A Namakubi tattoo is a striking site to behold, especially for someone living outside of Japan who does not understand the symbolism behind the imagery.
Namakubi roughly translates to “freshly severed head.”
A Namakubi tattoo is exactly that- an image of a freshly severed head.
There are those who may see these tattoos without understanding their backstory and assume they are meant to be for pure shock value.
As with most traditional Japanese tattoos, there is far more than meets the eye when it comes to this design.
The Namakubi tattoo is an incredibly popular choice all over the world, despite its grisly appearance.
To understand why someone would get a tattoo of a severed head, you must first understand ancient Japanese battle fields, and the Eastern way of looking at death.
First Things First
It is a fairly modern, western thing to see death as tragically as it tends to be portrayed.
In the West, there are constant medical advances made to extend life and to keep people alive, even when they are very ill.
Though every culture has their own funeral rites, and it is natural to be sad at someone’s passing, many traditions embrace death as a part of life.
Attitudes and rituals around death are changing in modern Japan, but there tends to be a romantic attitude toward someone’s passing.
One need only look at the revered image of a cherry blossom to see this romantic approach.
Cherry blossoms only bloom for a very short period in the spring, so they are often used to represent the fragility of life.
The light, airy, delicate petals serve as a reminder of the beauty of life and the inevitability of death.
Compare this to the European image of the grim reaper, or the popular American symbolism of the skull and crossbones.
So, while death is a sad occasion worldwide, it is generally less shocking and more acceptable in civilisations with a longer history.
What is Namakubi and what does it mean?
Many people get Namakubi mixed up with the Japanese Samurai tradition of Seppuku, also known as Harakiri.
Seppuku has been portrayed in both American and Japanese pop culture for a long time, so it is familiar to many people.
You may have seen references to Seppuku in a number of pieces of entertainment, including The 2013 film The Wolverine, the classic opera Madame Butterfly, and even on your TV screen on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In this tradition, a disgraced Samurai voluntarily disembowels themselves.
After completing this task, an assistant will finish the job by slicing through the Samurai’s neck.
The assistant, (known as the kaishakunin) leaves the head attached at the collarbone, so that it hangs on the body.
Namakubi, however, involves removing the head entirely.
And this is not an act of suicide, though it is an accepted consequence of losing a battle.
Both Seppuku and Namakubi have their origins in the warrior class of Feudal Japan- a historically bloody time period.
Samurai warriors took an oath known as Bushidô, which loosely translates to “Way of the Warrior.”
Samurai are sometimes referred to as “Bushi” because of this oath.
Samurai must be expected to die at any time.
If they lose a battle, it is tradition for the opposing team to gather their severed heads and present them to their ruler.
This may sound gruesome, but it is considered an act of respect to a fellow warrior.
It represents life coming full circle when it comes to an end.
Sometimes the severed heads would be presented in a pile, and other times they were hung in trees on display.
If the head belonged to a person of great importance, it may be presented more formally.
In some cases the heads would be kept in ornate boxes as a type of shrine.
Namakubi Tattoo Styles
Irezumi is simply the Japanese word for “tattoo,” which may be used to refer to any type of art style or tattoo technique.
Traditionally, Japanese tattoos were applied by hand with a rod made of metal or wood.
This hand technique is known as Tebori.
It is a lengthy process, but those who have reverence for traditional Japanese tattoos may choose this technique when getting a Japanese design like Namakubi.
Namakubi may be drawn in a number of ways.
Most people opt for traditional Japanese line work, while others may opt for neo traditional art.
In a neo traditional design, the images have a modern “3D” effect with bold lines and an almost cartoon-ish appearance.
Many Namakubi tattoos portray Samurai heads, but others may opt for Geishas, or in some cases another character entirely.
Part of the fun of modern tattooing is to merge styles and work with your artist on something truly unique.
What do Namakubi tattoos symbolize?
Namakubi tattoos may symbolize respect for one’s enemies, or an acceptance of fate.
It may be a way to remind yourself that death is inevitable, and to enjoy life while it lasts while knowing it will all come to an end somehow.
They may also be a symbol of courage.
Remember, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s being afraid and moving forward anyway.
Warriors were not necessarily unafraid, they were simply ready to accept and work with their fear.
Namakubi Tattoo Ideas
A Namakubi tattoo is a deeply symbolic image, but may be shocking to some.
You may choose to get one somewhere discreet if you work with the public, or maybe you like shocking people!
Not sure why severed heads are all the rage in Japanese tattoo art?
Check out our gallery for some inspiration.
To read more about Japanese style tattoos, go to:
- Japanese Masks Tattoos
- Yokai Tattoos
- Kendo Tattoo
- Daikijin Tattoo
- Kokeshi Doll Tattoo
- Maneki Neko Tattoo
- Fujin Tattoos
- Nue Tattoo
- Kabuto Tattoo
- Ebisu Tattoo
- Karura and Garuda Tattoos
- Kirin Tattoos
- Fudo Myoo Tattoos
- Heikegani Tattoos
- Japanese Snake Tattoos
- Raijin Tattoos
- Foo Dog Tattoos