The History of Tattoo Part 5: Japan

The History of Tattoo: Japan

I kind of gave away this information in the title already, but in courtesy of those of you who missed it: this is my fifth article on this subject and I’ll concentrate on the tattoo history of Japan.

The last article I published in this series was in January 2014. My plan back then was to publish the next one (the one you’re reading now) in April 2014, but that clearly didn’t happen. Well, as I’ve mentioned in some of my previous articles, they were originally written for a tattoo chain. Many years have passed since my original Norwegian article was published, so I had to re-write and update the info. What was originally just a short passage in an article, has now turned into this elaborate piece of reading. For those of you who wishes to read more, links to my previous articles, further reading and sources are provided.

In Japan there are several forms of tattooing, from the old bamboo techniques (tebori) to the modern machine tattooing (kikaibori), but they’re all covered by the Japanese word Irezumi (入れ墨).

A Small Vocabulary
 "Irezumi" (入れ墨, 入墨, 紋身, 刺花, 剳青, 黥 or 刺青) in Japanese, meaning "insert ink".
 "bunshin" meaning "decorating the body".
 "the Yakuza" (ヤクザ) - the mafia, the organized crime of Japan.
 "Horimono" - full body tattoo.
 "bokkei" - (or bokukei, meaning punishment by tattooing).

Tattooing in Japan can, through archaeological evidence, be traced back to the Yayoi period (c. 300 BC–300 AD), but even the period before that – in the Jōmon or paleolithic period (approximately 10,000 BC) – it’s believed that tattooing were used for «spiritual and decorative purposes» (Wikipedia). As far as we know, the origin is in the form of facial tattooing. These tattoos were most likely used for a decorative and a religious aspect, or to function as a status symbol – a practice similar to other Oceanic Cultures (like mentioned in my first article on this subject). In Japan face tattooing received a negative association and was used as a form of punishment (I’ll get back to this), in addition to identifying the untouchables classes, called Hinin and Eta.

The history of body modification in Japan is long and vibrant, dating back to the Jomon Period (roughly 10,500 B.C. to 300 B.C.), when clay figurines were molded with marks that modern historians interpret as either tattoos or scarification. Later in the third century, Chinese records noted that all Japanese males bore heavy tattoos on their faces and bodies. (Source:

The modern Japanese full body tattoo (Horimono) that surrounds the front and back of the torso (with a non-tattooed area in front in the form of a “river” where the garment is open), and the arms and legs – didn’t evolve until the Edo period (1600-1800). This form of tattooing was practiced by a large number of people in the lower classes, especially among firefighters, and it was strongly disliked by Japanese authorities  – who used tattooing as a form of punishment.

«Why firefigthers?», you may ask yourself. In my opinion, Both Wikipedia and myself indirectly answers this question in their articles on Irezumi («any of several forms of traditional Japanese tattooing, along with certain modern forms derived from or inspired by these»):

«The impetus for the development of the art were the development of the art of woodblock printing and the release of the popular Chinese novel Suikoden, a tale of rebel courage and manly bravery illustrated with lavish woodblock prints showing men in heroic scenes, their bodies decorated with dragons and other mythical beasts, flowers, ferocious tigers and religious images. The novel was an immediate success, and demand for the type of tattoos seen in its illustrations was simultaneous.» (Source: Wikipedia)

Or, like I wrote in my original article:
«The imagery and style of the Horimono most likely originates from the Chinese novel Shui-hu Chuan (known as Suikoden in Japan), which was very popular in the early 19th century. The version illustrated by Kuniyoshi showed scenes from legendary battles with mythical heroes and warriors who had creatures like koi, dragons and tigers tattooed on their bodies. These pictures were surrounded by highly stylized waves, elements of wind, flowers, including cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums and roses.»

So, you can see why the rebel courage, the manly bravery, the heroic scenes, they all had/still have a connection to firefighters. The history and symbolism behind the different motifs is also an interesting thread to follow.

