For thousands of years Japan has been at the forefront ofthis tattoo innovation, developing unique methods of tattoo application anddesign. It is an ancient art form which is as rich culturally as any other seenin the modern day world. Japanese tattoos contain some of the most symbolic,powerful and deeply meaningful designs known to man. Many of which have beenintegrated into western tattoo culture such as the popular Koi fish and Dragondesigns. Chances are that when you walk down the street, regardless of whereyou live in the world somebody will be wearing ink influenced by this greatancient culture.
However, there is much controversy surrounding this art formin modern day Japan where tattoos have been outlawed for many years. A highlyoppressive state in terms of tattoo expression, the tattoo in Japan has becomesynonymous with a group of highly organized mafia, the Yakuza. In particularthe body suit which has become a rite of passage, a physical test and sign of apowerful affiliation to this group.
History of Japanese Tattoo
Irezumi is the long standing Japanese umbrella word for tattoo which signifies the many different forms of tattoo from this region. The term translates into the English language as Insert Ink which is a fairly straight forward interpretation of what a tattoo is.
Tattooing in Japanese civilization is an ancient art form dating as far back as 10,000 BC. It may surprise you that this is how far back this medium can be dated to, what will shock you is that this is a conservative estimate. According to many scholars on the subject, the ancient Japanese tattoo may date to periods long before the most commonly accepted date range.
It is during this Paleolithic period that cord markings discovered on the faces and bodies of the inhabitants represent an ancient tattoo art form. This is widely debated however and still open to much research to form a conclusive answer as to whether tattoos were used in a conscious manner by this ancient civilization.
It is from the period 300 BC to 300 AD that written records of tattoos were taken. It was in fact the Chinese Dynasty who recorded the use of tattoos during this era. Original use of tattoos during this period was for spiritual and social purposes where many tribes believed that the ink would protect them from evil. In addition a tattoo marked your status in the tribe where the higher ranking members had the most tattoos.
As we move towards 300 AD the use of tattoos changed drastically from a more superstitious nature to a sign of modern deviance in the world. Tattoos during this period were used to mark and identify criminals. It is this rhetoric which was a turning point for tattoo art in Japan, a pivotal moment that we will see later in this book where the Yakuza now dominate this subculture.
This practice is known as Bokkei and Japan was the most recent country to stop branding criminals in this way in the year 1800. This led to many people trying to cover up their tattoos of shame with larger, more decorative pieces. This is a key aspect of this art form which has led to the more extravagant pieces that are seen in Japanese tattoo art today.
During the Edo period (1603-1868) Japan was a military dictatorship which isolated itself from the outside world. It also imposed a social hierarchy on its citizens which limited the freedom of expression. One consequence of this strict policy was the ability of the lower classes to express themselves artistically.
The tension created amongst artists by these policies gave birth to some of Japan’s most famous art. In particular wood block prints and tattooing became a prominent, underground, rebellious form of popular art.
Examples of Edo residents being inked were firefighters who wanted to protect themselves from harm with Koi or Water Dragon designs. It was during this important era of Japanese tattooing that the word hori was adopted which meant to carve.
Due to the growing popularity of the tattoo it was subsequently made illegal by the samurai. However as with many laws, it is very hard to enforce them when an art form is so popular. This boom in tattoo art during this period came to a shuddering stop when foreign ships arrived in Japan during the middle of the 19th century.
As an isolated country for 200 years Japan faced a serious threat of colonization from the Western powers. It was therefore a priority to modernize and to present a strong, progressive social image. One victim of this overhaul was the tattoo where a national ban on tattooing was introduced in 1872. The Japanese rulers saw the tattoo as a barbaric act and therefore by banning the tattoo they perceived that they would project an image of being a progressive and civilized country.
The effect of this law is ambiguous as only around 500 arrests took place over the next 70 years. However it is the symbolic nature of banning the tattoo which holds the real importance for how it developed to be seen and is still viewed by many in Japanese society today.
This archaic legal ban on tattoos remained until very recently where it was lifted by U.S occupying forces in 1948. As such an isolated culture the fact that the ban was lifted by Americans still plays a part into why many elder Japanese do not accept the modern day view of the tattoo.
You can see from this concise history of tattoos how their role in society fluctuated and changed drastically. From a status symbol, to a punishment, to a celebration of art and then to an illegal practice.
