Japanese Tattoos

Japanese Tattoos Japanese Tattoos

Is an ancient art. Haniwa, small clay figurines, some bearing facial tattoos, have been found in tombs that date from the fourth or fifth century. It is thought that the tattoo signified social rank or warded off evil spirits and wild animals. Over time, the custom faded and it became the fate of criminals, in the old Chinese manner, to be tattooed on the face as a form of punishment. It has been suggested that, in a society where ostracism is the most severe punishment, tattooing became a decorative art as people sought to hide these incriminating symbols of shame within more elaborate shapes and patterns.

Japanese Tattoos – History

Tattooing for spiritual and decorative purposes in Japan is thought to extend back to at least the Jomon or Paleothic periods, (approximately 10 000 BC).

During the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD), tattoo designs were observed and remarked upon by Chinese visitors. Such tattoo designs were thought to have spiritual significance as well as functioning as a status symbol.

Latterly, in the Kofun period (300 – 600 AD), tattoos began to assume negative connotations. Instead of being used for ritual or status purposes, tattooed marks began to be placed on criminals as a punishment (this was mirrored in Ancient Rome, where slaves were known to have been tattooed with mottos such as “I am a slave who has run away from his master”).

Until the Edo period (1600 – 1868 AD) the role of tattoos fluctuated. Tattooed marks were still used as punishment, but minor fads for decorative tattoos – some featuring tattoo designs that would be completed only when lover’s hands were joined – also came and went. It was in the Edo period, however, that Japanese decorative tattooing began to develop into the advanced art form that it is today (i.e. throughout the last 400 years).

Compare this to European Tattoo history where one of the oldest documented tattoo artists, George Burchett, who was expelled from school for tattooing his classmates (undoubtedly in an old ‘Popeye’ style of singular stamp images) in 1884. The first known Tattoo Studio in the USA was in 1947.

Throughout the centuries, Japanese Tattoo Art was carried out in an almost secretive, ‘underground’ manner and was virtually outlawed by the majority of governing authorities.

Tattooing was legalised by the Occupation Forces in 1945. For many years, traditional Japanese Tattoos were associated with the Yakuza – Japan’s notorious Mafia. Wearers of traditional tattoos can often afford little else and they frequently keep their tattoo art secret.

As the power of the common people and working classes of Japan grew in the latter half of the Edo period (circa 18th century) horimono, or traditional Japanese tattoos, began to flourish as art form. Using images from traditional water colour paintings, woodcuts and picture books of the time as designs, the ultimate reward for the patience and endurance of pain would be a tattoo of immense beauty. To experience and enjoy Japanese horimono tattoos it is important to understand their history and background, and it is also important to continue to preserve the traditions behind them.
The origins of traditional Japanese tattoos can be traced back to the latter years of the Edo period in Japanese history.
In 1603, the then ruler of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, centralised his shogunate government in Edo, what is now Tokyo. In the 200 years following this, the established feudal system began to stagnate, and in opposition to the martial upper classes, the common people of Edo began to develop their own separate, unique culture for themselves.

Types of Japanese Tattoos

Cherry Blossom

The cherry blossoms are used to represent life itself. They are also called Sakura. The beauty of cherry blossoms lies in the strength that they possess to survive in the harsh conditions that they bloom in, along with their fragile nature, as they only last a couple of days. The Japanese view this as a direct representation of how life should be. They believe that every day should be lived to the fullest and that the awareness of death should only make us want to clutch each moment in our life. This is one of the meanings which clearly signifies power and beauty. However, one should remember to take adequate tattoo care after getting a cherry blossom tattoo.

Koi Fish Tattoos

Koi fish tattoos are perhaps the second-favored symbols in Japanese tattoos. Generally, koi fish are bright-colored fish that have special symbolism in Japanese culture and you can even find them in front of many temples. The myth states that the koi fish swim upstream to a bridge or gate of heaven where they were transformed into dragons. This design symbolizes luck, strength, power, ambition and individuality. So if you are looking for a tattoo that symbolizes the struggle faced by humans in life, the perfect choice is a koi fish tattoo.


The mythical dragon is something we all associate Japan with. The dragons hold a very important place in Japanese culture. The tattoo is associated with many meanings, from freedom, courage, wisdom, power, strength to even supernatural powers. When it comes to choosing a dragon tattoo, let your imagination fly, as there is no concern of making it look realistic. And each color dragon has a different symbolization, so choose the color carefully.

Hannya Masks

Hannya mask is a very traditional Japanese design and the meaning often originates from kabuki plays. Hannya masks are demonic masks which come from the famous kabuki plays in Japan, and it depicts a woman who has been consumed with rage over her lover. These tattoos are believed to ward off evil spirits, and bring good luck to the person sporting them.

Japanese tattoos are common primarily because of the long history of tattooing in Japan, which dates back hundreds of years. The long history of Japanese tattoos has lead to a number of recurring motifs or images in Japanese tattoo design. The Japanese catfish is a common symbol in tattoo art, with koi tattoos symbolizing a longevity and wealth. Color is an important element in Japanese tattoos, as are Japanese symbols known as Kanji. Kanji tattoos are some of the most common Asian inspired tattoos in existence. Kanji tattoo designs can also be incorporated into other traditional scenes from Japanese history, using symbols like geisha or samurai.

Japanese tattoos are known for their bold lines, historic patterns and imagery, and total body coverage. The techniques for tattooing that developed in Japan used hand tools, and it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that machines first came to Japanese tattooing. Whereas Western tattooing often grows as a varied collection, in Japanese tattooing there are often larger-scale full sleeve or leg tattoos, and entire bodysuit tattoos which cover from neckline to wrists to ankles.