«Koi tattoos are now a long-time favorite of ink lovers, fascinated by Japanese traditional tattoo and its gorgeous culture. Koi’s are beautiful fishes, with an incredible variety of colors and shiny scales. The meaning of the tattoo indeed depends of the type of koi fish. Some are about struggling and being victorious, some are about luck, spirituality and deep relationships with Nature and Humanity. Koi tattoos are often teamed with Japanese waves and lotus flowers, evolving in their magical watery world even in skins.» (Source:

Then there’s the noteworthy waterfall legend about how a koi became a dragon. A couple of versions with minor twists (i.e. the number of fish) to this story is online, but they’re basically the same story. One that I like is this one:

Waterfall Legend

One particular legend is the koi fish’s claim to fame. An ancient tale tells of a huge school of golden koi swimming upstream the Yellow River in China. Gaining strength by fighting against the current, the school glimmered as they swam together through the river. When they reached a waterfall at the end of the river, many of the koi turned back, letting the flow of the river carry them away.

The remaining koi refused to give up. Leaping from the depths of the river, they attempted to reach the top of the waterfall to no avail. Their efforts caught the attention of local demons, who mocked their efforts and heightened the waterfall out of malice. After a hundred years of jumping, one koi finally reached the top of the waterfall. The gods recognized the koi for its perseverance and determination and turned it into a golden dragon, the image of power and strength. (Source:

The finished letter

A letter I once wrote, with my ink copy of The Fisherman’s Wife.

The imagery from this story and from wooden carvings of the 19th century’s Ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai and Yoshitoshi, were those who shaped the iconographic vocabulary of modern Japanese tattooing. In the modern period (1868 to present), tattooing was prohibited for law-abiding Japanese citizens and only gamblers and members of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) continued to tattoo themselves. It was during this period that Japanese tattooing began to attract international attention, as westerners – primarily soldiers, sailors and other travelers – began to fill their bodies with Japanese motifs.

Hokusai’s The Fisherman’s wife is, in my opinion, an excellent woodblock print and an amazing piece of art, but Hokusai’s most famous woodblock print – one that has inspired a countless number of tattoos – is without a doubt the Great Wave Off Kanagawa. You can see tattoo examples of it on Tattoodo:

I’ll shortly mention the symbolism and difference behind the dragon tattoos. This is from Rikke Merete Christensen’s quick guide to Japanese Dragon Tattoos:

In Japan and the East, dragons are generous, well-meaning and kind forces. Wisdom is also highly rated to the dragons.

  • Black dragons – symbols of the North. Caused storms by battling in the air.
  • Blue dragons – sign of the coming spring & the East.
  • Yellow dragons – secluded and wander alone. The most revered of the dragons.
  • Chinese dragons – have five toes. The Chinese believe that all eastern dragons originated from China, they believe that the dragons flew away, and the farther away they got, they began to lose their toes.
  • Korean dragons – four toes.
  • Japanese dragons – three toes. The Japanese believed that all dragons originated from Japan, and the further away they flew, they gained extra toes.

On a personal note

"Suji-bori" - outline of a tattoo, "Suji" meaning “line.” Work in progress.

“Suji-bori” – outline of a tattoo, “Suji” meaning “line.” Work in progress. (Tattoo by Marius Meyer)

Once I wrote letters with a Japanese girl who I’d met while travelling and one of those letters had my poor reproduction of a famous Hokusai painting in it: the fisherman’s wife. I also have a tattoo of a koi and a dragon, not really because of its story and what it represents, but simply because I like the imagery and the style. (“What does your tattoo mean? It means that I wanted it, so I fucking got it.“).

