Did you know?: Tattoos in Japan

One of the most infamous subjects in Japanese history - Tattoos.

I’ve mentioned a few times before that I have a few myself, and surprisingly I have yet to experience any negative comments about them. Most of the time I receive compliments that they’re beautiful and unique. I guess the one time I did get a negative comment was from a little kid in the supermarket line who said my skin was ‘dirty’, to which his mother quickly scolded him. She then proceeded to tell her son that they were ‘cool and fashionable’.

I really appreciated that she apologised to me, and that from her comments I can see a small glimmer of hope that society’s view of tattoos is changing. However, this young mum’s generations before her tend to have a different opinion.

The history behind Japanese tattoos is quite interesting. There were some parts of Japan that associated tattoos with beauty and status. Then there is the majority that believe tattoos are the mark of a criminal.

So where did this bad rep for tattoos begin? Well, there is evidence of going back to the 4th Century in Greece, but that’s another story. In Japan’s case, there is some texts from China dating around 470 AD stating that ‘Japanese men of all ages were adorned with tattoos’. At the time, the Chinese thought that tattoos were associated with criminal punishment, therefore considered anybody with a tattoo to be ‘barbaric’. Japan has been influenced by China a lot throughout history (one huge example being Kanji) and so Japanese society took in that belief, and began to associate tattooing with criminal punishment - and performing such punishments too.

The earliest evidence of tattooing as punishment is stated in ‘Nihon Shoki’ (the second oldest book in classical Japanese history), within the first reign of Emperor Richuu (around AD400). An imperial order was issued for Hamako, the chieftain of Azumi, to be brought forth before the emperor, who said:

“Now, together with the imperial prince Nakatsu, you have plotted to rebel and overthrow the state. This crime is punishable by death. I shall, however, confer great mercy on you by remitting the death penalty, and order you to be sentenced to be tattooed.”

That very day, Hamako was tattooed by his eye, and to be put to work as a slave along with his supporters.

Tattooing for punishment gained speed around the Edo Period (1603~1868), where prisoners received punishment of their crimes by tattoos on their arms, legs and for pretty harmless crimes such as burglary left you with a tattoo right on your forehead. Depending which city you were from, different symbols were tattooed on you. 

Top left to bottom right:

Kyoto, Labour camp for criminals (Edo Period), Shogunate (Kanji reads Gundai, which what Shogunate was called at the time. Shogunate is the office or rule of the Shogun), Koufu (Yamanashi Prefecture), Edo (now Tokyo), Edo, Osaka, Fushimi (Kyoto Prefecture), Nagasaki, Nara, Sunpu (now Shizuoka), Sakai, Choushuu Domain (Ruled Yamaguchi at the time), Chikugo (now southern Fukuoka), Kishu (now Wakayama), Criminal, Nikko, Sado

One interesting example is from Hiroshima, where the criminal would have the symbol for ‘Dog’ tattooed. What makes it interesting is that it was not tattooed all at once, but in three parts. So if you had the full 犬・いぬ・inu you were pretty awful.

(Mt. Koya, Saga, Tokushima) Naughty, naughty.

But... Were tattoos in Japan always bad?

Nope. On the other side of the spectrum, tattoos called ‘Hajiti’ were a symbol of status and maturity for the Ainu (native people of Japan) and in Okinawan society. For Okinawa, this tradition is traced back to when Okinawa was under the rule of the Ryukyu monarchy, which was from the 15th~19th Century.

Women adorned tattoos made with indigo ink on their hands, and the more tattoos the lady had, the more higher class she was. Sometimes these tattoos would reach up to their upper arms, and at times around their mouths as a symbol of beauty.

Circa 1910, Hokkaido.

As well as symbols as beauty and status, many believed that the tattoos warded off bad spirits. The Okinawan and Ainu women treasured these tattoos so much they valued them over their husbands, families, and life itself.

These were some of the certain symbols tattooed on these women and their meaning:

1. Arrowhead: Once shot, an arrow does not return to whence it came. This symbolises that once the woman becomes a bride, she will never come back to her family.

2. Bow: A wish to give birth to a strong and healthy baby.

3. Fan shape: When she has her first grandchild, the square above the fan will become more circular. (In other citations, the square was a sewing kit, and the latter a thread. At this time, women would not marry if they couldn’t sew, so it was a symbol of maturity and skill.)

4. Shellfish: Meaning is obscure. Called Hizaragai in Nago, and Uminuhoumiboshi in Naha.

5. Citron: Meaning is obscure. Usually tattooed on the back of both hands or on the left outer wrist.

6. Five stars: Meaning is obscure. Often tattooed around the right outer wrist.

In the year 1879 (Meiji Period), during the assimilation policy and ‘civilisation and enlightenment movement’, the prohibition of tattooing began. In turn, the Okinawan and Ainu people of Japan were not allowed to perform traditional tattooing which was a big part of their culture. For almost 70 years, the ban was upheld until allied occupation lifted the ban in 1948.

Their reasoning for the ban in the first place was that “The Meiji government thought that tattoos would be perceived by the West as a barbaric custom that should be hidden from Western eyes. However, the Western perception did not conform to Japanese predictions and to some extent, at the highest levels, tattoos were seen as one of the most attractive aspects of Japanese culture” Noboru Koyama, head of the Japanese department at Cambridge University Library (referenced from Japan Times).

Japanese tattoos were greatly admired in the past, so much so that numerous royal figures from Europe travelled to Japan to get ink - Prince Alfred and Prince George of England, Nicholas II the last Tzar of Russia for example.

(Top: King George V's tattoo, supposedly on his left forearm. Nicholas II, Last Tzar of Russia. Tattoo on his right forearm.)

There is so much more to say about the history of Japanese tattoos, I can't possibly write about it all. Well, I could, but this entry would be too long and you'd get tired of reading! However I hope you could enjoy this small snippet of the past, good and bad.

If there's anything you wish to add or want to hear about, please let me know at tari-inacio@glamscorp.jp!

Thanks :)

http://tidana.ti-da.net/e4027064.html (Japanese)
http://www.japanupdate.com/2012/10/hajiti-tattoo-told-womans-status/ (English)
http://blog.janm.org/index.php/2015/08/27/the-secret-history-of-okinawan-tattoos/ (English)
http://www.vanishingtattoo.com/tattoo_museum/england_tattoo_images.html (English)

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