25 Sep The History Of Tattoos: Japanese Tattoos and Their Meanings
The history of tattoos is a long and varied one, and that story doesn’t get much more turbulent than when we look to Japan, and the trials and tribulations that have led to the development of arguably the most popular tattoo style in the world.
Japanese tattooing, also known as Irezumi, is a style that’s bursting with symbolism, meanings and icons. Though it’s faced a large amount of scrutiny, pressure and even attempts to completely obliterate it from the culture, the Japanese style has become as permanent as the tattoos that people have sought to erase.
As always, we’ll start way back at the beginning and work forward from there, taking in history, links to organised crime, how the style developed and the meanings behind some of the most popular images.
This is gonna be a big one.
向こうで会いましょう! (see you on the other side)
If we trace it back to its very earliest incarnation, tattooing in Japan likely developed at some point during the Jomon Period (10,000 to 200BE).
Clay figurines called dogus have been unearthed by archaeologists that appear to show markings on their face and bodies. There’s no way to say for sure if these symbolise tattoos or simply painted on body decorations, but they could be early signifiers of permanent skin marking.
In the third century, an ancient Chinese history text was written (it’s called the Gishiwajinden, if you want to look it up) that said of Japan: “Men young and old, all tattooing their faces and decorate their bodies with designs”. These original designs would vary greatly between tribes and social rank, but often included fish and shells. They were predominantly used as symbols to protect the wearer from malevolent spirits and dangers, but also featured ornamental aspects. It’s good to look nice while warding off evil, after all.
It’s also worth mentioning the samurai at this point, as they were some of the earliest purveyors of inked skin. Theirs had a much more macabre function though, as they were used to identify bodies on the battlefield after they’d been looted. Gruesome, but smart.
An indigenous tribe with very prominent tattoos were the Ainu, found in the northern part of the Hokkaido region.
Their markings were first recorded in 1612, and were found around the mouth, cheeks, foreheads and eyebrows of the women within the tribe. These had a dual purpose, not only to function as a religious symbol and sign of sexual maturity, but also as a cosmetic necessity, the tattoos being seen as attractive and aesthetically desirable by the men of the tribe.
The tattoos would start at around the age of 10 and would be added to until the girl reached the appropriate age for marriage. They were also said to ward off demons and disease, which is pretty handy.
The outlaw of tattoos in Japan
This is where things started to get interesting for tattoos in Japan. The Edo period had brought with it the popular Ukiyo-e style of artwork, which you’ll recognise if you’ve ever seen a traditional Japanese tattoo.
The authorities had already tried to outlaw the Ainu tattoos mentioned above in 1799, in a bid to remove the religious affiliations and strong cultural bonds of the indigenous people, thereby undermining the village elders and taking control for themselves.
This was largely ineffective for the next 72 years, until the Japanese government really ramped up its efforts to outlaw tattoos. The arrival of westerners brought with it a desire to be seen as clean and civilised, and tattoos were therefore deemed to be “deleterious to public morals”.
However, despite the best efforts of the authorities, people continued to get inked. The practice was usually confined to people from the lower classes of society, who didn’t particularly care what the government wanted them to do and so used tattoos as a way to mark themselves as rebels and outlaws.
They were also frequently used by people in hazardous occupations, such as firemen, as certain designs were believed to protect the wearer from danger.
All of these factors came together to draw a certain type of culture into the world of tattoos, and they would come to typify the world of Japanese tattoos to this day; the yakuza.
Crime; organised and otherwise
For as long as there have been tattoos, people in power have used them as a punitive measure. A way of signifying criminals, thugs and undesirables to the world around them. They can be a way to permanently brand a person, so that everyone will always know what they are.
Japan has been no different in their use of penal tattoos, which varied across the different regions.
A commonly found symbol was the kanji lettering for inu (dog), placed squarely on the forehead of the offender. Hiroshima used a particularly inventive method, adding one line at a time to the symbol, each one denoting a different crime, until the word was created. At this point, they’d start the whole process again, assuming the individual was still out there breaking the law (and getting caught).
