Five things you didn’t know about tattoos in Japan
By Miho Kawasaki
1. They were symbols of pride
When Tokyo was still known as Edo, the city was haunted by recurring and destructive fires. In order to combat the flames, the authorities appointed nimble construction workers as firemen. Their readiness to risk life and limb to protect the city made them heroes in the eyes of the townsfolk, and tattoos (‘horimono’) became symbols of these men’s pride.
2. The bigger the tattoo, the better the fireman
Of course, whether or not to decorate one’s skin was a personal choice, but the prevalent attitude was that the better you were at your job, the more impressive tattoos you had. Tattoos required guts and pain tolerance, and were thus recognised as signs of manliness and bravery. Death in the line of duty wasn’t uncommon for firemen either, so the tattoos also helped families identify their loved ones.
3. Ukiyo-e served as inspiration
This period of time also marked the height of popularity for ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s art, with his defiant, witty prints eagerly embraced by commoners. Ukiyo-e promptly came to form the basis of Japanese tattoo culture. This is also why traditional tattoo artists continue to be known as ‘horishi’, the word originally used for woodblock carvers.
4. The body told a story
Japanese tattooing is distinguished by its bold designs, which use the entire body to tell a single story and often features elaborate backgrounds (‘gakubori’). These create a sense of depth and drama around the central motif, using waves, clouds, wind, thunder, rocks and the like to express nature, and animals and plants to denote the seasons.
5. Old traditions are still at play
Western-style tattoos came to be accepted by the youth after World War II. But although Japanese tattoo culture has come a long way from the free-spirited firemen of Edo and these days incorporates more modern designs, it maintains an acute sense of tradition. For example, the technique of tattooing done entirely by hand (‘tebori’) is still practised by horishi specialising in traditional methods.
Where to get inked
Visit the Bunshin Tattoo Museum
Curated by Horiyoshi III (pictured above in his younger years), a renowned master of traditional Japanese tattooing, this private collection is packed with materials related to the culture, customs, history and present-day state of skin art. Here are a few things you’ll learn when you visit:
–The word ‘bunshin’, which appears in some of the earliest official records of Japanese history, is the ancient word for tattoos.
–Prehistoric clay figurines discovered in the country testify to the fact that primitive-pattern tattoos existed before the Common Era.
–While the Edo period gave birth to a vivid tattoo culture described as ‘living ukiyo-e’, several factors led to skin art being viewed in a negative light (hence the banning of tattoos in onsen). These factors include the use of tattoos as a form of punishment, laws banning them, the assumed connection between tattoos and organised crime (which grew out of the ’60s yakuza film boom) and the influence of Confucian morality. Standing against such prejudice, the Bunshin collection shines a light on millennia of tattoo history, as well as on the global tattoo moment of today.