Tattoos have made a mark (pun intended) way back in Japanese history — would you believe me if I say that it goes as far back as 5,000BC? The primeval tale of Japanese tattoos carved the scene of this art-on-skin today. From generation to generation, Japanese tattoo artists were taught the ancient skills that shaped the tattoo culture today.
Japan has built quite a reputation for itself when it comes to tattoos — on both ends of the stick, actually. While people all around the world look up to the unique Japanese tattoo art, the locals aren’t exactly fond of them. Despite the negative association, it’s undeniable that tattoos are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
This article is a recap of an episode of the Nihongo Master Podcast. Discover the full backstory of this Japanese body art and how it has evolved to this day over at the full episode: Season 3 Episode 5.
History of Tattoo in Japan
By now we can safely assume that various aspects of Japanese culture have rich and long histories — Japanese tattoos are no different. Known as wabori (和ぼり) in Japanese, its existence dates back to the fifth millennium BC, and the earliest rendition of wabori can still be seen today, influencing the state of modern Japanese tattoos. Not only is there evidence of face-engraved figurines but wabori had also made a few appearances in ancient Chinese historical records.
Back then, social ranks were practiced more vigorously than now, and it was said that the people used tattoos to mark where on the rank they fell under. Others also have them to fend off evil spirits, a superstitious belief which is pretty much gone now.
Around the 7th century, marks of social status and evil wards were gone — instead, anyone who had a tattoo during that time would be seen as a criminal. Irezumi, referring to the general act of putting ink onto the skin, was used as punishment in place of the death penalty for severe crimes like murder and treason. There was no specific part of the body for criminal irezumi, but the most common areas were the face and arms.
An interesting fact is that the tattoo designs weren’t the act of crime, but it was instead categorised by the region that the crime was committed in. So the Hiroshima criminals were identified by the dog symbol tattoo and Fukuoka criminals had lines tattooed around their upper arms. If one person from a city merely stole wood from the next village, he was basically grouped together with the city’s murderers.
Back in the day, a criminal’s a criminal, regardless of how serious the crime you committed was. And tattoos were a way to identify them in those days. Generally, they were outcasted, disowned by families and banned from participating in any sort of public or combined activities. All in all, it was a tough life for the lot of them.
Becoming an art form
It took centuries before the use of tattoos moved past from being a symbol of crime to a decorative art form. Tattoos were still prohibited at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it was also the time woodblock printing was all the rage, especially those in the ukiyo-e art style.
Regardless of the demand during that time, woodcarvers didn’t earn much at all for the effort they put in — so they sought out other potential works which led to the creation of tebori (手彫り), a technique of tattooing unique to Japan where they do it by hand and based on wordcarvers’ carving techniques.
This conversion of woodcarvers to tattoo artists resulted in a spike of the number of tattooed people, particularly in the lower social class. Today’s Japanese tattoo designs have been influenced by the ukiyo-e art style, and we have these woodcarvers-turned-tattoo artists to thank for.
Peak of Japanese tattoos
Tattoos only reached its peak in the late eighteenth century when a Chinese folklore story was translated into Japanese as Suikoden, accompanied by ukiyo-e illustrations. The story narrates the journey of outlaws fighting their corrupted rulers and becoming heroes of the common townspeople. The people of Edo strongly identified themselves with the characters of the narrative and it became an extremely popular tale among them.
There were various artists that illustrated Suikoden with tattoos in their art, but what shook the grounds of Japan was when a woodblock print artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, portrayed the popular characters of the story with full-bodied engravings. This revolutionised Japanese tattoos with a newly-formed style, known as the horimono (彫り物) which translates to “things that have been engraved”.
The beginning of the nineteenth century might as well have been considered as the Golden Age of horimono as full-bodied engravings were seen in more than just Ukiyo-e prints — songs and traditional plays portrayed characters fully tattooed, horimono-style.
Unfortunately, every good thing has to come to an end — and so did the horimono. While it wasn’t completely wiped out, the horimono style suffered a dramatic decline during the Meiji Restoration when the strict, oppressive regulations were implemented.
Tattoo businesses today
But despite its relaxed laws on tattoos, there is still a bit of coldness on the matter. From public perception to the difficulties attached to it, tattoo businesses aren’t exactly having a walk in the park. Tattoo studios in Japan aren’t like the ones in other countries where you’ll see them evidently on the streets. While you still do see Western-style parlours on the streets, the most popular type of tattoo studios in Japan is the private studio.
Private tattoo studios are extremely popular in Japan. These private studios are generally home-based, usually a separate room or area for the tattooing procedure at the tattoo artist’s own home. Sometimes, it could be a separate apartment altogether where the artist rents out the room just for his work, but don’t expect any signage to indicate where the studio is.
How are tattoos perceived in Japan
It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the ban was lifted and the tattoo scene in Japan started setting down roots again. However, regardless of the substantial historical evidence of tattoo culture in ancient Japanese culture, it’s proven to be difficult to change the mindset that tattoos are linked to illegal activities. As soon as you have a tattoo in Japan, you’re automatically a “bad guy”.
This is partially due to movement of lower class citizens to modern-day Tokyo in the eighteenth century, and part of them were the Yakuza who consisted of people like gang members and outlaws. A lot of the Yakuza members would be seen with a bunch of tattoos to symbolise courage and loyalty — because to get a tattoo meant that you have to endure extreme pain, and have it forever. Seizing the opportunity of the rising tattoo popularity, criminal outlaws covered up their existing punishment tattoos with decorative ones.
To this day, tattoos are still associated with organised crime because of this.
Some Japanese people do have their own tattoos but just keep it well hidden and covered. Purely for social and employment reasons, it’s rare to expose or reveal tattoos. If you do have a lot of tattoos exposed, glances, stares and blatant avoidance are common occurrences.
Tattoo ban at public facilities
While it is still tolerated to expose body art in general, there are some very specific places that implement a strict ban against tattoos. The most famous places are public facilities, like the onsen (Japanese hot springs), spa, gym and swimming pool. All these places forbid entry to anyone who is seen with tattoos on their body.
If you’re wondering why, some believe it’s to prevent contamination of the waters and consideration for other users; others believe that it’s to keep out the Yakuzas from onsens.
In recent years, with the boom in tourism, more and more tattooed people are visiting Japan and wanting to use local facilities. With the increased demand comes this temporary answer: special facilities just for people with tattoos. A few onsens are also less strict on their rules now, and you can just cover up your tattoo if you want to enter.
Here are the list of new vocabulary words we used in the episode:
Wabori (和ぼり) — Japanese tattoos
Irezumi (刺青) — the act of putting ink on skin
Hannin (犯人) — criminal
Tebori (手彫り) — the technique of tattooing by hand
Horimono (彫り物) — a new style of tattoo, to mean “things that have been engraved”
Kinshi (禁止) — ban or prohibition
Onsen (温泉) — Japanese hot springs
Sutajio (スタジオ) — studio
Japan is ever-evolving!
If you’re covered head to heel in tattoos, don’t let the negative perception chase you away from coming to Japan — most of my Japanese friends, if not all, don’t care at all whether people have tattoos or not. After all, body art is deeply ingrained in their culture.
Check out more intriguing facts about Japanese culture over at our Nihongo Master Podcast! We have a new episode every Wednesday, and also a language learning series formatted like our online learning system, Study Saturday, with new episodes every Saturday!