The symbolism of a tattoo has kept its identity as a brand for a criminal in Japan. This image is still alive and well today and is where the Yakuza and tattoos have become synonymous. There is a large stigma in modern day Japan due to its winding history and as a tourist in Japan you may be asked to cover up your ink. Bans on tattoos in public places such as swimming pools still exist. There are however more and more tattoo shops opening in Japan with an emphasis on the American style tattoo rather than the Irezumi tattoo. Many young men and women are getting blasted with ink in this mixture of American and Japanese style.
The prejudice of the tattoo being for a criminal still however dominates society and is an indentifying mark of somebody belonging to the Yakuza. It is from this background that we can discover the symbolism of the designs that are embraced by the Japanese style of tattoo.
Ancient Irezumi Tattoo Designs
The Koi Fish is one of the most powerful symbols within Japanese tattoo art and has transcended boundaries across tattoo cultures. The Koi Fish symbolizes good luck and fortune where the legend goes that it has the ability to overcome adversity. The story is told that the Koi can climb a waterfall in spite of the heavy water flow facing it and reach the top.
This tattoo therefore symbolizes a person’s aspiration to improve themselves, a sign of their personal strength and perseverance through tasks such as the water facing the fish. In addition there are many different colorings of tattoo which each bring a deeper meaning to them.
This specific variance of tattoo represents love, this is popular with men as it has a masculine quality to it. This color is considered energetic and is one of the most commonly tattooed versions of Koi seen in modern day culture.
This form of art is related to a person overcoming an obstacle in their life with success. It can be many forms of adversity that they faced but once again the Koi represents overcoming challenges.
The snake represents a whole variety of meanings in ancient Japanese culture. It can be symbolic of protection from illness and bad luck as well as communicating wisdom from the making of bad decisions.
A popular attribution of the snake to tattoo art is as an embodiment of regeneration and healing. This translates to being a sign of good luck with regards to having good health.
The snake also represents holy female attributes. In the same way that a snake sheds its skin a woman can take on positive characteristics from a man. This may seem strange in modern day culture however in ancient Japanese times this view of gender difference was common place.
Aesthetically the snake is a very popular design in the way in which it can wrap around the body and in particular caress the arm. It has been widely adopted in many other tattooing cultures but is still a staple in ancient Japanese beliefs.
The Tora translates to a Tiger in English language and is a highly popular element to many Irezumi designs. In contrast to the Oni which you will discover later, the Tora is a symbol of fighting off demons, disease and bad luck.
It is thought of to be the most courageous and strong land animals which brings with it a long life. The Tiger is one of the 4 sacred animals in ancient Japanese culture and represents the season of Autumn and the control of the wind.
The Japanese skull signifies death, change and a reverence for ancestors. The skull as with many other Japanese designs such as the Dragon differs vastly from their interpretation in western culture. Where the skull may be a sign of evil in the west it is intended as a positive symbol in Japan.
In this respect the skull represents the natural life cycle that a human undergoes. This can then be applied to life experiences such as change, where a death in the family can be a large factor in a person’s life.
These designs are all engrained deeply into ancient Japanese culture and are strongly tied to tattoo designs. They hold great meaning for the Japanese people and many of which are commonly seen on the Yakuza. You now have an idea of how much symbolism and superstition the Japanese place on images which may seem straight forward to the uninformed onlooker. The art of the Japanese tattoo truly takes on many forms and is more than meets the eye.
One of the most sacred aspects of Irezumi is not the design of the tattoo but the way in which it is applied to the human body. This is an art form all to itself and holds much prestige in Japanese tattoo culture.
There are many different styles of application however there is a common process and culture surrounding the tattoo artist which is still unique to the tattoo world today. Many tattoo artists will not advertise and will keep a high level of secrecy of their practice. Customers will come to them from word of mouth and mythical reputation.
A tattoo artist will train for many years under a Master as you may see in many traditional Asian martial arts. Upon development they will be given a tattoo name by their Master which will incorporate the word Hori ‘Engrave.’
Many prominent tattoo artists will also not allow the customer to choose the design of their Irezumi. It is the tattoo artist that the customer has the honor of being inked by and the design is left to the inspiration of the artist. Of course this varies and many tattoo artists will ink what their customer has in mind.
