Oriental Irezumi and Occidental Tattooing in Contemporary Japan

:: from BME Magazine
by Helena Burton, helenaburton@hotmail.com , Oxford University.

Horioshi III
Horiyoshi III


Recently throughout the Western World, there has been an
increase in the popularity of body modifications. It is
common for young people to pierce their ears, noses,
eyebrows etc. and to tattoo themselves, and in Europe and
America this practice has often been referred to as neo-tribal
or modern-primitive. It is easy to see where these
terms arose from in cultures with no indigenous history of
tattooing and piercing. The first tattoos arrived in the
West on the arms of sailors from Polynesia and even the word
tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tatau which
mimics the sound made by a little wooden hammer as it taps
small needles under the skin. Tattooing throughout the world
has become very popular recently, with tattoo shops in most
English cities and a diminishing social stigma attached to
the act of being tattooed. The culture has also become more
globalised than previously and many designs these days are
borrowed from all around the world. In the front window of a
tattoo shop in the UK one might easily see a Japanese
Koi carp design next to a Celtic cross and a Hindu
prayer. Tattooing in the west has simply grown from its
comparatively recent introduction into a large and wide-ranging
art form with little hindrance.

This surge in interest in body modification, like punk
culture and Western music before it, has also hit in Japan.
However, Japan has a long and varied history of tattooing
and traditional irezumi (insertion of ink) or more
politely horimono (engraved thing) has deep
associations with criminality and the yakuza
(Japanese Mafia). In Japan, tattooing is not considered to
be a foreign, primitive habit, it has been a part of their
culture since at least 500BC and although it has long been
frowned upon and has suffered several periods of
prohibition, a properly executed Japanese tattoo is beyond
comparison in complexity and history.

It is interesting to note, however, that the recent surge of
interest in body design in Japan does not seem to be
continuing the Japanese traditions. Rather than meticulously
hand-pricked large, flowing, Japanese designs, young people
in Japan, particularly those involved in
bosôzoku (speed tribes) or other anti-establishment
youth groups are opting to be tattooed with
small Western style designs such as Disney characters,
skulls and crossbones, bleeding hearts or modernised
versions of Japanese designs. They call these decorations,
irezumi” or “tatu” using the Western word but
never “horimono” which is a word reserved for
traditional hand-pricked designs by horishi (master
tattooists). They also refer to these decorations as
wan-pointo” because instead of using the whole body
as a canvas these small tattoos cover only one point on the

Throughout this study, irezumi will be used to refer
to Japanese traditional tattooing, tatu will be used
to refer to Western style wan-pointo tattooing as practiced
in Japan and the word “tattoo” will be used to refer to
tattooing in general and to Western style tattooing as
practiced in the West.

It is more common recently even if one does opt to be
tattooed with a Japanese design to be tattooed with an
electric tattoo machine rather than by hand. This is less
time consuming and considerably less expensive although it
is apparently slightly more painful. I have met several
yakuza who were receiving full body tattoos in order
to show both commitment to the group (nakama) and
also to prove their manliness (otokorashisa), which
are fairly traditional reasons for wanting irezumi.
But these yakuza did not see the importance of
traditional techniques and had instead gone to their local
high street tattooist and picked a design out of a book, to
be tattooed into their backs over a couple of weeks. Since a
true horishi may spend several months consulting with
the client about designs before inserting the design by hand
over the course of two to ten years, one can see the
attraction of “tatu” over “irezumi“.

Since all these changes in tattooing methods, designs and
public awareness of the art form are occurring in
contemporary Japan it is impossible to say what the outcome
will be and there is scarcity of literature on the subject.
However, the purpose of this study is to examine the history
of Japanese irezumi and to try to ascertain how and
when Western culture entered the art form and to what extent
the two cultures and communities of irezumi and
tatu are merging. It is interesting to see whether
irezumi is dying out as a result of tatu and
whether Japanese society has changed its attitudes in its
general disapproval of skin art and its presumption of
yakuza associations.

Since the availability of books on the subject is very poor
and with the exception of one book by Morita Ichiro and
several magazines, I was unable to find any texts discussing
the subject in Japanese, I undertook my own research in
Japan over the course of a year.

My original intention was to interview several tatu
artists and several horishi and to distribute
questionnaires amongst their clients. However I encountered
several problems, the first of which involved simply
locating the artists. Although tatu artists were
fairly easy to locate and pleasant to talk to,
horishi in both Yokohama and Hiroshima were too
busy, they said, to spare me even ten minutes. Likewise, one
or two of the yakuza whom I tried to interview in
tatu studios were rather monosyllabic and one even
refused to talk to me at all. Fortunately in this case, the
man’s wife was more than happy to talk to me about her
husband’s opinions.

