A History of Tattooing in Japan
The history of tattooing in Japan is long and complex, and until recently, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare ruled that tattoos were only considered legal where it constituted a medical procedure, making it almost impossible to be tattooed for aesthetic purposes. Things started to shift in 2020 when Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that tattoo artists no longer had to obtain a medical licence to practise their art. Today, tattooing exists in what is best described as a legal grey area, and the tattooed still face discrimination; in many public places – including onsens (public baths), gyms, public beaches, and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) – tattoos continue to be prohibited. While there has been some noticeable acceptance in recent years, Japan is yet to reach full acceptance in its attitudes towards tattoos, both legally and socially. A survey by Japan Tourism Agency in 2015 demonstrated that out of over 3,000 establishments, 56% would refuse entry to those with tattoos, with 13% allowing visitors if they have concealed their body art. For the tattooed traveller, a visit to Japan requires extra cultural sensitivity, research and understanding. In this Deep Dive, we look to history to examine why there has been an enduring complexity and controversy when it comes to tattoos in Japan.
Deriving from the Samoan word Tatau, the provenance of tattooing dates back to many thousands of years across several different cultures, each of which have defined their own approach to the art form. Evidence of tattoos in Japan traces back to as early as the Jōmon period, in clay figurines known as Dogu, with later sightings having been found amongst the Indigenous Ainu People of Japan, who are thought to have descended from the Jōmon people. Ainu communities commonly incorporated tattoos as part of their cultural and ritualistic traditions; women would be tattooed along their arms and on their lips, a practice that would be repeated throughout their lives until their wedding day. The tattoo would start as a singular cut across each side of the lip and coloured with birch charcoal, extending every year until the final upturned cut, made by the groom on their wedding day, would turn the tattoo into an elongated smile.
Despite being deeply intertwined in the culture of early Ainu populations, tattoos gradually began to associate with more nefarious connotations during the Edo Period, when they were introduced as symbols of criminal punishment. Depending on the region in which they were imprisoned, or the type of crime they had perpetrated, criminals would be branded with various markings, outcasting them from society. In Chikuzen and Hiroshima, three strikes of a punishment resulted in a the kanji for dog (犬), in Bizen (modern day Okayama) a cross (X), in Edo (modern day Tokyo), the kanji for evil (悪) and in Higo (modern day Kumamoto) different markings would distinguish between a crime related to fighting or stealing. Although once intended to cast out these felons, decorative tattoos gradually became more commonplace as criminals took the practice into their own hands, covering up markings with decorative embellishments. These types of decorative tattoos were quickly appropriated by Japanese organised crime members known as the Yakuza, who sought these methods of body modification as a painful part of the initiation process to prove their courage and commitment. Body art continued to grow in popularity amongst criminals and lower classes until it was eventually outlawed at the end of the Edo Period in 1868. Under the Meiji Restoration, the new government, who did not want to be regarded as primitive by Western visitors, banished tattooing for its strong association to lower classes and criminals as they opened their borders to foreigners in an effort to industrialise and modernise the nation. The ban was subsequently lifted much later in 1948 after World War II, but the stigma and ties to criminality have remained in Japan since.
The traditional practice of decorative Japanese tattooing is known as Irezumi (入れ墨), meaning “to insert ink”, and differs from modern day conventional tattoo practices in that it is carried out by hand-trained artists known as Horishi who use a metal or bamboo rod to carve and insert ink into the skin in a process called Tebori. Perhaps a source of influence for the stick and poke technique we see today, Tebori is essentially a traditional form of hand poking; motifs etched out using traditional methods of Irezumi can take much longer than conventional electronic devices. Designs are often inspired by nature, folklore, or mystical and religious symbols which nod to traditional Japanese ukiyo-e, an artistic movement which flourished in the 17th through to the 19th centuries. In modern times, Irezumi continues to be an art form expropriated by Yakuza and tattoo artist Nissaco, who Trippin interviewed for their series on Tattoos & Travelling (https://trippin.world/feature/tattoos-travelling-nissaco), he explains the first time he came across tattoos in Japan was on a member of the Yakuza: “As a child, seeing Yakuza in the Japanese baths covered in tattoos amazed me”. This certainly isn't uncommon in Japan, as tattoos are rarely seen aside from on Yakuza members or foreigners.
When French photographer Chloé Jafé moved to Japan in 2014, she was acquainted with a member of the Yakuza, leading her to document the lives of Yakuza members, their wives, mistresses and bodyguards in a project titled “I give you my life”. The title of the series is a translation of the song Inochi Azukemasu by Fuji Keiko and encompasses the topic of dedication, as she observes the relationships between women and their men, and men and their bosses. One of the photographs seen below depicts a group of Yakuza men at the Sanja Matsuri, one of the only occasions where Yakuza members are allowed to show their tattoo. What’s particularly interesting about the other photographs is the observations of Yakuza women with their tattoos, Chloé explains that women would often be tattooed at the request of their husbands, either with their husband’s name, or with a design their spouse had chosen. Across both genders, Irezumi were typically seen as a display of strength and endurance, with tattoos in Japanese culture intended never to be shown or seen, rather acting as veiled spiritual armour to provide protection.
Although tattoos have become more commonplace in Japan in recent years, the practice continues to be viewed as somewhat taboo and the tattooed still face discrimination due to historical ties to criminality and organised crime. If you plan to visit Japan, there are a number of precautions you can take in order to be reverent to their culture. Consider covering tattoos up in advance or booking private locations if you wish to visit places where tattoos are typically banned. Also, remember that some religious and spiritual sites may require further cultural sensitivity that is inferred rather than explicitly discussed. There are plenty of resources such as https://tattoo-friendly.jp/ – which includes a list of places where tattoos are openly accepted, as well as further research and reading on the subject – which can be used when planning your trip to Japan.