Towards the end of the 17th century, decorative tattooing was seeing a drastic rise in popularity, which gave criminals the option of covering up their punitive symbols with brightly coloured and bold artwork, essentially removing the record of their crimes.
This in part led to the link between tattoos and the organized crime gangs of Japan, the yakuza. They not only used tattoos as a way of hiding their crimes, but also as a way of differentiating themselves from society, identifying their members as forever part of the gang.
The fact that the process to obtain these tattoos was very long and painful only added to their appeal, as it showed a strong determination and dedication to the cause.
Though the official ban on tattoos was lifted in Japan in 1948, they’re still incredibly stigmatised within the country, and can only legally be given by people with a medical license.
In 2015 Taiki Masuda was arrested and his studio raided for not having the sufficient license to perform the tattoos that he was giving. To this day the case is still ongoing.
Imagery and meanings
So that’s a very brief outline of the saga of Japanese tattooing, but what do the tattoos actually mean? A lot of the time tattoos don’t mean much of anything, other than looking great, but it’s a well-known fact that the Japanese style is bursting with hidden symbolism within its bright colours and graceful linework. Let’s have a look at some of the common imagery used and what the meaning behind it is, other than “cos it looks sick mate”.
Dragons have been featured in Japanese artwork since the 700s, having been introduced into the culture by buddhist and hindu monks, travelling to the island from places like China and India.
Dragons are thought to symbolise power, strength and wisdom, and far from being the fire breathing monsters that the west categorise them as, are seen as benevolent deities that help mankind in their endeavours.
Deities and Gods
There are a large number of icons within the Japanese culture, but some of the most popular within the tattoo world are Fujin and Raijin, the brother gods.
These two are usually depicted looking more like demons than gods, with fearsome demeanours and a fierce look on their faces. Fujin has blue or green skin and is the god of wind. He controls the air through the use of an ornate bag that he is often shown holding.
Raijin is the god of lightning and thunder, creating sky shattering sounds by beating his drum. According to legend the two are rivals, like typical brothers, and storms are the result of their sibling fights.
Since Japan opened its doors in the 19th century, the image of the geisha has been heavily popularised in the west. It was originally popular as a tattoo for sailors and travellers, who then spread the image across the world.
Despite often being mistaken for sex workers, the true job of a geisha is that of the perfect host, an entertainer who engages the client in conversation, reads poetry, performs seasonal dance and keeps the party going. The meaning behind the geisha tattoo is one of an exotic and mysterious beauty, symbolising the attractiveness in the unknown.
A very prevalent design in Japanese culture, the Hannya is a mask that represents a woman that has become so overwhelmed by jealous rage that she
transforms into a demon. The mask was originally used in theatres and ritual dances, but the design is so striking that it quickly became used elsewhere, such as in the world of Japanese tattooing. As well as being a talisman to fend off evil spirits and bring good luck, there are other meanings hidden within a Hannya, dependant on its colouring. A red mask shows a woman that has been taken over entirely, and is now a pure evil being, whereas a lighter colour shows that beneath the mask a woman still exists, albeit one that is going through considerable turmoil.
The phoenix is a mystical bird that has been adapted from Chinese mythology, and is a symbol of triumph over adversity, renewal and rebirth.
They are thought to appear at the dawning of a new age, and are often paired with dragons as either enemies or lovers.
In western civilisation the samurai has come to be seen as a symbol of loyalty, respect and self-discipline. They lived their life according to the Bushido, the warrior code of honour, and so were defined by their nobility, strength and courage.
One of the most popular Japanese tattoo designs, the koi fish represents courage, luck, work ethic, success and good fortune.
Of all the flowers used in Japanese imagery, the cherry blossom is by far the most common. It’s fleeting nature throughout the year brings with it the meaning of ephemerality, the idea of temporary yet beautiful things.
Obviously, this is just a brief look into the dense world of Irezumi and barely scratches the surface of meanings, symbolism and history that come together in Japanese tattooing culture. To tell the entire story would take many more hours and many more words. Japanese tattoos have always been a popular form of the art, and that remains as true as it has ever been, with the style going from strength to strength across the world.
Be on the look out for more tattoo history articles, we’ve got some great things planned for you.