An Unexpectedly Long History! 11 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Tattoos in Japan

Tattoos have a long history in Japan – tracing from early Japanese myths and indigenous tattoos all the way to modern-day yakuza. Not only is there a variety of styles, but the meanings behind the tattoos also give a glimpse into their cultural significance. The history and culture of tattoos in Japan are beyond interesting, so read on to read some facts about tattoos in Japan you may have never heard before!

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1. There Are Multiple Ways to Say “Tattoo” in Japanese

Nowadays, there are multiple ways to say tattoo in Japanese: “tattoo,” “irezumi,” “shisei,” and “horimono.” Although they are written in different ways, all mean “tattoo” and to many may seem interchangeable, so what are the differences between them, if any?

There is no universally accepted reason as to why there are so many names for tattoos, but a common explanation is that “tattoos” are literally much more surface-level than “irezumi,” “shisei,” and “horimono,” as the needle does not penetrate as deep into the skin. As you might have guessed, the usage of “tattoo” is a loan word from English, and is more commonly associated with Western-style tattoos. 

Although “irezumi” has its own characters, there is another set of characters that can be read as both “irezumi” and “shisei.” It is said that “shisei” is the literary term for Japanese tattoos, as it stems from a short story called “Shisei” by the famed author Junichiro Tanizaki.

“Horimono” literally translates to “carving” and was the prominent word for “tattoo” during the Edo period (1603 – 1867). It arguably evokes images of artistic, intricate Japanese-style pieces when referencing tattoos.

2. The History of Tattoos in Japan May Date Back Thousands of Years

Did you know that Japan’s early settlers were recorded as having tattoos? According to the “Wajinden,” a historical Chinese chronicle from the 3rd century about the inhabitants of ancient Japan, “men both large and small” in Japan had tattooed faces and bodies. It’s also speculated that this tattooing custom might have been around even earlier, there just aren’t any known older records that can confirm it.

Over the course of a few centuries, having a tattoo in Japanese society evolved into a “custom or punishment practiced in outlying regions,” according to the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, two 8th-century texts that comprise Japan’s oldest existing records.

3. Tattoos Had Cultural Significance in Hokkaido and Okinawa for Centuries

Another historical chronicle that talks about the early tattooing culture of Japan is “Report of a Mission to Ryukyu” from 1534, which documented the lives of people in the islands that are now part of modern-day Okinawa.

It is explained that women had “hachiji,” a type of tattoo mainly applied on the hands and could trail up the arms. The hachiji custom was celebrated as an important part of life, signifying rites of passage such as adulthood and marriage, and they were even believed to assist in the afterlife.

Up in the north, indigenous Ainu women in Hokkaido also had tattoos. Commonly around their lips and their hands, these tattoos were considered symbols of beauty and talismans. They also were an important symbol of a woman’s marital status and were believed to be necessary for the afterlife.

However, both of these tattoo cultures were suppressed and ultimately almost extinguished in the 19th century after the Japanese government banned tattoos and made efforts to assimilate Okinawa and Hokkaido.

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4. Woodblock Prints Inspired a Tattoo Phenomenon During the Edo Period

Tattoos experienced a surge in popularity during the Edo period, in large part thanks to the fantastic works of “ukiyo-e” (woodblock print) artists such as Kuniyoshi Utagawa, whose artworks featured dynamic, tattooed heroes. It is said that many were influenced by the valiant heroes depicted in the prints, getting similar tattoos or even the heroes themselves inked on their bodies.

Another reason for the influx of tattoos during this time was the clothing of Edo-period workmen, who, due to the nature of their jobs, would have to constantly tie up their outer clothes. Tattoos became a way for workmen to adorn their often bare skin, and tattoos evolved from simple characters and symbols into beautiful, elaborate images.

5. In the Past, Criminals Were Tattooed

With the way tattoos experienced a revival in the Edo period, not all of it was positive. Tattoos also started being used on criminals as a form of punishment and a permanent display of shame.

One type of punishment tattoo was one or two solid lines that circled the upper arm. In some areas, characters like a big “X” symbol or “kanji” characters tattooed on the forehead corresponded to a type of offense committed.

The kanji characters in particular had meanings related to the number of offenses. The character for “one” meant it was the criminal’s first offense, then another line was added and it evolved to the “katakana” character “na” for the second offense, then into the kanji character for “dog” for the third. Receiving the "dog" forehead tattoo was punishable by death during the Edo period.

6. Tattoos Are Often Associated With the Yakuza

To this day, there is a common association between having a tattoo in Japanese society and the yakuza, dating from the tattooing of criminals during the Edo period. The origins of the yakuza can be traced back to this period, and since criminals were already being tattooed by the government on their foreheads or arms, they accepted this as part of their heritage.