Organized Crime – The Yakuza 8-9-3

An article like this won’t be complete without mentioning the notorious crime organization that I’m sure you’ve all heard mentioned before: the Yakuza. In Japan tattooing is often associated with organized crime and gangsters, because of its history as a form of punishment. In a reprint from “Okinawa Japan Virtual Ginza Your Door to Okinawa Japan” (the original article is no longer accessible online, but you’ll find the full story in the link section) the story goes:

“In Japan, organized crime and criminals come under the general heading of Yakuza. According to tradition, the name is derived from the worst possible score in a Japanese card game. It comes from Japan’s counterpart to Black Jack, Oicho- Kabu. The general difference between the card games is that in Oicho- Kabu is that a winning total of the cards is 19 instead of 21. As you see, the sum of 8, 9 and 3, is 20, which is over in Oicho-Kabu.” (source:

So, the literal meaning of the word(s) Yakuza – or Ya-Ku-Za – is 8-9-3, which is a losing combination in a card game. If you’re interested in this, the photographer Anton Kusters followed this Japanese subculture while making a photo documentary (again the link is in the link section).

The mystical significance of tattoos in the Jomon and Yayoi periods changed around the Kofun period (300–600 AD) when the government started using tattoos as a punishment, a practice that continued in the Edo period (1600–1868 AD). Other punishments were flagellation and amputation (I think I’d prefer a tattoo…). Since there were no prisons: flagellation, amputation and tattooing of criminals seemed like a good idea at the time.

The placement and looks of these “punishment tattoos” varied depending on the crimes and which region you belonged to. There’s an article about this on, but you can see a short summary in the illustration that I borrowed from the site.

Taken from Top left : Hiroshima prefecture, tattooed Inu (犬/ dog) Top right : Chikuzen (筑前/ now Fukuoka), tattooed lines each time they committed a crime Middle : Awa (阿波/ now Tokushima prefecture), tattooed lines on the forehead and the arm Bottom left : Takanoyama (高野山/now Wakayama prefecture), tattooed dots Bottom right : Hizen (肥前/now Saga/Nagasaki prefecture), tattooed cross, which means “bad”

Taken from
Top left : Hiroshima prefecture, tattooed Inu (犬/ dog)
Top right : Chikuzen (筑前/ now Fukuoka), tattooed lines each time they committed a crime
Middle : Awa (阿波/ now Tokushima prefecture), tattooed lines on the forehead and the arm
Bottom left : Takanoyama (高野山/now Wakayama prefecture), tattooed dots
Bottom right : Hizen (肥前/now Saga/Nagasaki prefecture), tattooed cross, which means “bad”

“In 1745, tattooing replaced amputation as society became gentler and less blood-thirsty.” (
“It was in the Edo period however, that Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art form it is known as today.” (Wikipedia)

Forbidden for more than 200 years
in the mid 1850s, international ships once again started arriving Japanese ports after having being banned for a period of more than 200 years.
Japan were being forced to open its doors to trade. The Meiji government “encouraged people to wear Western clothes, banned samurai topknots and, in 1872, prohibited tattooing.” (

European Aristocrats, Sailor Jerry & The American Connection

One of the articles in goes in-depth regarding European aristocrats and other foreigners that fell in love with Japanese tattooing. A 2010 book titled “Nihon no Shisei to Eikoku Oshitsu” (“The Japanese Tattoo and the British Royal Family”) written by Koyama, name-drops British royalty such as:
Prince Alfred (one of Queen Victoria’s sons), Prince George (the future George V), plus other historical figures like the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Nicholas II (Russia’s final czar), who all wore Japanese tattoos.

History also shows plenty of other historical figures with tattoos (not Irezumi, but still tattoos). Here are some:

Andrew Jackson (the 7th President of the USA.
Theodore Roosevelt (another US President),
Thomas Alva Edison (the man who invented the Stencil-Pens – Later adapted by Samuel O’Reilly to be a Tattoo machine),
Winston Churchill and his mom Lady Randolph Churchill.
Last, but not least, one of my favorite authors: George Orwell – the mind behind “1984” and “Animal Farm”. (Source:

With the arrival of American troops on Japanese soil, tattooing became legalized in 1948 and Japanese irezumi artists no longer had to fear prosecution for making their art. Communication with foreign tattoo artists were established and one of these, the iconic Sailor Jerry (or Norman Keith Collins that was his real name) starting writing letters with a couple of Japanese artists (Horiyoshi II and Horihide) and tried to master the art of irezumi. A story that is documented in the 2008 documentary “Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry”. (source:

However, at this point in time, where many of the previous government’s laws fell and tattooing was once again legalized for Japanese citizens, tattooing had become such a subcultural phenomenon that most ‘decent’ Japanese would never consider to get tattooed. If it weren’t for the Westerners interest in Japanese tattooing, the story of irezumi might have ended in a funeral party instead of a resuscitation and even though it was once again legalized, its connotations of criminality stuck with the public.

