History of Japanese Tattoo

April 16, 2013 Juju Kurihara Culture, History, Vocabulary Tags: 16 Comments

tattoo_pin-up-girlTattoo is a part of fashion and is something I see daily in the street. Some have very impressive designs that tempt me to have one myself. I see some Kanji characters on people´s body and often they are just "Kanji-looking" characters, which I don´t know whether I should tell them or not. Once I had a client and she had a Kanji "妹 (Imouto / younger sister)" on her shoulder. When I mentioned it, she was very happy that the character was actually readable. She explained to me that she has a elder brother whom she loves and that´s why she decided to tattoo "sister" as an honour to be the sister of him. Interesting. 

Japanese tattoos are often considered as arts and many westerners are fascinated about it. However in Japan despite of recent tattoo fashion boom, people still have a bad impression towards Irezumi (入れ墨). Why is that?


Japan has a very old tattoo culture, probably since Jomon period (縄文時代/14,000BC-300BC) and the Japanese gorgeous tattoo that we now know was established in the middle of  Edo period. At that time, many people came to big cities such as Edo (now Tokyo) and Osaka and with the population growth, the number of crime naturally increased. Irezumi was introduced as a punishment because of its character that it´s not easy to get rid of. From there, it spread among prostitutes, gamblers, construction workers and couriers as a fashion.



tattoo face

The criminals were tattooed on their forehead so that people could see they committed a crime. Also each region had it´s own symbol and by the Irezumi people could tell where those guys committed the crime.

Top left : Hiroshima prefecture, tattooed Inu (犬/ dog)

Top right : Chikuzen (筑前/ now Fukuoka), tattooed lines each time they committed a crime

Middle : Awa (阿波/ now Tokushima prefecture), tattooed lines on the forehead and the arm

Bottom left : Takanoyama (高野山/now Wakayama prefecture), tattooed dots

Bottom right : Hizen (肥前/now Saga/Nagasaki prefecture), tattooed cross, which means “bad”



tattoo dogThe most curious one is in Hiroshima. Each time someone committed a crime, they tattooed another line. What Hiroshima did was, this. The first time the criminal get one line across the forehead, the second time a line across the first line, a little curved towards left. The third time, they added another line on the right and a small dot on the right shoulder of the first line. This, some of you may realize it, is a character of dog (犬/ inu) in Japanese. I have no idea why they had chosen this character but certainly carrying the letter “dog” is embarrassing.

tattoo local



Other part of Japan gave them tattoo on the criminals´ arms. Many are simple lines around the arm. On the bottom line, the third left, I can see the sign of “悪”, bad in Japanese. This was Kishu´s (紀州/now Mie and Wakayama prefecture) tattoo. Very straight forward.




tattoo no enter

Although later, tattoo became a symbol of fashion, toughness or showing love for someone, somewhere in the brain of Japanese people, unconsciously stayed this old custom about tattoo. In fact, many public swimming pools, baths and Onsen (温泉/natural spa) don´t allow customers with a tattoo. This is because other customers may think that he or she is a criminal or a part of Yakuza family and get scared. This place, in the photo, doesn´t even allow stickers or painted tattoos.


I imagine if a man with a tattoo like this comes in to a public bath, it´s a little shocking or worry-some but I don´t know if they react the same even though the tattoo is obviously the fashion one. Anyway you can see what Japanese people think about tattoo.



I have some friends who are into tattoo and a few of them especially like Japanese tattoos. One Brazilian girl had once showed me a beautiful peony flower tattooed on her thigh. It took her two days to complete and she still had fever from it. I just worried, knowing that they really like Japan, they might be disappointed when they arrive at Japan and get refused at the entrance of Onsen, for example. I understand that for them having Japanese tattoos is not only a fashion but also a proud and an honour to Japan. But I don´t know how Japanese people consider. I like to know Japanese people´s opinions. What do you say?    


If you are interested in seeing different tattoo design, check Meaning of tattoo designs and Japanese tribal tattoo.







More Japanese designs

Paper eyelashes

Drawing water

Plastic umbrellas

Designer Akiko McQuerrey

Japanese matchboxes designs

Shinkansen 50th Anniversary

Nakagin Capsule Tower


  1. Wiley Duane 4 years Reply

    Thanks for sharing

  2. Sean Lundberg 6 years Reply

    I really appreciate this article! Great research and information. I was able to find information that allowed me to write my paper on the brief history of tattoos around the world. Thanks! http://tattoocity.info

  3. Gaijinass 6 years Reply

    The reality, and I say this as someone who has lived in Tokyo for 13 years now and has Japanese Irezumi, most Japanese don’t care about foreign style tattooing. However, they are actually scared of Japanese style Irezumi. The fact is, gangsters still have them and it’s intimidating. Get over it. There is no reason the Japanese should be forced to accept something which runs counter to their culture.

  4. Tyler Smeltz 6 years Reply

    I read this article and instantly was annoyed. Tattoos have become some mainstream, and so popular that even 75 percent of soccer moms have at lease one tattoo. Ive been getting tattoos for 5 years, I’m apprenticing to become a tattoo artist, and the Japanese style of tattooing is my favorite hands down, and now as I read through this, I wouldn’t be allowed to enter certain establishments in Japan because of them? ok listen up….if you have tattoos, we need to pull together and bring tattoos into the 21st century. just because we have tattoos that does not mean we are menaces to society. in my personal experience, the best people have tattoos, and the most judgemental people go to church on sundays

    • Horishit 6 years

      Do your research. If you knew enough about tattooing you would be the benefits of it being hidden from the mainstream.

