettered in Japanese are, as the authors suggest, looking to give a piece of pottery, pastry, or wall hanging that ‘authentic Japanese feel,’ this book is a good place to start. And just as it wouldn’t be terribly practical to consult a linguist on the nuances of tattooing, Designing with Kanji can also help prevent some rather indelible faux pas.


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