Last week, Ariana Grande made headlines after getting an unfortunately misspelled tattoo — instead of saying “seven rings” in Japanese, as was intended, the kanji symbols read as “Japanese barbecue grill.” But amid the mocking media coverage, one person in particular came to Ariana’s defense: Ayumi Furiya, her Japanese tutor of four years.
As soon as Furiya heard about the outrage, she reached out to the pop star. “We texted a lot,” Furiya told the Cut, and some of those messages ended up on Ari’s Instagram story. In the end, Ariana couldn’t add in the missing kanji symbol in the spot her tutor suggested— in between the two others, which lacked adequate space — and ended up with a tattoo that reads as “Japanese barbecue grill finger.” For what it’s worth, Furiya says she likes the tattoo.
Below, the Cut spoke to Furiya about her experience teaching Japanese, the first time she met Ariana, and what she wants to say to everyone criticizing the pop star’s hand tattoo.
How did you come to be Ariana’s teacher? Did she approach you?
I started the Fuji School in 2012, and it’s the only Japanese language school in my location. So, we stand out. When she started in 2015, she wasn’t famous yet … I mean, she was already famous, but not that famous. She found us when her manager called the school and talked to another teacher who knew who Ariana was.
What was it like meeting her for the first time?
When I started teaching, I was really afraid of meeting celebrities. I would be like, Oh my gosh, I’m going to meet someone very famous and what if they’re very stupid? Or out of my hand? I remember when I was driving to her house the first time. I was very nervous. But the moment I met her, she was so nice. I had read negative articles about her, and now I’m offended because she’s so nice. When I got there, she had made tea and homemade cookies for me — she made them. She could have asked other people to do this for her, but she didn’t. That made me think, Oh, she’s just a person, like a normal person, and she has such a sweetheart.
Yeah! I’m familiar with her.
Well Poppy would come to my school, maybe once a week, with Titanic Sinclair.
So tell me a little bit about your tutoring relationship with Ariana. How often do you work with her? And do you typically do it in person or via Skype?
When she started, we would maybe do lessons two, three times a week. Sometimes she came to my school but only several times because our other students were so surprised, they couldn’t concentrate on studying. But after she started to tour more, we tried online lessons because she was in and out of the country. In online lessons, though, she still has to talk, and she needed to protect her voice. After 2015, we didn’t have lessons so often — she was too busy to study. Today, to be honest, I maybe tutor her once a year in person. We talk and we text sometimes, though. But she is still my student and I am still her teacher.
Do you know what inspired Ariana to learn Japanese?
After the second time she went to Japan, she realized she wanted to be able to communicate with her Japanese fans in Japanese. She also really likes Japanese culture. She’s very small, like my size — 5 feet — and Japanese fashion has lots of small sizes.
What’s it like to actually teach her?
Sometimes she asks me before responding to Japanese fans on Twitter or Instagram because she doesn’t want to be rude. She doesn’t want to offend anyone because she really cares. So at first, I told her that learning Japanese is very hard, so I said that maybe she could just memorize some phrases so she could speak to her fans. She didn’t agree with me — she really wanted to learn the Japanese language from the beginning. Therefore we started from lesson one, like I do with all my students.
Had Ariana ever talked to you about getting a written tattoo in kanji?
I wasn’t teaching her kanji yet because it’s the furthest step. I taught her hiragana, [one component of the Japanese writing system], and she memorized all 46 letters, and then we started katakana, which is for foreign words. But, we hadn’t started kanji. But of course Ariana is interested in learning so much, so sometimes she asked me about the meaning of kanji characters.
Did she consult you before getting her hand tattoo?
She didn’t talk to me before. After the tattoo, though, many of my students told me about the news, so I started to text her. For “seven rings,” you’re supposed to have three kanji characters but she only got two, which makes sense because tattoos are painful. With three kanji characters, sometimes you can drop one character, but unfortunately she had to have the middle character.
And I know she reached out to you after the original debacle — she posted your texts on social media. What was that conversation like? Did she seem panicked?
She didn’t tell me about her emotions much, but I guess she was sad to hear many people making fun of her. I told her that if you wanna make it accurate, you could put another kanji in the middle, and she said there was no space. So then I recommend other places she could put the symbol; we texted a lot. She was considering lasering the second kanji to make room for the third character because she just did not have enough space to put the third character in the middle. But, she put it on the bottom. I really liked her idea to use that position. I really like the art.
So would you say that you were upset over the criticism she faced?
I am so, so mad that many people are making fun of her. I don’t want this to stop anyone from being motivated to learn another language. After Ariana posted her Instagram with my name, many Japanese fans messaged me on Twitter and Instagram saying that they understood. I came to America maybe ten years ago and I don’t speak English perfectly. If you study another language, you understand that people make mistakes. Japanese is the hardest language to learn if you speak English.
Also Japanese is not a common language in the world. It’s not necessary for her to learn Japanese — she just really wants to. I appreciate that. It makes her Japanese fans so happy.