  5. rumi 7 years Reply

    hi there,

    I came across this article and i am really interested in the simple armband tattoos. Is it possible to ask the name of the book or source the image was extracted ?

    thank you

    • juju.kurihara 7 years

      Hi Rumi,

      Thank you for your comment.

      The source of the image is here : http://blogs.yahoo.co.jp/rin_desert/8884974.html

      I don´t see any particular names for this. You can find more images by typing, “criminal tattoo in Edo period”, for example.

  6. Dario 7 years Reply

    I have been 3 times to Japan and I have 3 tattoes. I have never had problems getting into onsen. Nobody looked At me Just because we are gaikokujin.

  7. Hey, Juju (is thar correct?), how are you?

    My name is Chris (actually, it’s Christiano, but Chris is my social [?] name =P), and I’m doing this interdisciplinar academic research about criminal identification (to obtain a Master degree in Criminologic and Forensic Sciences!!! =] ).
    My research led me to this nice post and I would love to know more about it. You know… To see any material you might have about this ancient method of criminal identification, the implications of it (both present and past) and – if your probably busy agenda allow you to – chat about it.
    But, what I wanted the most was to know your real name, so I could reference both this webpage and the authorship properly (giving YOU, the author, the credit for the obtainment and the writing of the material, cause, I couldn’t find but a nickname in the publication… Your name would be more suitable).

    I hope to read from you soon, in spite of noticing that the post is relatively old.

    My e-mail is twotimesc@gmail.com and the other one is atrox2xc@gmail.com.

    Greetings from Nova Friburgo/RJ (Rio de Janeiro)! 😀

  8. Sumo Joe 10 years Reply

    Great article. I’m not a big fan of body art, and yet I still can appreciate the amazing intricacy of some Asian or Japanese style tattoos that I’ve seen. My daughter lived and taught in Japan for two years with a discrete sakura tattoo on the top of her foot. She always had to keep it covered at work, of course. And she did get some harsh looks at an onsen on one occasion. While this is simply anecdotal, it is clear that Japan is far behind the US and the UK in the spread and acceptability of tattoos. In my humble opinion, I say, “Good for you, Japan.”

    Sumo Joe

    • juju.kurihara 10 years

      Thank you Sumo Joe. True, some tattoos are just amazing and I have a respect to those tattoo artist. I would say it´s an art despite of social view towards them. I understand the situation of your daughter. For westerners it´s a part of fashion but the case of Japan is more conceptual. I mean why they needed to have it or how painful the process went depending on the size of the tattoo. I was once thought of having one but now I think it was better that I didn´t get it. 

    • kura 6 years

      While this is simply anecdotal, it is clear that Japan is far ahead the US and the UK in the understanding of different culture.

  9. Dave 10 years Reply

    Dear Juju,

    Thank you for a wonderful article as i did not know about the tattooing criminals. I know there was a time where government employee’s were not hire if they had a tattoo, not sure if that is still the case.

    I have lived in japan for a few many years off and on and I know a lot of public place that will not allow you in if you have a tattoo it does matter if you are Japanese or foreigner. If the tat is small some may allow you to place a large bandage over it,

    If one goes to the private onsen’s most times one is ok with a tat.


    • juju.kurihara 10 years

      Dear Dave

      Thank you for your comment. Usually counpanies have company rules and as far as I see, many companies prohibit having tattoos. It depends on the profession you have. School teachers, sports instructors, Sumo wrestlers and public servants are those to begin with. But there are more, it´s totally up to the company policy. It´s not so easy to live with tatto in Japan. 

      Thank you,


  10. Karen 10 years Reply

    I really appreciated this article as it addressed a concern of mine. I lived in Japan many years and return on a regular basis often taking friends and family with whom I wish to share my second home as I consider Japan. My beloved niece is one of the tattoo generation (arms, entire back, feet, shoulders) and I worry about the reception she will receive when we go together. She has Japanese friends in Los Angeles who are tattoo artists so she promotes them to me as an example that Japan is becoming more accepting of fashion tattoos.

    I would be very interested to hear from people who have had recent experiences. I would guess that perhaps in Tokyo it might be less remarked upon, but I usually stay around Kyushu and Kyoto when I am there. I would like to hear of experiences in ‘inaka’ too, for people with tattoos.

    thanks again !!


    • juju.kurihara 10 years

      Hi Karen

      Although Japan has a long history in tattoo, it´s always has been related to some dark part of the society. As far as I know, having tattoo doesn´t give a good impression to Japanese people so much. But I´m talking about between Japanese and I can´t tell you if it´s the same when foreigners have it. They may consider as a fashion and don´t mind it, then when it comes to public space such as Onsen or swimming pool, I assume that they wouldn´t change the rule. 

      We need more opinion from Japanese people and perhaps you can explain to your niece the situation in Japan, in case she didn´t know and doesn´t get disappointed with certain things.

      All the best,


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