Japanese Tattoo

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Japanese Tattoo or Irezumi (刺青) is the traditional art of inserting ink under the skin to leave a permanent mark. The word for tattoo in Japanese can be written in one of many forms, including combinations that mean “insert ink”, “decorating the body”, “stay blue”, “remain green”, or “pierce blue”.



Japanese history has a long relationship with tattooing that started in the Jomon era, nearly 12,000 years ago. Imagery from stone records show markings on the faces of figures from the era which many scholars have suggested were tattoos. During the Yayoi period between 300 BCE and 300 CE, the tattoo designs of Japanese natives were noted by Chinese visitors and are now thought to have held spiritual roots. It was in the Kofun period between 300 and 600 CE that tattoos took on a more negative connotation as they were placed on criminals as punishment and to mark them as such.

During the Edo period, tattooing became once again popular with the advanced artform of decorative tattooing that is seen today. When woodblock printing was developed and the popular Chinese novel, Suikoden was released to showcase the illustrations of these woodblock prints and men decorated with numerous images, the demand for tattoos as seen in the book rose dramatically.

The same Nara Ink that was used for woodblock printing was retooled for use in tattooing and the art form became incredibly intricate and well trained throughout Japan.

Tattoos Today

When the Meiji government took control of Japan, tattoos were outlawed and once again, irezumi took on negative connotations for established society. However, western visitors visited Japan and sought out tattoo artists and the artform continued to flourish underground. In 1945, tattooing was legalized again by occupying forces but still remained negative in many connotations with crime syndicates such as the Yakuza representing the type who wore such tattoos.

The current trend is increasing popularity of the artform again in Japan, however most individuals stick to simple, one point designs instead of the elaborate body suits that were so popular during the Edo period.


In Japanese tradition, each creature, beast, or flower in a tattoo has its own symbolism. The following images are commonly used in these tattoos:

  • Dragons
  • Kirin
  • Baku
  • Foo Dogs
  • Phoenixes
  • Koi
  • Birds
  • Tigers
  • Snakes
  • Peonies
  • Cherry Blossoms
  • Lotuses
  • Chrysanthemums
  • Bamboo
  • Maple Leaves
  • Literary figures
  • Floating World Images
  • Fudo Myo-o
  • Kannon
  • Shinto Deities

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