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  • Juju Kurihara

History of Japanese Tattoo


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 dog
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

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May 23, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very simple yet informative.

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