Japanese Tattoo Art and History

Since the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism on the Japanese culture, tattoo art has a negative connotation for the majority of the Japanese people. In the eyes of an average Japanese a tattoo is considered a mark of a yakuza a member of the Japanese mafia or a macho symbol of members of the lower classes.

Archaeologists believe that the early settlers of Japan, the Ainu people, used facial tattoos. Chinese documents report about the Wa people the Chinese name for their Japanese neighbors and their habits of diving into water for fish and shells and decorating the whole body with tattoos. These reports are about 1700 years old.

For the higher developed Chinese culture, tattooing was a barbaric act. When Buddhism was brought from China to Japan and with it a strong influence of the Chinese culture, tattooing got negative connotations. Criminals were marked with tattoos to punish and identify them in society.

Tattoos in the Edo Period:

During the Edo period 1603-1868 Japanese tattoo art became a part of ukiyo-e the floating world culture. Prostitutesyujos of the pleasure quarters used tattoos to increase their attractiveness for customers. Body tattoos were used by laborers and firemen.

From 1720 on, the tattooing of criminals became an official punishment and replaced the amputation of the nose and the ears. The criminal received a ring tattoo around the arm for each offense or a character tattoo on his forehead. Tattooing criminals was continued until 1870, when it was abolished by the new Meiji government of the Japanese Emperor.

This visible punishment created a new class of outcasts that had no place in society and nowhere to go. Many of these outlaws were ronin master less samurai warriors. They had no alternatives than organizing in gangs. These men formed the roots of yakuza the organized criminals in Japan in the twentieth century.

Japanese Tattoo Prints:

In 1827 the ukiyo-e artist Kuniyoshi Utagawa published the first 6 designs of the 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. The Suikoden were something like ancient Robin Hoods honorable bandits. The story is based on a classic Chinese novel Shui-Hi-Chuan, that dates from the 13th and 14th century. The novel was first translated into Japanese in 1757 by Okajima Kanzanion. At the turn of the 18th to the 19th century the story was published with illustrations by Katsushika Hokusai. The novel of the 108 honorable bandits was very popular in Japan and caused a kind of Suikoden craze among Japanese townspeople.

Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden ukiyo-e designs show the heroes in colorful, full body tattoos. Japanese tattoo prints and tattoo art in general then became stylish. Tattoos were considered iki cool but were restricted to the lower classes. The richness and fantasy of the Japanese tattoo prints designs shown by Kuniyoshi are used by some tattoo artists up to this time.

Modern Japanese Tattooing History:

Between the Kofun Period and the Edo period the orgins and hsitory of tattoos and their usage becomes some what obscure. However, it is clear that tattoo came in and out of fashion during various periods of times. Tattoos were often still used to mark criminals but there are also periods of time when they became fashionable to wear.

Then finally during the Edo period the art form that we know today as Irezumi was developed. During this period of time the Japanese discovered or borrowed the art form of wood block printing from the Japanese. The Japanese artists would use chisels, gouges and ink to create these beautifully designed art works. They essentailly used their tools to carve out wood and then inked the wood with a strong permenent ink and pressed the wood block onto paper creating a art form called wood blocking. Thus the art of decorative tattooing was born.

These artists were not content just doing their work in wood or onto paper and they eventually started doing the work into skin creating the art form of Irezumi or tattooing. Amazingly enough they were able to use the same tools chisels, gouges and ink to do their tattoo work. Talk about a painful tattoo! Although interesting enough some people still practice this form tattooing today and they beleive that these tattoos have a deeper and longer lasting color then tattooing done with modern tattoo guns and inks.

It is unclear and a matter of debate who wore tattoo during the Edo period. Some scholars beleive that the mercahnt class were the ones that bore these elborate tattoos. While other beleive it was the lower clas who wore and even flautned their elborate tattoos. It is clear however, that during this period many firemen would get tattoos as a form of spirtiual protection.

Tattoo Art in Modern Japan:

Although some younger people may consider tattooing as trendy, the majority of the Japanese population still considers it as something connected to the underworld of mafia gangsters or a bad low class habit at the best. Younger people who consider tattoos as iki a minority among Japanese youth tend to use partial tattoos in Western style on their upper arms, where it is not directly visible.