The tattoo is a rite of passage, an art and an honor, it is much more than a pretty design on the skin. This is where Japanese culture is so rich and resonating within the tattoo world.
The tattoo application is known as Tebori, it uses a hand poked method which is vital in creating the vibrant colors that you see in Irezumi. It allows for different tones which are very difficult to achieve with the modern tattoo machines.
Tebori means hand and arose as a term to describe the tattooing process in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It involves a row of single stacked steel needles tied to a long handle of bamboo. The instrument will be held in the right hand with the left hand used to spread the skin. It will rest on the thumb of the left hand and requires a strong force to push the needles into the skin from the right arm.
This method is also unique in that it does not require an assistant as you would see in Moko Polynesian designs.
Famous artists who use the Tebori today include Horiyoshi the 3rd located in Yokohama. He is an artist who chooses what design will fit the person and has completed many elaborate body suit tattoos using the Tebori.
Watching Master’s such as Horiyoshi III is a special experience, these ancient tattoo methods are unique and awe inspiring. It is with this appreciation of tattoo symbolism and application that we can now move onto exploring the dark world of the Yakuza and their use of the Irezumi as an initiation into their way of life.
Yakuza Tattoo Culture
It is illegal for Yakuza to bear their Tattoo’s in public in modern day Japan. As discussed earlier the association of tattoos with criminality throughout Japanese history still holds true in modern day Japan. It was during the 17th century where members of the Japanese underclass who stole and gambled started to form organized gangs. As you would expect, many of these men went to prison where they were marked with ink to identify them as criminals. It is from this background that the modern day Yakuza blended and developed on this tattoo culture to form their own distinct associations.
The Yakuza hold real power in all aspects of Japanese life today and they were never deterred from getting tattoos when they were illegal in Japan. It is this defiant behaviour that strongly associated the tattoo as a sign of rebellion, evil and wrong doing that still holds so much weight today.
Considering that the Yakuza cannot by law reveal their tattoos in public you may wonder why they go through the painful and long process of getting the famous full body suit tattoos. Well there lies the answer, for many Yakuza the process in itself is a test of their dedication, discipline and belonging to the organized crime gang.
Rite of Passage
The Yakuza being tattooed can be seen as a rite of passage, an initiation to show that they are strong individuals. To tattoo the whole body in the way that the Yakuza do takes years of dedication and pain as well as the large monetary expense that comes with them.
The tattoo is also symbolic of strength and bravery amongst Yakuza culture however many Japanese will associate it with a mark of intimidation. It is hard to understand for some people how such a common practice such as tattooing still holds such distinct value in Japan. This really illustrates how rich and deeply superstitious the culture of the people is.
It is also worth noting that a new breed of Yakuza will not have any tattoos at all so that they can blend into society more easily. By not undergoing the tattoo process they are not as easily identified as criminals. Whilst the history and symbolism of tattoos and Yakuza is striking it is the designs themselves that are fascinating.
Horimono is another word used for traditional Japanese tattoos. It is hard to classify the tattoo under any one term as there are so many variants within the tattoo culture in Japan. The Yakuza have a very distinct and noticeable Horimono design which is like no other.
The Yakuza have developed a unique style of full body suit tattoo. This form of tattoo involves covering the arms, chest, back and upper legs. The tattoo will always stop at the neck, wrist and ankles. For many Yakuza they will also have a strip of skin down the centre of their body with no tattoo ink at all. The reason that this area is kept bare is for two purposes. Firstly they believe that it allows the skin to breathe. Tattoo ink is seen as unnatural and by allowing an area of untouched skin they believe that it will help to keep the skin healthy.
Secondly it is for the practical reason of being able to wear traditional Japanese Kimono clothing without their tattoos being seen. On a Kimono there is an exposure of the upper chest, the bare skin on the Yakuza is purposefully located in that area so that they do not show any tattoos whilst wearing this garment.
As eluded to earlier the tattoo artist holds much power in this process and can refuse design requests or service if it does not suit their artistic process.
So with the criminality, rite of passage and distinctive body suit design defining the Yakuza tattoo, the question arises of what symbols the Yakuza choose to express themselves with.
