Most popular Japanese tattoo designs are based in ancient Japanese folklore.
Sometimes the images are religious symbols belonging to either the Shinto or Buddhist tradition.
Sometimes they are the stuff of myth, or traditional Noh theatre productions.
Often times, they will be a combination of myth, theatrical imagery, and religious symbols.
In the case of the Heikegani, this little mystical creature is something you can hold in your hands (just beware of their pincers!)
The Heikegani crab is something that exists on this earthly plane, but is considered a supernatural being.
The ghastly centuries old history of this little crab’s legend is truly compelling.
To this day, people in Japan pay homage to these crustaceans and the Samurai spirits they are said to have originated from.
Heikegani tattoos are a popular design due to this exciting tale.
Let’s explore the ancient, brutal, and cinematic history behind the legend of Heikegani crabs.
Where did Heikegani Tattoos Originate?
The Legend of the Heikegani, like most legends, can be traced back to an ancient battle.
There are many stories that originated from the Genpei War- a 5 year battle between two opposing Japanese clans in the 12th century.
The clans were known as the Minamoto and the Taira, who were later referred to as the Heike.
On April 25th, 1185 the battle came to a bitter end. The Taira (aka Heiki) were outnumbered by the Minamoto, and the Taira’s emperor- who was a 7 year old child- drowned.
The Taira Samurai were overcome with grief and they refused to die in dishonor at the hands of their enemies.
They chose instead to commit suicide by jumping into the freezing cold sea.
It is said that their bodies became food for the crabs that lay at the bottom of that sea.
In the years that followed, Japan was under Shogun rule for 700 years as a result of the battle.
During this time, tattoos became popular with working class people.
Heikegani crabs, also known as Samurai crabs, became a popular image in artwork and Irezumi during this time.
This is due to strange markings on the crabs backs that resemble angry Samurai faces.
Legend has it that the Samurai who lost their lives in that battle were reincarnated as the crabs who ate their remains.
To this day, ancestors of the Heike Samurai gather at the Dan-no-ura bay, where the battle was fought, on the 24th of April.
They cast nets to catch crabs, throwing back any with the Samurai face markings.
Symbolism of Heikegani Tattoos
Obviously a Heikegani tattoo would have the most meaning to descendants of the Heike clan.
It may also be chosen as a symbolism of honor and defiance.
Crabs are associated with the moon and all its mysteries in several cultures.
They are also associated with defensiveness, resilience and adaptability.
As a totem animal in Native American traditions, crabs are seen as sensitive and shy while being incredibly strong and able to defend themselves.
Common themes in Heikegani Tattoos
Typically in a Heikegani tattoo, you are seeing the crab from a “bird’s eye view” to see the markings on its back.
Most often the face on the back is exaggerated from the Heikegani crabs you would find on Japan’s inland sea- making for a more cartoonish appearance.
Colours are typically shades of blue, aqua, green or coral- any colours associated with the sea.
Because the Heikegani tattoo is such a striking image and shape, it often stands on its own as a tattoo.
You may choose to add some embellishments to your Samurai crab tattoo such as waves, or other maritime imagery.
How to Choose your Heikegani Tattoo
Think about what Heikegani means to you.
Why are you choosing this particular image?
With so much crabby folklore available from so many cultures, you may want to choose something close to home.
Remember also that the Samurai spirit in the Heikegani is angry.
How does that anger resonate with you?
Perhaps you’re someone who can get carried away with your emotions, and you want a reminder to keep that side of yourself honorable.
Maybe you’re soft and vulnerable like a crab and want to remind yourself that you’ve got to put on that tough shell once in a while, and fight for what you believe in.
Heikegani Tattoo Ideas
Still not sure if you’re the right candidate for this bad-ass tattoo?
Take a look at some of our favorite Heikegani pieces and decide for yourself!
The Heikegani is such a unique legend in that it has everything!
A tragic death during a long battle, defiant Samurai who die for what they believe in, and a tangible earthly reminder of the tale.
Looking at the eery markings on the back of the Heikegani crab, it’s no wonder people have been fascinated with this little creature for hundreds of years.
To read more about Japanese style tattoos, go to:
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- Kendo Tattoo
- Daikijin Tattoo
- Kokeshi Doll Tattoo
- Maneki Neko Tattoo
- Fujin Tattoos
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- Karura and Garuda Tattoos
- Kirin Tattoos
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- Nue Tattoos
- Japanese Snake Tattoos
- Raijin Tattoos
- Foo Dog Tattoos
- Hannya Mask Tattoos
- Japanese Dragon Tattoos