Traditional Japanese Tattoo Meanings
Tattooing has been around for centuries in Japan. Some even say it dates back to 10,000 B.C.
However it was not until what is known as the Edo period (~1600-1868 AD) where the Japanese tattooing developed closer into what is today. It really became an advanced art form. Woodblock artists began using Nara black ink and using the same tools they did with wood to put their designs into human skin. They even used the same chisels they did on the wood…ouch!
Because of the many different elements, there are several traditional Japanese tattoo meanings. Irezumi refers to any of the many forms of traditional Japanese tattooing. In 1868, the Japanese government actually banned tattoos to try and improve its image with the West and so tattoos became to be associated with criminals. They became especially linked to the famous mafia, yakuza however many travelers went to Japan seeking out these Japanese masters underground including the famous Sailor Jerry.
In 1948 tattooing in Japan was once again legal but it continued to have a negative connotation. In recent years tattoos in Japan are regaining their popularity but because of the suppression from the government there are not as many shops as one might think.
While most tattoos are being done by the modern needle gun, there are still some tattoo artist that specialize in traditional Japanese method. These artist might be difficult to find but are highly sought after. A traditional Japanese body suit could costs more than $30,000 and take up to 5 years of weekly visits. That’s dedication!
After spending many years training under a master these traditional artists use wooden handles with metal needles attached by silk thread. This painful process works similarly to other tattoos where the artists completes the outline in one sitting. The customer then goes back for color and shading sessions. Unlike western culture, where the customer usually gets exactly what they want, there is a little more back and forth with the artist on the design of the tattoo.
Some common terms used in Japanese tattooing can be found here.
Japanese Tattoo Symbols
Originating in China, the Koi fish has become widely popular in the Japanese tattoo culture for its masculine and positive qualities. It is more than just a colorful fish. There are many stories that have elevated this fish’ status. Some say if it is caught in the wild it will await a knife on the cutting board without a shudder.
The koi is one of the most popular elements in traditional Japanese tattooing for its beauty and symbolic meaning.
Some say tigers are able to fend off bad luck, illness and demons. They are thought to be the ultimate land animal. They are often shown fighting demons and said to represent the fall and winds.
Karashishi “Lion Dog”
You might see many names for this “Lion of Buddha” including Foo dog, Fu Lion, Fu dog, Fo lion or Lion Dog. This character is used widely in Asian art. Starting in the Han dynasty (206 BC) statues of these animals stood guard by palaces, tombs, and homes and were thought to have powerful protective powers.
These Foo dogs are shown in pairs. Males represent the yin and are presented with their right paw on a geometrically embroidered sphere. Females represent the yang and have a cub under their left paw representing the circle of life. The symbolism tells of the female guarding the souls inside the home while the male guards the actual home itself.
This is just one of many masks used in Noh theater. It originally represented a jealous female serpent. The mask is used to show complex human emotion and is said to be sorrowful yet demonic. It often appears to be sobbing depending on which angle the mask is facing.
Different skin tones are used to show the different emotions or social status. The deeper the color the more anger is represented. They also have two horns, fangs for teeth, and many strands of hair.
The phoenix has been a symbol in many different ancient cultures. It is often shown attacking snakes with its talons. Like the dragon, it is made up of many different animals: head of a golden pheasant, body of a mandarin duck, tail of a peacock, legs of a crane, mouth of a parrot and wings of a swallow.
The phoenix symbolizes the six celestial bodies: sky, sun, moon, wind, earth and planets with its different body parts. The fundamental colors black, white, red, green, and yellow are said to represent Confucius’ five virtues.
High virtue and grace come along with this mythical bird as well as the union of yin and yang.
Oriental dragons are much different from the fire-breathing dragons of the west that usually instill fear. They symbolize strength and wisdom for the people who bear them.
The head of the dragon is made up of many different animals and can vary widely. The hands are comprised of talons like those of birds of prey. The scales are similar to those of koi, belly of a snake, ears of a cow and horns of a stag. The more color shown in the scales of the dragon also shows the dragon’s age.
The dragons are also usually shown as compassionate as opposed to being portrayed as malicious. They can also be shown grasping items in their claws.
This horned demon is another popular symbol in modern Japanese tattoos. While their faces can vary, they usually have horns, and portrayed as ugly troll-like creatures with lots of hair. They can also have unnatural number of certain features like eye or fingers.
The color of their skin is primarily shown as red or blue. The Oni was said to have originated from a Chinese concept known as the “demon gate” where evil spirits passed. The Oni is also usually wearing a tiger-skin loincloth.
In recent times Oni are thought to have more of a defensive function fending off bad luck instead of taking on their original malicious intent.
This skull is actually meant as a celebration of life instead of what you might think as death or fear. In ancient times it was meant to celebrate great changes. Some say its association with death might have grown out of the fact the death is the ultimate change.
It modern view is widely associated with negativity however its true meaning is quite the opposite.
Namakubi “Severed Head”
Decapitation, unfortunately was a common punishment in Japan. It is said Samurai were allowed to decapitate other cowardly soldiers who fled the battle field.
It has many meanings with it comes to tattooing. Taking a persons head is often done with respect, and besides a form of punishment may also symbolize courage, a warning or just as a symbol of fear.
Snakes are one of the most supernatural animals that exist and are often said to have many abilities such as protection against many evils or since when things are not going well. Many mythical tales surround the snake, good and evil.
They have been used in many ancient tales as guardians or protecting humans and bringing them gifts. It has also been linked with wisdom and even good fortune!
They are commonly used as a tattoo element for strength and its protection abilities.
This flower is said to bring elegance and wealth to its beholder. The peony is a complex flower commonly used in Japanese tattooing and considered one of the best. It can be portrayed in many different colors.
An alternate meaning of this flower is having a risky, masculine and devilish attitude.
The lotus is represented in many Asian religions with meanings varying. It modern tattoos the flower has come to represent religion and life itself. Some say it represents life from its most basic form.
Lotus flowers can often be found in ponds with koi fish so they are often represented together in tattoos.
Momiji “Maple Leaf”
These leaves are often shown being carried by the wind or water to symbolize the passage of time. It is commonly used to create canopies over certain areas of the tattoo.
They can also represent regeneration/ revival with the changing of the seasons. As the trees lose all of their remaining leaves in the fall and then bounce back to life in the spring the four season often symbolize the circle of life and death.
At least one Japanese emperor adopted this flower as the seal of his family. The “solar flower” brings long life and happiness. Japan even has a day dedicated to this flower National Chrysanthemum Day.
The flower blooms from autumn to winter and symbolizes simplicity and excellence in China. The chrysanthemum is one of just a few elements in Japanese tattoos that make the tattoos themselves seem complex than they really are.
This flower is said to bring a long, complete and happy life.
Sakura “Cherry Blossom”
This is the flower of the spring and often appears with other flowers in tattoo artwork. The fragility of the blossom itself is often compared to the fragility to life itself. This flower is a common element in Japanese tattoos are held in high regard.
These flowers are often recognized as a good omen as well as represent life, death, love and beauty.