I also found that although some of the sixty questionnaires
which I received back were extremely eloquent, others were
rather defensive and formal. I discovered to my surprise
that some of the most useful research I undertook was to
work in a hostess bar outside Hiroshima. Here, without the
knowledge that I was making an anthropological study, my
informants happily showed me their tattoos, discussed their
motivations and told me interesting anecdotes in what
appeared to be a much less inhibited manner than a formal
interview situation. It was also a good opportunity to
discuss tatu and irezumi with non-tattooed
males from varied walks of life. This experience, together
with observing normal social activities with tattooed
friends in Japan, conducting three interviews and receiving
back sixty of my one hundred questionnaires, forms the bulk
of my personal research on which the latter part of this
dissertation is based.

I encountered further problems in my research when friends
disapproved of the study and other people were worried for
my safety amongst yakuza, but these issues will be
addressed in the chapter “Mainstream Social Attitudes”.

An Introduction to Irezumi.A traditional Japanese tattoo will usually cover the whole
body or at least a large proportion of it. While there are
several different patterns including the kame (turtle
back) the tattoo will usually extend from the neck to below
the buttocks and some portion of the arms and chest. Where a
client chooses to have only an arm and a shoulder tattooed,
he may ask for a katate-bori (single arm design),
however, the tattoo master will refer to it as a katate-ochi
(single arm omission) indicating that the only real
design is a complete body suit.

So embarking upon irezumi is a serious business
requiring a great deal of planning. First of all, one must
find a horishi, although some horishi these
days may have websites or distribute fliers, the more common
and old-fashioned method is to find a horishi through
an introduction from another client. One must then visit the
horishi who will decide whether or not to tattoo you.

In all cases the horishi is referred to as
Sensei (Master), it is his decision whether to go
through with the tattooing and throughout all further
meetings, matters proceed very formally with much bowing and
deference on the part of the client. Although the client
does get a say in which design he would like to have
tattooed, it will usually be chosen from a collection of
books, all hand drawn by the horishi from traditional
sources. Tigers, dragons, flowers, Koi carp, folk
heroes of the Suikoden or woodblock prints of the Edo
period are favourite themes. The client may have a new
design commissioned for him and this again adds to the time
and the effort involved in the acquisition of the tattoo.

Once a design is decided upon, the outline will be drawn
freehand on to the clients skin, originally with sumi
(ink) but these days, more probably with a felt tip pen, and
tattooing can begin. The tools used by the horishi
comprise wooden handles with metal hari (needles)
attached by silk thread in bundles varying from two to ten
depending on the thickness of the line to be incised. These
days, horishi such as Horiyoshi III (A world renowned
horishi with some forward thinking ideas) use tools
with metal clips instead of silk thread so that the needles
can be removed and the whole implement can be autoclaved to
prevent the spread of HIV and other blood born pathogens,
but otherwise the tools remain the same.

The tool is held in the right hand, a brush loaded with
sumi is held between the ring and the little fingers
of the left hand and the hari are brushed first
against the ink and then inserted under the skin. Once the
outline of the irezumi is completed the
horishi will begin to shade in the final design, this
process is called bokashi. There are several
techniques in this process, the first is called tsuki-hari
or imo-hari in which the needles are merely
stuck in and pulled out. This relatively simple technique
cannot guarantee a constant depth and so is usually used
only for filling in large areas of colour. To gain a more
gradual shading effect and precise control of the depth of
the needles a technique called hane-bari is used
where the needles are inserted at an angle and a sort of
jumping movement is used. There is a certain amount of blood
which oozes to the surface and is constantly wiped away by
the horishi but in general it is considered bad form for
more than a very small amount of blood to be seen.

The complete process of receiving irezumi can take up
to a year or even several years and the client will go back
every week or so whenever he has the time or the money to
get a little more of the design done. Since Horiyoshi III
who makes a special effort to keep prices low, to protect
the tradition, charges 10,000 yen an hour and each session
will last several hours, it is an expensive and time
consuming process. Usually over the course of the tattooing,
a bond will form between the horishi and his client
and clients will often come back to visit and to present
their horishi with gifts on special occasions once
their irezumi is finished. Horiyoshi III regularly
holds reunions for his clients and the photographs are to be
seen around the walls of his studio. It is largely because
of this closeness that horishis prefer to be careful
about whom they chose to tattoo.

