Japanese Tattoos: What’s in a Name?
Continuing our series on Asian Tattoos, we look at the traditional art of inking in Japan.
Haven’t checked out the rest of our Asian Tattoos series? Start here: Tattoos of Asia: A Treasure Trove of Ancient Cultural Traditions
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Traditional Japanese tattoos are usually referred to as ‘Irezumi’. In reality, the word ‘Irezumi’ simply means tattooing in Japanese, or more specifically, refers to the inserting of ink under the skin to leave a permanent mark.
Put simply, Irezumi refers to all kinds of tattooing, and not a specific style of Japanese tattoo. Other words used for tattooing in Japan include ‘horimono’, meaning ‘things that are engraved’, and ‘tebori’, meaning ‘hand engraved’. Tebori is also commonly used to refer to western tattoos.
Traditional Japanese tattoos are called ‘wabori’, where the ‘wa’ means Japanese.
So as with a lot of borrowed words, while an ‘Irezumi tattoo’ means a traditional tattoo to the rest of us, in Japan it would translate to ‘tattoo tattoo’ – a common feature of linguistic and cultural differences!
Head on over to jhaiho.com to book your tattoo appointment and get yourself a wabori (or tebori!) tattoo today.
Japanese Tattoos: A Brief History
Tattooing has existed traditionally all over the world, yet each place has its own history.
Jump into the world of tattooing with A Story of Ink: Where the Art of Tattooing Began.
In Japan, as with many other East Asian countries, tattooing had a period of suppression due it being associated with sin and criminality – many thought of tattooing as ‘defacing’ our god-given bodies, while others thought tattoos meant you belonged to the Japanese mafia called ‘yakuza’.
Eventually, full-body tattoos became known as ‘yakuza tattoos’, and tattooing itself was frowned upon and severely judged.
When the British aristocracy came across tattooing, however, it was love at first sight! Kings and queens began getting what they called ‘Irezumi tattoos’ and it soon became fashionable to wear popular designs, such as serpent tattoos on visible spots such as the wrist.
Check out the history of snake and dragon tattoos at Dragon Tattoos and their Meanings.
When class came into play, however, it fell out of fashion to be wearing tattoos that commoners were also wearing, and soon the British elite had to cover up their tattoos to maintain their social status. Talk about a wild ride!
Eventually, tattooing became mainstream enough that the stigma began to fade away. Japanese tattoo designs became known for their ability to tell stories through art, and soon were combined with the blackwork and tribal styles of Polynesia to create the classic old-school American style – and the rest, as they say, is history!
Read more about the history of Polynesian Tattoos at Polynesia and the Tale of Tribal Tattooing.
Japanese Tattoo Designs and Meanings
Dragons and Tigers: A Dance of Balance
The most common Japanese tattoo designs are dragons and tigers – often both together!
The tiger and dragon represent balance in East Asian cultures and are associated with yin and yang. While the dragon represents the feminine yin energy, associated with patience, wisdom, and creativity, the tiger represents the masculine yang energy, associated with strength, ferocity, and protection.
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Want more inspiration? Headon over to Dragon Tattoos and their Meanings.
The dragon also links to royalty, since it was a symbol of the emperor and was thought to bring abundance and peace to the land, while the tiger was thought to bring health and wealth to one’s family and descendents. Both the Japanese dragon and tiger feature prominently in Japanese sleeve tattoos.
Find more inspiration at Tiger Tattoos and their Meanings.
The duality of tiger versus dragon has inspired artists to create similar pieces in various other styles. For instance, this Shiva tattoo includes a tiger and a cobra, animals commonly associated with this deity and representing ferocity and inner peace respectively.
Japanese Koi Fish Tattoos
Koi fish are another animal popularly found in Japanese tattoos. They represent change and the ability to overcome adversity, which also makes them quite popular as a coverup tattoo!
Japanese Tattoos and Flowers
Traditional Japanese tattoos also often feature nature as the backdrop. Waves are usually found in the popular dragon and tiger tattoos. Flowers are also commonly found in Irezumi designs – both wabori and tebori! The most popular? Why Japanese cherry blossoms, of course!
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While back pieces are the best to depict a full story, many Japanese tattoos are also inked on the arms, most often as sleeves. This koi fish and flower piece sits perfectly on the bicep!
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Japanese Script Tattoos: What is Kanji?
The other common Japanese tattoo is a kanji tattoo. Kanji are Japanese characters that are borrowed from Chinese script.
Japanese script tattoos are extremely popular in new school tattoos, such as brushstroke and graffiti tattoos.
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As popular as they are, they also form a bulk of regret tattoos since most people do not get the right character tattooed. Kanji characters can often have multiple meanings depending on use and context, and they are usually so intricate that only a native speaker would get them right.
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When getting a script tattoo, you always run the risk of a spelling error. But with Kanji, you risk a lot worse! So if you plan to get a Japanese tattoo with Kanji (or any Japanese tattoo with letters!), make sure you run it by a person who is proficient in the language before you permanently ink it on your body.
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Japanese Warrior Tattoos
Japanese tattoos featuring samurai and warriors are also a favourite. After all, the idea of a warrior dedicated to their code of honour is one that is inspirational to everyone!
While a sleeve is quite a commitment, it is definitely one of the best options for a Japanese warrior tattoo!
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Japanese Mask Tattoos: Oni or Hannya?
Samurai often wore an ‘oni’ or demon mask, which has also found its way into tattoo culture.
Oni are male demons that punish evil-doers and spread disease. While they are generally thought to be evil, some Oni are seen as protectors of the innocent and good.
Samurai wore Oni masks for two reasons – the more obvious reason is to protect their identity, but the second and more important reason was that it would strike fear in their opponents.
Another mask that has become popular as a tattoo is the Hannya mask. It represents a woman so full of envy and vengeance that she turns into a demon and this distorts her face – now that’s dark!
The Hannya mask is still used in Shinto ceremonial practices and in Japanese theatre. It has become a popular design even with other styles of tattooing. Check out these new school hannya mask tattoos!
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Beyond Japan: Drawing Inspiration from the East
Many artists draw on Japanese tattoos for inspiration, whether this be for their design or their style of tattooing.
The phoenix is a common design in East Asian tattoos and has been adapted to match many different styles over the years. A mythical bird known for its ability to be reborn from its own flames, the phoenix represents renewal and eternal life, concepts that are very important in East Asian spirituality.
So if you find a Japanese tattoo design you like but want to add your own twist to it, get yourself a nice fusion design customized!
Head on over to jhaiho.com to book your tattoo appointment and get inked today!
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Looking for more tattoo inspiration? Check out our other posts!
- Tattoos of Asia: A Treasure Trove of Ancient Cultural Traditions
- A Story of Ink: Where the Art of Tattooing Began
- Tiger Tattoos and their Meanings
- Dragon Tattoos and their Meanings
- Polynesia and the Tale of Tribal Tattooing
- Tattoo Artists in Bangalore: Finding the Best Artists in Town
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