Tattoos and Japanese Culture

In Japan today, tattooing is the art form that is most misunderstood. People with tattoos are considered misfits in this nation and are prohibited from most public places, including beaches, bathhouses, and even gyms. They have been looked down upon for generations and are rarely mentioned in social settings.

One must be aware of their historical importance to fully comprehend the stigma associated with tattoos in Japan. In 5000 B.C., during the Jomon era, clay sculptures showing motifs on the face and torso were the earliest evidence of tattoos. The History of the Chinese Dynasties dates from 300 A.D., with the earliest known documented mention of tattoos in Japan. In this literature, Japanese males would tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with tattoos, which became a common practice in their culture. However, tattoos acquired a more unfavorable reputation during the Kofun period, which lasted from 300 to 600 A.D.

Criminals began to be tattooed during this time period, similar to how enslaved individuals were tattooed with detailed language about their misdeeds under the Roman Empire. The shame associated with bodily alteration only worsened due to Japanese emperors assimilating numerous Chinese attitudes and cultural practices by the eighth century. The earliest instance of tattoos being explicitly used as a punishment dates back to 720 A.D., when criminals were tattooed on their foreheads to make it obvious to others that they had committed a crime. Only the most serious crimes qualified for these markers. People with tattoos were shunned by society and shunned by their families. After that, thanks to the Chinese literature Suikoden, which included heroic scenes with tattooed bodies, tattoos gained considerable notoriety throughout the Edo period.

Since it became so well-known, people started getting these tattoos as tangible representations of this novel’s illustrations. This custom later changed into the Japanese tattooing known as irezumi. Many woodblock artists would adapt their equipment for woodblock printing to start producing artwork on the skin due to this technique, which would have a huge influence. During this period, tattoos became in popularity as a status symbol. It is believed that affluent merchants could not wear jewelry to show off their wealth, so they covered their bodies with ink instead.

Other types of punishment had mostly taken the place of punitive tattooing by the 17th century. However, the possible explanation that tattooing was again linked to gangs was because of the ability of criminals to conceal these illicit tattoos with larger, more ornate decorative ones. The Yakuza started getting tattoos to demonstrate their loyalty to the group; however, in 1868, tattoos were again made illegal. The emperor once more outlawed tattoos during the Meiji period because he saw them as objectionable and savage and wished to westernize the nation.

It’s interesting to note that tattooing foreigners were exempt from this regulation. As a result, several tattoo parlors opened in Yokohama and started tattooing sailors, which drew some illustrious clientele from Europe. People with tattoos were viewed negatively and unruly during the 1936 war between Japan and China. As a result, tattooing was totally prohibited until 1946.

Tattooing is back in style in modern society. It now serves as both a fashion and a toughness signal. In the Japanese mindset, however, a stigma exists toward those who get tattoos. The intricate details and attention placed into each irezumi work will always remain a wonderful feature of body art exclusive to Japan. However, after looking at Japan’s turbulent history of tattoos, I can’t say if its new popularity may merely be a phase.