Irezumi the Art of Japanese Tattooing

Photo by L’oeil étranger via Flickr


Of its many artistic traditions, perhaps the one the Japanese are most conflicted about is irezumi, or the art of tattooing. Dating back to the pre-historic Jomon period (roughly 5,000 BCE), the art of irezumi – which literally means “injecting ink (zumi)” – has a long and complicated history.

Irezumi, also called horimono, has gone in and out of cultural favor in Japan, and even its legality has ebbed and flowed: It was illegal from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 until after World War II…but only if you were Japanese. It is currently legal, and experiencing a bit of a popular renaissance as in the rest of the modern world. But tattoos are still considered distasteful by the majority of Japanese. Many establishments, particularly onsen and sento (public baths), still ban those with visible tattoos.

But attitudes are changing as younger Japanese adopt Western styles and attitudes, and Japan’s unique contributions to this art form are showcased everywhere from Ed Hardy’s down-market merchandise to museums in the United States and Europe. Like it or not, tattooing is a cultural phenomenon, and Japan, despite its conflicting attitudes, is a crucial part of the story.

Tattooing was originally done by the proto Japanese of the Jomon period, Japan’s pre-history, and survived into the first millennium BCE as decoration of warriors and various craftspeople. Some women were also thought to have worn tattoos as talismans against evil. But as Buddhism and Confucianism entered Japan from China in the 600s and 700s CE, Chinese cultural prejudices against such body decoration infiltrated Japan, and tattoos fell out of favor. Soon, they were used mostly to mark criminals and other undesirables.

Nevertheless, the art of irezumi continued to grow, and by the beginning of the Edo period (1600 CE), it was an established decoration for firefighters in particular, indicating their courage and strength, though coal miners, samurai, gamblers and others adopted them as well. Some of the patterns typical of irezumi even now – dragons, tigers, flowing water, koi fish and cherry blossoms – were well established.

Japanese Tattoo

At the time, the tattooing technique was a slow, painful process using a special ink from Nara that turned blue-green when poked into the skin. Association with the ukiyo-e woodcuts of the early Edo – which used many of the same images – also lent Japanese tattooing its other name: Horimono is based on the word hori, meaning “to engrave.”

Japanese Back Tattoo

Photo by Steve Watkins via Flickr


During the middle-Edo period of the 18th century, the translation of the ancient Chinese book Shui-Hi-Chuan (in Japanese, Suikoden) created a craze for tattooing, as the Robin Hood-like outlaw-heroes of the book were heavily tattooed. An illustrated edition in the late 1700’s displayed new tattoo designs of the book’s heroes, and body tattoos became popular – but still mostly among the lower classes.

Criminals, who had originally been forced into tattoos – a well-placed kanji character warned anyone with eyes that the tattooed man was a thief, or worse – soon added more, bigger tattoos that covered their original branding. This ultimately led to their use by the modern era’s gangsters, the infamous yakuza, which further heightened association of tattoos with criminality. (Today’s yakusa reportedly don’t have as many tattoos, as they are a sure giveaway.)

When Japan opened to the West with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, tattoos were quickly banned, since the leaders of the rapidly-modernizing country didn’t want the western world to see their nation as primitive, and ripe for colonizing. This only further reinforced the image of tattooing among the Japanese as criminal, low class and generally undesirable.

Tattoos didn’t carry the same negative baggage for foreigners arriving in Japan, and in addition to sailors and merchant seamen, several prominent Western figures got these indelible souvenirs of a visit to Japan. Britain’s Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s son) got two large dragon tattoos on his arms, and Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, also got inked. Another early tattoo fan was reportedly the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose 1914 assassination would plunge Europe into World War I.

During World War II, young Japanese men got tattoos because they thought the stigma might keep them out of the military, but after the war, the American occupiers who wrote Japan’s modern Constitution allowed tattooing as a form of freedom of speech – and as a practical matter, many American troops sported tattoos already. But tattooing’s low-brow image was fixed in the Japanese imagination. While acceptance is growing, a 2018 survey by Japan Tourism Association found that a majority of Japanese associate it with criminality and say that tattoos scare them. Workers are still docked pay for exposed tattoos, and students disciplined. A majority of onsen owners still have policies against tattoos in their pools, though many flout those rules. Old attitudes and associations continue to dog tattoos.

Photo by operation_janet via Flickr


Nevertheless, the number of tattoo parlors, while small, is growing, and the art form – characterized by whole arm, leg or even torso designs, of dragons, tigers and cherry blossoms – has spread worldwide. There’s even the Yokohama Tattoo Museum south of Tokyo, and expectations are that with increasing tourism, and growing numbers of tattooed tourists, discrimination against tattooed people will slowly disappear.

After all, cultural attitudes change; tattoos are forever.

By David Watts Barton