It is notable that once the tattoo is completed, there seems
to be less of a belief that the client owns the tattoo and
more of a presumption that the client has become a piece of
the horishi‘s artwork. Joy Hendry commented in 1991
that “when I asked whether I could photograph his work and
therefore the bodies of his clients, that the decision to
allow me was his, totally without reference to the canvas.”

There is no doubt though, that once complete irezumi
is a work of art and the respect shown to the artist is not
exaggerated. The road to becoming an irezumi master
or horishi is itself long and arduous. Usually it is
a trade passed down from one’s father and from an early age
one becomes a deshi (apprentice). For perhaps the
first two or three years, the deshi will actually
live in the studio even if he is not blood family, taking
bookings for the horishi, cleaning, cooking and
arduously grinding the ink used for the tattoos in a process
known as heya-zumi (living in the room). During this
period and for many years afterwards the deshi will
be perfecting his own drawings and books of designs with
help from his master, before eventually being allowed to
tattoo daikon (radishes) and then to fill in the
blocks of colour on his masters clients. Only when he is
already an accomplished tattooist will the horishi
family name be conferred upon him. Horishi generally
exist in similar family groups to yakuza gangsters.
While there will be only one oyabun (parent/boss) in
an area, his apprentices upon maturity will take on the
family name and operate from separate studios in a similar
area. The adopted names of all horishi begin with the
character “horu” (to engrave or carve) and the second
part of their name will usually be taken from a part of
their or their master’s real name. So one would see
Horiyoshi of Yokohama, Horishi of Tokyo, Horibun and
Horiichi. In some cases the name will not change but the
deshi will simply become hori~ the second, third or
fourth. However, Hori~II’s son will always become Hori~III
ahead of any non-blood relatives who may have been his

Horiyoshi III was one special example where he received the
title of Horiyoshi III since Horiyoshi II did not have a
son. However, his struggle to become a deshi in the
first place is an example of the commitment and dedication
needed to join this elite group of artists.

When I was about 16, I wanted to try tattooing myself, so by
tying a silk needle onto the tip of a wooden chopstick with
thread, I had a try at tattooing my own body, a friend who
had seen this asked me to tattoo them and that's how I
started tattooing other people.

"When did you become an apprentice?"

First of all when I was 22, I wrote a letter to a
horishi in Asakusa saying that I wanted to become an
apprentice but I was refused, being told that they weren't
taking any apprentices. So I gave up, but I couldn't control
my desire to be a horishi no matter what. So I wrote
many letters to Horiyoshi's place in Yokohama, but I never
once got a reply. So, thinking "he's not replying to me so
I'll go straight there." I called on him. When I did so,
Horiyoshi II had just gone on a trip and Horiyoshi I asked
"Have you been making money for horimono locally?"
When I replied "yes a little" I was told "If you can earn
money you are already one of us, but even so, since you
lower yourself to say that you will become and apprentice
for no money that's great." So I got permission to become
his apprentice. By this time, I was 25.

16 sai no koro, to ni kaku jibun ni shisei wo irete
mitakute, waribashi no saki ni kinu wo ito de makitsuketa
yatsu de jibun no karada ni tameshi horishiteitara, sore wo
mita tomodachi ga horitte kurete iidashita, sore ga tanin ni
horiittehajimete dattan ne.

Deshi hairi wo sareta no wa itsu desu ka?

Mazu 22 sai no toki, Asakusa no horishisan ni deshi ni
naritaitte iu tegami wo kaita no da kedo,
kotowararechattanda yo ne. Deshi totte nai karatte. Sore de
akirametetanda kedo, dôshitemo horishi ni naritaitte
iu ganbô ga osaerarenakunachatte, sore de, Yokohama no
Horiyoshi no tokoro ni nando ka tegami wo kaita no da kedo
ikai ni henji ga konakattan da ne. Sore de "henji kurenain
da kara, chokusetsu ikô" tte omotte, tazunetan da yo.
Sôshitara, chôdô, nidaime ga tabi ni
deteta toki de, shôdai "omae ha jimoto, ja horimono de
kane wo totterun darô." To kikarete "Hai sukoshi." to
kotaetara "kane ga toreru nara mô ichinin mae da ha,
sore de mo aete, kane wo torenai deshi ni naritai to iun da
kara erai."tte iwarete, deshi ni naru koto wo kyoka shite
morattanda yo. Sore ga 25 sai no toki datta ne.

