Mystique surrounds Japan's tattoo culture

Mystique surrounds Japan's tattoo culture

Stripes Japan archives

Dragons, cherry blossoms and Buddha may bring a myriad of differing images to most minds. But mention Japanese tattoos and most people today will imagine these and other stylized images adorning the bodies of celebrities, athletes and military personnel around world.

Traditional Japanese-style tattoos enjoy international fame for their surreal beauty and mystique. You might even say they are the stuff of some fashion trends in the West.

In Japan, however, the tattoo culture behind them developed amid centuries of custom and social trends, ranging from the artistic and spiritual to the criminal. While the skill is still praised and passed on from one generation to the next, those wearing these elaborate works of art can be shunned and barred from beaches and bathhouses.

Few, if any, are more familiar with this culture than Horiyoshi III, a legendary third-generation master tattooist who follows the custom of taking his mentor’s name.

“About 40 years ago, most of my clients were ‘yakuza’ (known as the Japanese mafia), construction workers and some nightclub workers,” Horiyoshi III says. “The laws against yakuza have been getting stricter, so there are less yakuza now. My clients are more regular people who just like tattoos. I also have many foreign clients nowadays.”

At age 68, Horiyoshi III, who sports a full-body tattoo himself, has inked the bodies of more than 7,000 people over the past 43 years. They include a number of local and foreign celebrities whose identities he prefers not to divulge. He has been featured in Times Magazine and The New York Times as well as several art shows and tattoo conventions overseas.

Horiyoshi III also is the owner of Yokohama Tattoo Museum, which houses hundreds of tattoo-related photos and paraphernalia he has collected over the years. There’s much to chronicle about this venerable yet controversial tradition.

While the earliest tattoos in Japan date back to around BC 300 and were tribal designs similar to Maori and Polynesian markings, the popular style seen today started in the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1867), according to “Tattoo Ethnology” by Zenji Koishikawa.

“Ukiyoe,” a popular woodblock and painting style of the time, influenced the way tattooist depicted animals, flowers and mythical creatures like dragons. Today, tattoo artists still draw inspiration from some of these famed Edo Period artists. There was also a practical side to these tattoos.

They were sometimes used to identify individuals such as fire fighters and construction workers and mail couriers in case they lost their lives in the line of duty. Full body tattoos were considered an expression of sophistication and originality. But tattoos – especially line tattoos – were also used to identify criminals, according to Koishikawa, much like a scarlet letter.

Horiyoshi III says that after Japan opened its ports during the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912), the government began restricting tattoos as a result of Western cultural influence. By 1872, they were outlawed altogether. Many tattooist were arrested but the practice continued, especially among construction workers and yakuza. Ironically, this was also around the time Japanese tattoos were discovered by the West.

In 1869, Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s son, was the first of several British royalty to be tattooed in Japan, according to “Nihon no Irezumi to Eikoku Oshitsu” (“Japanese Tattoos and the British Royal Family”) by Noboru Koyama. Tattoos were finally legalized in 1948, but by then their association with criminality was indelibly inked on the public psyche.

“The image of ‘tattoo equals yakuza’ was created by Japanese media in the 1940s after the war,” says Horiyoshi III. “The media used a full-body tattoo wearer as an icon for the yakuza.”

The yakuza is an organization, he believes, that is as maligned as his beloved art itself.

“Yakuza originally meant ‘yaku,’ role, and ‘za,’ sitting, during the Edo Period. It was someone who took care of events, festivals and gambling, which were legal activities at temples in the community. Yakuza valued ‘ninkyo,’ which means to help the weak. They had power and people started to ask them for help. They were considered the guardians of the community,” he says. “But after the war, the media painted yakuza as a violent group, and people started treating them like the mafia. Because most yakuza had large tattoos, tattoos became an image of violence.”

Today, it’s still common to see signs barring tattoo wearers at many public and private facilities in Japan, such as fitness gyms, swimming pools and hot springs. Just this summer, Zushi City in Kanagawa Prefecture enacted a ban on exposed tattoos at Zushi Beach, a popular hangout for U.S. military personnel near Yokosuka Naval Base. 

“If you cover your tattoo with a towel, T-shirt or rash guard it is ok,” says Zushi City Office’s Shotaro Yamaguchi. “If you show your tattoo in public on the beach and people feel uncomfortable, scared or are disturbed by it, it is not allowed. This rule is designed to keep the beach a safe and family friendly place.” 

