Japanese Tattoo

Japanese Tattoos: A Brief History

The History of Japanese Tattoos

In today’s world, tattoos are a normal part of our existence.

They are more accepted than ever in the past; tattoos are not only for the “outcasts” or “outlaws” like they were once portrayed.

Tattoos are symbolic to express oneself or hold a memory. 

As time progresses, they are only increasing in popularity, but tattoos do have an extensive history.

Culturally, tattoos are represented in different ways.


Japan has one of the oldest histories of tattoos, and surprisingly, their well-known vibrant style of tattoos is still struggling to be accepted within their society today.

Tattoos, better known as Irezumi in Japanese, can be traced back to 5000 BCE.

Dated back to this time were tattooed faces of clay figurines.

Men, women, and even children were tattooed for tribal and cosmetic reasons.

As time evolved, a shift began to develop on the viewpoint of tattoos.

Japan wanted to keep an image of a clean and civilized society.

Tattoos began to be a tactic to brand criminals for their crimes.

Certain symbols would be placed on the person’s forehead or forearm with the intent to make it permanently and publicly known for its wrongdoings.

These penal tattoos would deny these criminals from their family, friends, and community.

Tattoos eventually led to the affiliation with gangs and the Yakuzas, an organized gang that originated in Japan.

The Yakuza once believed that getting a permanent fixture, like a tattoo, was a sign of courage because it was a painful process.

A tattoo at that time was against the law, and the Yakuza prided themselves on being outlaws, so they wore it like a badge of honor.

As time progressed, the Yakuza’s views changed on inking themselves because they prefer not to have identifying marks for the purpose of “flying under the radar.”


Later on, a particular art style emerged called, Ukiyo-e, which translates to “pictures of the floating world.”

This style of art is also commonly known as woodblock prints.

Ukiyo-e is known for vibrantly depicting ordinary scenes of life, often illustrated were nature and animals.

This particular style of art attracted the lower social classes and inspired their tattoos.

Along with Ukiyo-e were written folklore heroes wearing their tattoos as spiritual protection.

Everyday heroes, like firefighters, adopted this same mentality, which led them to the tattoo parlor.

The increased interest in tattoos throughout the lower social classes led to the banning of Irezumi.

This forced tattoo artists to close up shop except for foreigners because technically, they were not part of the Japanese society.

The strict negative shadow that was cast over tattoos in Japan lasted for another 1000 years.

It wasn’t until the year 1948 that tattoos were deemed legal in Japan.

Japanese society still does not fully accept tattoos, and unfortunately, still to this day, they are struggling to shake that negative light.


Despite their negative connotation, people still choose to ink their bodies with this traditional style of tattoos.

Today, it is familiar to see tattoo artists use a needle when performing their craft, but that was not always the case.

Japan used a unique technique that surprisingly is still used today.

Those who want to stay authentic to Japanese tradition use a method called Tebori.

Tebori Tattoo

A long rod, called a nomi, is used to plunge ink into the skin with sharp needles.

The process is done by hand, and the client gets to experience the history of his tattoo experience.

Japanese tattoos are easily recognizable by their bold statement in their size but also in their colors.


Popular Japanese-style designs include koi fish tattoos, dragons, Japanese tiger tattoos, samurais, or geisha tattoos.

Woodblock prints still inspire designs that have nature, like cherry blossoms.

Traditionally these tattoos will be coupled with a bold color.

Japanese Tattoo Color Meanings

The combination of the design chosen and the color symbolizes a message that one would like to portray.

It is common for a client to pair old Japanese traditions with the trending aesthetic today.

In Japanese culture, each color signifies a different meaning.

White is a preferred color in Japan and symbolizes purity and truth, whereas pink is a popular color for femineity.

Red has many representations behind it.

The vibrancy of red can ward and protect against evil but can also represent happiness and joy.

Often found in Japanese celebratory events is the color red, but the color can also express passion and vitality.

Luck is associated with the color blue, but green represents life, energy, youth, and respect for the earth.

In ancient times, purple meant royalty.

The difficulty of creating the color caused it only to be accessible for the higher social classes.

The color yellow is a conflicting color.

The term “yellow voice” means a person has a shrill voice, but it can also represent prosperity, joy, and optimism.

It is essential to pair the right colors with the design so a whole story is told.

Different characters tell a different story.

If a client wants to exude prosperity, they will pick a koi fish.

Couple the koi fish with green and white; it brings the message together.

In comparison, dragons show strength and power. Red would be a perfect color to ward off evil with that strength.

Summing Up

Tattoos in Japanese history have represented many facets.

Tattoos were once seen as spiritual protection.

Other times, it is a symbol of going against the law.

Tattoos at one time branded criminals and shed light on one’s social status.

Strength, prosperity, and purity can be inked into one’s skin and worn with pride.

At war, even the samurais used it as identification after death from a battle.

No matter what the reason, Japanese tattoos have been around for centuries, and their style, vibrancy, and tradition will be around for many more.

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