The Japanese language has three alphabets or scripts. Hiragana and Katakana are Kana systems which represent one sound. Hiragana represent sounds in Japanese words while Katakana was constructed to convey sounds of English and other foreign words. Kanji symbols are the third and are a combination of Japanese pronunciation with adopted ideographic Chinese characters.
It is said that some 50,000 kanji exist. However, many Kanji are not necessarily used in daily life. The Japanese Ministry of Education designated 1,945 characters as Jooyoo Kanji, which are the most frequently used characters. It would be very helpful to learn all Jooyoo Kanji, but the basic 1,000 characters are sufficient to read about 90% of the kanji used in a newspaper (about 60% with 500 characters). Since children’s books use less kanji, they would be a good resource to practice your reading.
With so many Kanji to choose from it can be a minefield when choosing lettering for a tattoo so we advise for you to get your design checked by a professional linguist who specialises in Tattoo Translation before you get inked.
If you’d like to learn more about Japanese Kanji and how to learn it and read it, here’s a very interesting article from Kanji Damage that goes into detail about the different types of Kanji and readings.