As the yakuza continued to operate underground, they demanded a sense of loyalty and dedication amongst those involved. One way for yakuza members to prove their loyalty was by receiving tattoos that covered a large part of their bodies, since this required time, patience, and tolerance of the pain.

The elaborate tattoos that usually decorate most of their bodies are often designs that hold a personal meaning for the individual, symbolizing their life’s journey. The designs are decided by consulting with “horishi” (Japanese tattoo artists), and then the long and expensive process begins with traditional tools and without the use of modern electrical tattooing equipment.

7. Tattoos Were Outlawed in the Meiji Period

During Japan’s Meiji period (1868 - 1912), the country was opened up to the world after 200 years of self-isolation. Travelers were allowed to enter Japan and they would write accounts of the life they saw in Japan, and the Meiji government became afraid that certain actions and customs, including conspicuous tattoos, would make Westerners think of Japan as a “backward nation.” In response, decorative tattoos were banned in 1872.

People in mainland Japan were forced to hide their tattoos behind clothing, and this ban was even more strictly imposed on the Ainu of Hokkaido and the Ryukyu people of Okinawa, where people could get arrested. This effectively led to the disappearance of the tattooing customs from both groups of people.

After over 70 years of tattoos being banned in public and Japanese horishi working in secret, the ban on tattoos was lifted in Japan in 1948 after the US occupation. Even so, the ban, along with the association of tattoos with the yakuza, had a lasting effect on Japanese society, with tattoos arguably still being largely frowned upon today.

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8. The Differences Between Japanese “Wabori” Tattoos and Western “Yobori” Tattoos

"Wabori" tattoos are Japanese-style tattoos. They’re characterized by their intricate, colorful designs inspired by elements from Japanese history and mythology. The previously mentioned ukiyo-e prints are one inspiration, but images or symbols from much older myths are also used.

"Yobori" is the Japanese word for tattoos with Western styles, so this can refer to both the style of the tattoo and the images depicted – things such as butterflies, skulls, hearts, names, and so on. Although there are specialized tattoo artists like the traditional horishi, many tattoo studios in Japan will have tattoo artists who can do both yobori and wabori tattoos.

9. People With Tattoos Are Often Not Permitted in Public Bathing Spaces

Due to the tattoo culture of the yakuza, many people in Japan still associate tattoos with them, and so a wide-blanket way of avoiding yakuza guests was by banning tattoos. Because of this, many public bathing spaces such as “onsen” (hot springs) or “sento” (public baths) prohibit people with tattoos from entering, regardless of the design.

Although the attitude towards tattoos has been changing, particularly amongst younger people, this change is gradual. So if you have a tattoo and want to visit an onsen, you should check if tattoos are allowed beforehand, or you may be turned away. In some cases, you can enter if your tattoo is covered up, and another option is to visit "ryokan" inns that have private baths, although you should still check to see if tattoos are allowed.

10. Japanese People Rarely Get “Kanji” Tattoos

Getting a “kanji” (Chinese characters) tattoo is a trend in the West and, although not unheard of, is not something that’s common in modern-day Japan.

While there is no one consensus of opinion in Japan, getting a tattoo of kanji characters can come across as baffling to many Japanese people. Kanji is just seen as an everyday part of life in Japan – as characters printed in books or posted as part of street and store signs. There are plenty of videos online of Japanese people being bewildered by kanji tattoos Westerners have gotten on their bodies.

11. Until Recently, a Medical License Was Required to Be a Tattoo Artist

Between 2001 to 2020, tattoo artists in Japan were required by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to have a medical license. This was because the Ministry considered the act of tattooing as having the "risk of harming health if not performed by a medical practitioner." So, for almost 20 years, things were very strict and difficult for Japanese tattoo artists.

In 2017, Osaka-based tattoo artist Taiki Masuda was found “not guilty” after he was accused of tattooing customers without a medical license. This case was considered the driving force for the Japanese Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the medical license requirement in 2020, citing that tattoos are a form of artistic expression and not a medical act.

The History of Tattoo in Japanese Culture Is Complicated but Interesting

Tattoos have had a long history in Japan spanning thousands of years – from the early settlers and tattoo bans to how it is today. But no matter the difficulties faced, this artistic way of self-expression has persisted. With the common perception of tattoos gradually changing in Japan as well, it is exciting to think about how this art form’s place in Japanese culture will evolve in the future.

Title image: BAZA Production /

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Jen Laforteza
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