Modern times & onsen nonsense

Is it true that you can’t get into onsen (hot springs) and sento (bath houses) if you have visible tattoos?
The answer to that is ‘yes and no’. Some places & businesses (fitness centers, onsen & sento) will deny you access, but there’s a website (it’s in Japanese) with a list of tattoo friendly places ( Times are changing, also in Japan, and on the 23rd of June 2015 the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) announced that it would be “conducting a first-of-its-kind study into public bathing facilities and their rules regarding tattoos.” (

Also in Japan more young people are getting tattooed and the mentality is changing (I guess the same can be said when it comes to Western societies). Irezumis are not only seen on yakuzas anymore and because of the mafia-connection, many yakuzas now avoid getting tattooed. For more reading material about this, check out the link section ‘about tattoos & stigma in Japan’.

Western artist, inspired by Japan. Shot at a tattoo convention in Oslo, Norway.

Western artist, inspired by Japan. Shot at a tattoo convention in Oslo, Norway.

New trends
During the last 10-15 years, anime tattoos (apparently also called ita-tattoos by some people, but I’ve never heard that expression) has become popular. Anime is Japanese hand-drawn or computer animations. In Japan the word refers to all animation (regardless of origin), but outside Japan it specifically refers to animation from Japan. Some of my personal favorite anime films comes from Studio Ghibli: “Castle in the Sky”, “Grave of the Fireflies”, “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away” are all fantastic story telling and a good place to start if you haven’t seen them already (watch them in their original language and with subtitles). Another form of self-expression that derives from anime is cosplay, where young people dress up as characters from the films and tv-series. The Japanese Kabuki theater is another art form where Japanese tattooing is getting inspiration from.

Here’s one inspired by Ghibli Studios film: Kiki’s Delivery Service:


Kiki and Jiji on the outer bicep by Scott Bakoss (instagram @scottbakoss) /


An even never trend is Rilakkuma tattoos. Rilakkuma is a cute, little bear designed by Aki Kondo back in 2003. Today you’ll find him on clothing, dishware, backpacks, toys, in books, facebook and games.

“Rilakkuma tattoos are about as kawaii (cute) as a tattoo can get, and not just satisfied with Rilakkuma as he is they often depict him doing all manner of overly cute things; eating noodles, drinking tea and hanging out in space… If you want a tattoo that’s sickeningly sweet and more adorable than anything else then Rilakkuma tattoos are the bear tattoos you need!” (

A Rilakkuma tattoo. Photo from

A Rilakkuma tattoo. Photo from /

The rich culture of Japan continues to inspire the world through tattoos, anime, cosplay and movies, while its traditional tattoo art is opening to modernity. Cheers to all the ink lovers and Japanophiles out there!

Bodies of inscription, Margo DeMello, Duke University Press, Durham&London 2000
Skin Shows – the art of tattoo, Chris Wroblewski, Virgin Books
(Online sources were quoted & checked 02.01.2016)

Further reading – tattoos & stigma in Japan:

The History of Tattoo:

17 thoughts on “The History of Tattoo Part 5: Japan

  1. An intense series of posts and photos… An awesomely beautiful way to bring in the New Year ~ a great post and best to you with your writing and photography in the New Year. Cheers to a great 2016.

    • Yes, you can still get tattoos done the old way (“tebori”, which literally means to carve by hand), but these days with improved equipment. Back in the old days the shaft was made of bamboo, but now it’s steel or titanium, so that it can be sterilized in an autoclave. Also the the needles are replacable, which terminates the risk of bloodborne diseases.
      You no longer have to travel to Japan to get these kind of tattoos, as artists around the world are practicing this technique, but if I were to get one myself, I would have travelled to Japan.

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