Tattoos in Japan

Published July 2nd, 2020

Japan has built quite a reputation for itself when it comes to tattoos. Tattoos have made a mark (pun intended) way back in the history of Japan, as far back in the 5,000BC. The ancient tale of Japanese tattoos carved the scene of this art-on-skin today. The quality and techniques of Japanese tattoos are unquestionable. Japanese tattoos are highly regarded because the skills of Japanese tattoo artists have been passed down from generation to generation. People all around the world look up to Japanese tattoos while the locals have almost the complete opposite outlook. Despite the negative association, tattoos still take up a significant portion of the Japanese culture. Discover the backstory to this Japanese body art and how it has evolved to this day.

A History of Japanese Tattoos

Just like every other aspect of Japanese culture, Japanese tattoos have a rich and long history. Japanese tattoos are also known as wabori (和彫) which means Japanese-style engravings. its existence that dates back to the fifth millennium BC. During this time, it was believed that people had tattoos to mark their social ranks. Some also had them as a superstitious belief to fend off evil spirits.

The irezumi — a criminal punishment

Irezumi (入れ墨) refers to the general act of putting ink onto the skin. The use of irezumi for symbolism and superstitious reasons started to fade around the 7th century. It was then used as punishment instead of severe crimes like murder and treason instead of the death penalty. Tattoos were a way to identify criminals in those days. They were disowned by their own families, outclassed, and even banned from participating in any combined activities. These irezumi can be found on any part of the body. The most common areas were the face and arms. The intriguing part is that the irezumi designs weren’t categorized by the act of crime. Instead, it was categorized by the region that the crime was committed. Examples include the Hiroshima criminals being identified by the dog symbol tattoo and the Fukuoka criminals had lines tattooed all the way around their upper arms.

The tebori — a tattoo style invented by the former woodcarvers

It took centuries before the use of tattoos became more than just a symbol of crime. Tattoos were prohibited at the beginning of the eighteenth century. At the same time, they became a decorative art form inspired by woodblock prints. These woodblock prints were often created with a unique style of art called Ukiyo-e to illustrate plays and novels. Ukiyo-e artists team up with woodcarvers to manifest these woodblock prints. The artists would draw or paint the design on a block of wood and then afterward the woodcarvers would simply carve it out. Their tremendous hand-eye coordination skills of the woodcarvers were not paying off. They weren’t earning anywhere close to enough. Because of that, they sought out other potential works and it was then that the tebori (手彫り) came about. Tebori is a type of tattoo unique to Japan as it is based on the carving techniques of the ancient woodcarvers. Not only did this conversion of woodcarvers to tattoo artists result in a spike in numbers of tattooed people, especially in the lower social class citizens, but it also influenced the style of Japanese tattoos today. These woodcarvers-turned-tattoo artists were inspired by Ukiyo-e style of art for their tattoo designs— everything from folklore to religion.

Decorative tattoos — marks of the Yakuza

The lower class citizens migrated to modern-day Tokyo about the same time as the birth of tebori. These migrants included the Yakuza, who consisted of people like gang members and outlaws. The Yakuza would be seen with a bunch of tattoos. These tattoos symbolized courage as well as loyalty — because of the extreme pain to get the tattoos and also the permanency of it. Outlaws with punishment tattoos took advantage of the rise in decorative tattoos to cover up their existing tattoos. Their punishment tattoos were covered up with larger ones befitting the style of tattoos back then. This evolution of tattoos— from marks of criminal acts to decorative body art — brought about the association of organized crime with tattoos in the present day.

