History of Japanese Tattoo
Tattoo 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.
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”
The 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.
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.
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.
More Japanese designs