Tattoo artist

Tattoos in Japan

There are a number of places in Japan that do not allow clientele with visible tattoos. Tattoos in Japan have long been stigmatized for its connection with the Yakuza, the country’s organized crime syndicate. Members of the Yakuza pledge their loyalty with full-body inking. Subsequently, tattoos have had a bad rep in the country as far as being banned for a time, adding to the general negative perception in Japanese culture.

Yakuza displaying their tattoosYakuza showing off their tattoos and status at the Sanja Matsuri festival in Japan, 2007. | elmimmo

Tattoos in Japanese history

Tattoos were once used for decorative purposes and can be traced as far back as the Jōmon period or Japan’s paleolithic period (14,000-300 BCE). The first records of tattooing in Japan were in 5000 BCE when historians found clay figures from the era with bodies and faces decorated with scars or imprints.

In 700 AD, records exist of tattoos being used as punishment on criminals who committed the most serious crimes. Their foreheads would be tattooed so the public could witness the act. This system evolved over time, but tattoos are still perceived to be a mark of a criminal.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), tattoos began to be seen as a fashion statement partly inspired by the Chinese novel Suikoden (Water Margin). The novel features characters whose bodies were covered in ink.  Irezumi, literally meaning “inserting ink,” is the Japanese term for tattoo. The word is also used to refer to a distinctive style of Japanese tattooing.Tammeijiro Genshogo, from Tsuzoku Suikoden Goketsu Hyakuhachinin no Hitori

Woodblock artists began tattooing, using most of the same tools used for imprinting designs on wooden blocks such as gouges and chisels, this time on human skin.

Tammeijiro Genshogo, from Tsuzoku Suikoden Goketsu Hyakuhachinin no Hitori.

The most notable in the tattooing technique used is a unique type of ink known as Nara ink. Nara ink or Nara black is known to turn blue-green under the skin. Irezumi markings were still used as punishment for criminals, but it was also used for body decoration.

Banning tattoos

Rulers during the Edo period tried to ban tattoos for its association with the novel, Suidoken. Heroes in the story were tattooed men who challenged the stifling rule of authority. This was thought to be the seed that could be a cause for discord amongst the Japanese people by the ruling military dictatorship of the era.

The 19th century saw the complete ban of tattooing in Japan. The government feared it might make the country seem not as civilized as other Western nations. In 1948, during the U. S. occupation, the ban was lifted. The popularity of Yakuza films in the 1960’s introduced tattoos to the young people of that generation.

As a whole, the influence of tattoos in the entire history Japan has not been ideal in promoting how the people perceive it as an art. Every day, minds are being opened and someday the checkered history of tattoos will be a thing of the past.