Japanese Tattoo Designs & Their History

It wasn’t until the 19th century when tattoos in Japan were elevated to the level of art [1]

History of Japanese Tattoo Designs

Japanese tattooing, or irezumi (入れ墨), is said to have originated around 10,000 BCE-300 CE, during the Jomon Period. Tattoos were often used in practical manners such as protection symbols or identification. Samurais in the 16th century emphasized the importance of tattooing as a means to identify ones body on the battlefield. In 1612, the Ainu, an indigenous tribe in the Hokkaido region, performed cosmetic tattoos for tribal and religious purposes.

Japanese tattoo designs most popular examples date back to between 1827 and 1830 with the discovery of a series of woodblock prints by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi called “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Water Margin.” 

However, modern Japanese tattoo designs are more closely related to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when tattooing was outlawed; commonly associated with criminals and devoted love interests. 

Japanese Tattoo Designs by Eric Jones - Tattoo Shop in Glendale - Chosen Art Tattoo

Japanese Tattoo Designs & Their Ties To Crime

During the Edo period (1603-1867), the Japanese government all but outlawed tattooing, naming it a “deterioration of public morals”. Despite these laws, common folk such as firemen and laborers continued the art. As history often tells us, there is a correlation in increased illegal activity following making something illegal.

Many continued tattooing in secret, including the Ainu people. Subsequently, this period also saw a rise in tattooing among members of the Yakuza, or gangs. Members of this gang sought tattoos as a means of showing ones courage through the pain. Yakuza or not, getting a tattoo during the Edo period made you an outlaw for all time. These individuals were also often ostracized from friends, family, and even barred from participating in community life.

In keeping with a low profile, modern day Yakuza members and gangs are avoiding tattoos.

Japans subsequent banning of tattoos rose from the need for maintaining a civilized and clean image. It wasn’t until 1948 the official bans on tattooing were lifted.

Today, while many continue to keep tattooing alive and well in Japan, stigmas rooted in the Edo period remain, with most refraining from getting visible tattoos.

Most Popular Japanese Tattoo Designs

Koi Fish Tattoo

While koi fish may seem calm and gentle, they have a bigger meaning in traditional Japanese tattoo designs. Koi fish symbolize determination. They can swim against the current, showing their patience and desire for success.

This is a great tattoo for anyone who has worked towards a goal despite hardships and delays. Much like the koi fish, your patience and determination will pay off in the end.

Dragon Tattoos

Americans tend to view dragons as the violent creatures used to keep the innocent princess locked up in her tower. But Japan has a different opinion – they see dragons as friendly animals who fight for the good of humanity.

Because a dragon uses their strength to bring positive changes, a Japanese dragon tattoo means wisdom as well as power. This would be a fitting tattoo for those who use their means to do what’s right.

Cherry Blossoms

When in full bloom, a cherry blossom tree is one of the most beautiful sights to behold on the planet Earth. Its reverence is tightly knit within Japanese culture that its name, “Sakura”, is among the most popular names for girls in Japan.

These trees represent both life’s beauty and its fragility since these trees are only in bloom for only a few short weeks a year.

Perhaps you need a daily reminder just how short life is so you must be mindful of the world around you – just enjoy the moment. Other forms a cherry blossom tattoo takes on is self-reflection, and appreciate all you have in this world.

Traditional Japanese Tattoo Designs

Wind and the Waves

Have you had to overcome more than your share of obstacles? Then the wind and waves might be a wonderful addition to your Japanese tattoo designs.

Japan has been affected by many tsunamis in their history. Each time a tsunami hits and destroys part of their country, they band together and rise up again. In Japanese culture, the wave tattoo symbolizes courage and determination to survive even in the most difficult situations.

Tigers and Foo Dogs

Similar to Americans, the Japanese see tigers as strong, protective animals. Tigers and foo dogs are both common images in traditional Japanese tattoo designs. If you visit Japan, you’ll also notice foo dogs in the entrance of shrines – and there’s a good reason for that!

Foo dogs are seen as protectors who ward off bad spirits and evil. Japanese tiger tattoos and foo dog tattoos represent those who fight to protect themselves and others. This makes it a great tattoo for those who have fought off their own personal demons.

White ink tattoos can be great additions to these Japanese tattoo designs; less noticeable and can show how your demons are fading into the background.

Behind the Symbolism of Japanese Tattoo Designs

Tattoos are a great way to express yourself and display some beautiful art. And with that comes their symbolism. Symbolism, especially Japanese symbolism, goes a long way when telling a story, as it is said. So be sure to chat with one of our tattoo artists today to determine what Japanese tattoo designs represent your story the best. 

To find out more about getting a few Japanese tattoo designs or to set up an appointment, fill out a consultation form today!

[1] “Tattoos in Japanese Prints” by Sarah E. Thompson


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