If you know anything about Japanese tattoos, you’ll know that it’s a general taboo to be tattooed, mostly because of the historical connection between tattoos and the local mafia, the Yakuza. But the real history behind Japan’s problems with tattoos is far more complex, and dates back several centuries to matters of policy and oppression, as well as artistic freedom. While tattoos are indeed largely associated with Yakuza because, well, there are plenty of Yakuza with extensive tattoos, Japan’s tradition tattoo culture (irezumi) did not begin with the Yakuza, and tattooing in Japan traces back to centuries before the Edo Period, when irezumi was born.

If this is your first exposure to the reality of sporting ink in Japan, you should know that Japan is, in general, quite conservative. And when it comes to tattoos, many establishments are downright intolerant. The modern-day stigma against tattoos is rooted partially in Yakuza-themed movies (gangster films) common in the 70s, and reality. But Japan’s tattoos are more than just a common marker for Japanese gangsters.

When did Japan’s tattoo culture start?

The earliest tattoos in Japan’s history may actually be traced to their pre-history, during the Jomon Period (14,000 BCE-300 BCE). Early sculptures of people were found to depict carved lines across their faces, although it’s not clear whether these lines would suggest pigmentation or scarification. Modern-day exhibits have tried to depict what these early tattoos might have looked like, and they’re reminiscent of ancient Polynesian traditional art.

There’s a large gap in history between then and the next mention of Japanese tattoo culture, from a Chinese primary source dated to the Yayoi Period (300 BCE – 300 AD), wherein Japanese men are remarked to sport face and upper body tattoos. However, conflicting information is noted in Japan’s oldest surviving historical text, the Nihon shoki, which explains that only the Ainu, a Northern indigenous minority in Hokkaido and Russia, had tattoos.

Over the next few centuries, tattoos were mainly mentioned as brands used to mark petty criminals. However, the practice continued to be central to Ainu culture, where women in particular traditionally wore facial tattoos.

The tattoos commonly associated with the Yakuza today did not come into existence until the Edo period, a time of peace during which the ruling military class maintained strict isolationist policies, and a caste system. During this time of isolation and general peace, past eras were romanticized and artforms grew, particularly Japanese theatre (kabuki) and woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). Believed to grow simultaneously to theatre and painting, tattooing became more common, and talented ukiyo-e artists began ‘carving’ their art into special clientele, particularly wealthy merchants who were on the lower end of the social strata, and were not allowed to flaunt their wealth any other way.

Other clients included dock workers, carpenters, firefighters, and other workers who sought spiritual protection against the elements. Common motifs included scenes from plays and novels that were highly popular at the time, as well as Japanese folklore, with tales of Kintoki the youngster wrestling a giant carp, or the red koi climbing up a waterfall, or the rising dragon, as well as other fantastical creatures described largely in Chinese and Japanese tales, such as tigers (which were not seen in Japan at the time). These artworks were often copied temporarily onto actors on stage, and in turn refined on prints, and eventually improved on skin. Over time, they became more complex, and developed into the images we see so often today – of fantastical full-body artworks, telling a story recounted in an old poem or novel.

Where tattoos always taboo in Japanese culture?

While tattoos became popular during the Edo period among lower classes, they were not, in fact, accepted by the ruling class. Tattoos were a way for merchants to proudly wear their wealth in a manner that could be hidden, due to edicts from the military forbidding the display of wealth as merchants grew more powerful. At the time, the Chinese novel “The Water Margin” accompanied the growing popularity of woodblock prints, due to its fantastical motifs and central plot elements of rebellion and romantic outlaws. This struck a chord in a society that was both increasingly hedonistic yet kept under control by an oppressive caste system.

As a result, irezumi was banned. However, that didn’t stop the practice from continuing – it simply had to do so in secret, enduring shame and sporadic law enforcement. For a while, it seemed that tattoos would simply continue to exist within the grey area of the law, illegal yet de facto widespread – until Japan received a knock on the door from Western forces.

Realizing that a long period spent isolated from the rest of the world meant facing potential colonialization by sea-faring armies with heavy weapons and steam power, Japan shifted into the Meiji Restoration, signaling a massive shift away from the shogunate and the Edo Period, and towards Westernization – the samurai were stripped of their power and their arms, and society adopted Western suits and customs, in order to signal that Japanese society was ‘civilized’. Part of the image cleanup to avoid colonialization included a much more stringent ban on tattoos.

While irezumi went underground, other parts of the nation were more vocal about these bans, particularly the minorities in Okinawa and Hokkaido, were women were traditionally tattooed and did not want to give up their traditions. Enforcement of the tattoo ban was also laxer in urban areas, as the Meiji Restoration also gave the government a reason to assimilate and homogenize Japanese society, and further subjugate indigenous minorities. Today, only an estimated 24,000 ethnic Ainu still exist, and it’s estimated that only 10 living people speak the Ainu language.

After the Second World War, under American control, reforms eventually led to the legalization of tattoos. However, decades spent trying to stamp the practice out meant that it had a long way before it could be popular again, and in the years following WWII, most traditionally tattooed people were those who previously lived in Japan’s underworld, when the artform was no longer accepted.

20th century media further served to strengthen the stereotype of the tattooed gangster, and led to a classic case of life-imitates-art, wherein the Yakuza continued to seek out traditional irezumi artists in order to adorn themselves in a work of art that matches their history and temperament, while the mainstream became increasingly wary of tattoos, associating them strictly with criminality in some cases.

What about today?

Although tattoos are still largely associated with the Yakuza, and many families continue to seek the services of traditionally trained irezumi artists (such as the great Horiyoshi III), Western influences have begun to soften the image of the tattoo, particularly among tourists, and Japan’s youth. However, many still seek the services of a traditional irezumi artist.

Irezumi artists (and their Yakuza clientele) insist on separating traditional Japanese tattoo art from “Western-style” tattoos, known as yobori (“Yo-style tattoos”). Today’s irezumi artists do their art by hand, using four-pronged wooden sticks to prick the skin and insert their inks. Full body irezumi tattoos can take up to five years of regular sessions to complete, costing upwards of $30,000. These tattoos are not solely at the discretion of the customer, but nor are they purely the artist’s choice, as they were during the Edo Period.

Instead, potential customers are interviewed in order to determine what kind of motif and art would best describe their character and core values. Common motifs such as the rising red koi signify a struggle against overwhelming odds, while elements such as boulders and bamboo are used to signify strength and stability, or flexibility.

For the Yakuza of old, as well as many modern newcomers to the organization, getting a full body irezumi is both a way of expressing oneself, as well as a status symbol. Some young recruitees are lured into the organization with a promise of receiving a tattoo that they would then work to pay for.

Yakuza are aware of the negative connotations of the tattoo, and some elect to abandon the tradition. In all cases, however, an irezumi is traditionally meant to be hidden – only unveiled in special occasions, or in private. That is why many irezumi artists refuse to tattoo beyond the ankles, wrists, and neck, so their customers could always keep their art in secret, and admire it in the shadows, as it traditionally had been during the Edo Period.