Yakuza Tattoo Designs
There is no one design style that the Yakuza will share. As discussed the tattoo artist will hold the key as well as the individual tastes of the person being tattooed. The designs within the tattoo will vary and you will see Koi Fish, Tigers and Snakes in Yakuza tattoos. There are however additional designs which are very common amongst the Yakuza due to their unique meanings.
Dragons are one of the most popular designs that you will see on a Yakuza bodysuit tattoo. One such tale of the Dragon in Japanese culture is Ryujin. Ryujin was the Dragon King who lived under the sea and had a great love for his family. It is told that Ryujin’s daughter, Otohime wanted to eat monkey liver. Therefore Ryujin sent out a jellyfish to retrieve this item but he failed to capture it. In anger, Ryujin beat the jellyfish to a pulp which is the shape that they hold until this very day.
The Dragon in Japanese culture is symbolized differently than in the West. They are generous beings that use their power to help mankind. They are also thought of as being very smart and therefore by inking this design the Yakuza are portraying themselves as wise and men of the people. It is also the case that the Dragon looks great in a tattoo and therefore it may also just be a case of aesthetics.
The ancient Japanese Samurai Warrior symbolizes Bushido, ‘the way of the warriors.’ This tattoo conveys courage, honor, loyalty and politeness. This brave symbolism portrays a strength and attitude towards life that the Yakuza like to embrace through their tattoo choice.
It is debatable to many people as to whether the choice of tattoo fits the role that Yakuza play in society however all that is important to them is how they connect with the tattoo. Whether they deserve the Samurai to be inked onto their bodies is open to debate as is much of the tattoo symbolism that they carry.
Cherry Blossoms are Japan’s national flower where the trees are known as Sakura in Japanese. They are regarded as a symbol of life where the flower falls to the ground and is moved around by the wind and rain. Cherry Blossoms are therefore used to celebrate life as well as a symbol of hope and humility. The flower marks a new start in a person’s life such as their first day at work, capturing their dreams and hopes.
They are traditionally worn by women in tattoos but have more and more been customized and embraced by men. Within tattoo design this flower is intertwined with other symbols such as skulls, fire and geisha by men. Although the cherry blossom is not the most common design seen on Yakuza it nevertheless is a dominant symbol in Japanese culture that has become more and more popular amongst men.
It is also worth remembering that the wives of Yakuza may also go through the tattoo process, the cherry blossom will take on a very important role in their Irezumi.
Also known as the Demon Mask, this tattoo is not just striking in its appearance but also in its meaning. It follows the belief that demons punish unjust and evil people in the spirit world. In addition some Oni are seen as being protectors, one such pathway is for a Monk who becomes an Oni after death to protect his temple.
If we translate the word Oni to the English language we are left with the word Ogre or Troll. Whilst our first thought might be that the ogre is portrayed very differently in Japanese culture to the popular animated Shrek films. Ogres were known for terrorizing villages and their inhabitants, this tattoo is therefore a sign of a strong, perhaps even an intimidating person.
Because this tattoo symbolizes an evil spirit it has been popular amongst many Yakuza for its fierce image and design.
Tattoo Culture in Modern Day Japan
As with all art forms the tattoo is constantly developing and changing in Japan. Whilst it is still a very stigmatized practice it is slowly becoming more open where the youth are embracing it as an art form. In particular the Western influence of fusing traditional Japanese design with a modern style has spread all over the world.
One example of the globalization of the Irezumi is from American tattoo artist Chris O’Donnell. Chris has his own unique style of Japanese tattoo, inking people from his New York studio and has become world famous with his striking designs.
With this change in attitude comes a change in symbolizm as you may see a Westerner wearing a Dragon with very different connotations than a Yakuza wearing one. Tattoos are constantly breaking new frontiers as new and better artists are taking to this medium and the Irezumi has become a main source of inspiration.
In addition there are a host of small foreign owned tattoo shops opening up across Japan showcasing how aesthetic new age Japanese tattooing can be.
Today there are an estimated 3,000 tattoo artists working in Japan, compared to approximately 200 in 1990. It is also noticeable that tattoo popularity amongst Yakuza is steadily decreasing which is opening up this art form to the general public more. Businessmen and female executives are amongst the clients getting traditional Japanese tattoos to signify their life journeys.
We are now at a cross roads in the art form of tattoo in Japan and it will be a very interesting next few years to see how it develops and changes within society.