Horimono — The Golden Age

Despite the hype of tattoos in previous centuries, it only peaked in Japan during the late eighteenth century. It is because of a Chinese folklore story that got translated into Japanese, completed with Ukiyo-e illustrations. This folk story, known as Suikoden, narrated the journey of outlaws fighting their corrupted rulers and became the heroes of the common townspeople. The people of Edo strongly relate with the characters of the narrative and its boosted popularity was because of that. There were various artists that illustrated Suikoden in different versions that included tattoos in their art. Nothing beats this woodblock print artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. He portrayed the popular characters of the story with full-bodied engravings. This revolutionized Japanese tattoos by birthing a new style of tattoos known as the horimono (彫り物) which translates to “things that have been engraved”. The beginning of the nineteenth century can be known as the Golden Age of horimono. Full-bodied engravings were seen in more than just Ukiyo-e prints. Other forms of the Japanese art culture like plays and songs portrayed characters fully tattooed in the horimono style. Unfortunately, every good thing has to come to an end. And so did the horimono. This tattoo style suffered a dramatic decline during the Meiji Restoration when the strict, oppressive regulations were implemented. In the mid-1900s, the ban was lifted, and the tattoo scene in Japan started growing again.

Today’s Japanese on Tattoos

Regardless of the substantial historical evidence of tattoo culture in ancient Japanese culture, there has long been a standing link between tattoos and illegal activities. It is proven to be difficult to change this specific mindset. The automatic judgement of one being classified as a “bad guy” when he’s seen with a tattoo has been occurring throughout the country for a while. There have been a number of experience exchanges of tattooed people in Japan. It’s a balance of positive and negative feedback, and glances on the streets are more of curiosity than disapproval. Some Japanese do have their own tattoos. Many of them just keep it well hidden and covered. Exposing or revealing them is rather rare in Japan due to social reasons and the need for employment. These prevailing rules and social norms in Japan have had various rebellions, but it seems like the progress for change is going at a snail’s pace. At least there is progress, right?

The Ban of Tattoos in Public Facilities

While it is still tolerated to expose body art in places where one normally expects it to be — in subways, public streets and most restaurants — some very specific places implemented a strict ban against tattoos. For example, almost all bathing facilities, like the onsen, and public facilities, like a public spa, gym, and swimming pool, forbid entry to anyone who is seen with tattoos on their body. Some believe it’s to prevent contamination of the waters and consideration for other users. There are others who believe that it’s to keep out the Yakuzas from onsens. Due to the increase of tourism, especially from the West, Japan has seen more and more people with body art roaming their streets, and eventually demanding access to their facilities. As a temporary answer to this, there have been special facilities that are just for people with tattoos, and a few onsens have made their ruling slightly more lenient. This includes allowing tattooed people to just cover up their tattoos to allow entry to these public facilities.

Tattoo Studios in Japan

Tattoos have long existed in history, perfecting the Japanese-exclusive techniques and skills. It’s no surprise that the tattoos scene in Japan is far from amateurish. Some might even say they’re one of the top few experts! 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. Even though the standard, western-style tattoos parlors are still available, 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. The place consists of a separate room or area dedicated to the proceedings of tattooing inside 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. It’s not uncommon if there isn't any signage to indicate where the studio is. Don’t worry, they’re not shady business — it majorly has to do with the negative associations of tattoos. Don’t let that sway you from going under the needle in Japan. It’s all a matter of knowing where to look for quality, authentic wabori.

Enjoying the Tattoo Life in Japan

There have been obvious shifts in how tattoos are viewed in Japan over the past few years. The Japanese are more and more influenced by the West and Japan’s booming tourism. Because of that, the younger generations have started to loosen up. Don’t take it personally if an old granny stares at your body art with disapproval. The youngins would definitely have more appreciation. In fact, it might even be a fascination. Even though Japan is changing when it comes to tattoos, it is still best to be safe than sorry. Take extra measures to cover up your tattoos when visiting sacred places, public facilities, beaches, and ryokans. Despite the supposed strict ban in bathing facilities, many travelers and locals alike have noted that they were let off with covering them up temporarily just to get into the onsen.

The Wrap-up

Tattoos have come a long way in Japanese culture — from using this form of body art as a criminal punishment to now an appreciated art form. Regardless of the still-existing disapproval, Japan is being more open-minded about it now than it was centuries ago. Progress is key, and who knows where The Land of The Rising Sun will be in a few decades from now when it comes to tattoos.