This phobia can at times baffle younger Japanese who do not share this particular cultural inheritance.

“I am not a yakuza, I got my tattoo just because I liked it,” says Ryota Ando, who sports a modern Western-style spider tattoo. “Every time I go to a hot spring, I have to cover it. I think Japanese need to make new standards for tattoo wearers. How will we welcome international athletes with tattoos when they come to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020?”

Indeed, foreign visitors are often caught off guard. Last year, a 60-years-old Maori woman was refused entry to an unspecified public bathhouse in Hokkaido because of a face tattoo she said her culture uses to identify tribal members, according to Japan Today.

“Even if it is traditional culture, it is difficult to expect other patrons to understand the difference between one tattoo and another,” an unnamed bathhouse official was quoted in Japan Today. “A typical person cannot judge the context behind the tattoos.”

In the context of Japanese culture, as well as its tattoo culture, however, there’s plenty of responsibility to go around, according to Horiyoshi III’s son, Horiyoshi III Souryo, who is also a tattoo artist.

“I think that it is important that tattoo wearers behave properly,” he says. “Tattoos used to be something to hide, not expose. But now, many wearers like to show them off as a mark of power, or sometimes to scare people. Some people think they are strong just because they have a tattoo. It’s a pity. I wish they wouldn’t lower the value of tattoos. Tattoo wearers need to have manners.”

In the early 1980s, Western tattoo trends hit Japan, according to Horiyoshi III. Many young Japanese started getting these so-called one point tattoos because they were considered cool and simple, as well as less painful to get than Japanese-style tattoos. He says that recently many foreigners and Japanese alike have been asking for a mix of traditional Japanese-style and one-point tattoos. The bottom line is tattoos are a lot more popular in Japan today.

“Perspectives on tattoos have been changing in Japan,” says Horiyoshi III. In fact, few people even use the Japanese word – “irezumi” – anymore. Most Japanese just call them “tattoos now.” “Japanese style, American style, tribal style, it’s all mixed now. And tattoo cultural trends will continue to change.”

Yokohama Tattoo Museum

Yokohama Tattoo Museum holds hundreds of tattoo-related exhibits collected over the past four decades by master tattooist, Horiyoshi III. In addition to historical books, photos and traditional Japanese tattoo tools, the museum features tattoo-related photos and items from all over the world.

Mentioned in some tourist guide books, Yokohama Tattoo Museum draws visitors from near and far.

Horiyoshi III Souryo, a tattoo artist and the son of Horiyoshi III, has a tattoo studio in the upstairs of the museum. 

Address: Imai bldg. 1-11-7 Hiranuma, Nisi-ku, Yokohama, Japan (4 minutes-walk from JR Tobe Sta.)
Tel: 045-323-1073
Admission: 1,000 yen ($10), You get a free original hand towel with admission.
Hours: 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., closed the first, 10th, 20th of every month.


WARNING: Think before you ink!

Japan may be a great place to get that new distinct tattoo, but if you are in – or plan to join – the U.S. military, check the relevant tattoo policies before you get inked. If you have tattoos that are deemed too visible or tasteless then you and your tattoo aren’t welcomed in the military.

First off, all branches of service prohibit racist, extremist or gang-related tattoos. In addition, each branch also has its own policy.

The Army has the strictest rules on tattoos. The Army tightened its policy to ban ink above the collar and below the wrist. The tighter rules, which went into effect around April 1, ban body art on the head, face, neck, wrists, hands and fingers. Soldiers are allowed a maximum of four visible tattoos below the elbow or knee, but they must be smaller than the wearer’s hand, which means that sleeve tattoos are also prohibited. (Extremist, sexist and racist tattoos have always been taboo.)

The Navy does not allow tattoos on the head, face, neck or scalp. If you have a tattoo that can be seen when wearing a short sleeve uniform shirt, the tattoo shall be no larger than the wearer’s hand with fingers extended and joined with the thumb touching the base of the index finger

In the Air Force, tattoos can’t cover more than 25 percent of an exposed body part (such as the forearm) when wearing any uniform.

For Marines, tattoos on the hands, fingers and wrists or inside the mouth are prohibited. Individual tattoos visible in physical training uniforms (shorts and T-shirt) can be no larger than the wearer’s hand with the fingers extended and joined with the thumb touching the base of the index finger.

For more detail, refer to the relevant military regulations.

Army uniform regulations

Navy uniform regulations

Marine Corps tattoo policy

Air Force dress policy


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