Although there have been some changes in the sterilisation
of tools, in the way in which horishi are more
inclined to discreetly advertise and even to the extent of
some artists now using an electric tattoo machine to
complete some of the outlines of their tattoos. The basic
rituals, methods and designs of irezumi have remained
unchanged for centuries. There is a culture of closed doors,
of doing things precisely according to tradition and of
preserving irezumi as an art form on the same level
as ikebana (flower arranging) or chadô
(Tea ceremony).

However, Western style tatu has experienced a huge
increase in popularity recently and whilst still unusual, it
is making increasing appearances among young people. The
effect that this is having on irezumi is at present
undocumented and the findings from my own research will be
discussed later in the chapter ” The Influence of Western
Tattooing on irezumi and the Influence of
irezumi on Western Tattooing.”

But with the growth of Western tattooing, the growth of
multi-media such as the Internet promoting global culture
and increasing Western interest in irezumi, there is
doubt as to whether this unique practice will continue to
exist in its traditional form. Indeed the boundaries between
East and West are already beginning to blur and changes in
designs and technique are evolving. However, irezumi
in one form or another has existed since ancient times and
has weathered many storms.

History.The first indication of tattooing in Japan seems to have
been found as early as 500BC.

"In 1977 a large tumulus mound was opened near Osaka and in
it were found two haniwa (clay images), whose faces
clearly indicate a depiction of tattooing. These are dated
as, at the latest, the fifth century BC"

Although the purpose of these tattoos is not known, prior to
this discovery, it was believed that the earliest mention of
Japanese tattooing was in the third century Chinese text
Wei Chih (The Wei Chronicles) where the Wa
(the Japanese) are described as follows.

"Men, young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate
their bodies with designs... the Wa, who are fond of diving
into water to get fish and shells also decorated their
bodies in order to keep away large fish and waterfowl."

Following this, it has been suggested by McCallum and
Stephen Mansfield that the nature of these tattoos was more
decorative than protective. The Chinese chronicle, the
San Kuo Chi (Account of the Three Kingdoms) compiled
in the third century tells of a certain inhabitants of the
Kingdom of Wa (Japan) being tattooed according to social
rank. Others apparently applied tattoos to ward off evil

However, this custom seems to have faded and the next
references to tattooing appear in the Nihonshoki,
compiled in the year 720. It tells of a young man named
Azumi no Muraji who was tattooed on the face as punishment
for treason.

The Emperor summoned before him Hamako Muraji of Azumi and
commanded him saying: you plotted rebellion and your offence
is deserving of death. I will however, exercise great bounty
and remitting the penalty of death, sentence you to be

The Chinese and Japanese by now disapproved of tattooing, or
indeed any puncturing of the skin as it disrespected their
Confucian ideals of filial piety. One should not pierce the
body given to you by your parents and so to tattoo somebody
was necessarily to set them apart from the community. In a
country like Japan where the group is very important, social
ostracism was the worst form of punishment. Both Mansfield
and Richie and Buruma make reference to a complex vocabulary
of criminal tattoos emerging by the 17th century. Criminals
found guilty of their third offence in Chikuzen in Northern
Kyûshu for example, had their foreheads tattooed with
the character inu (dog). In Satsuma in Southern
Kyûshu a circle was tattooed near the left shoulder,
in Kyoto a double bar was tattooed on the upper arm and in
Nara a double line encircled the biceps of the right arm.

However, this sort of identification tattooing was not
reserved only for criminals but also for the lower classes.
The Hinin (outcast clan, lit. non-people), those who
worked with criminals, executioners and gravediggers were
tattooed. Later the burakumin (village people)
sometimes known as eta who worked as slaughterers or
tanners and engaged in unpopular work were also tattooed,
although they were tattooed only on the arms and they were
not tattooed as punishment, but more it is thought, so that
society was able to keep track of them. So it seems that
tattooing in Japan has always been associated with criminals
and the underclass. The notable exception to this were the
tattoos belonging to the Ainu, the indigenous peoples
of Japan.

The Ainu women were tattooed at the time of their
wedding with an upward twirled “moustache” and different
abstract-geometrical designs on their arms and legs. The
implication being that the arms and hands must work for the
husband and the lips must speak for him. The
anchipiri (blackstone mouth) tattoo came to be seen
as very beautiful and soon Ainu women believed that
there was no salvation after death without tattooed lips. It
seems likely to me, from observing the designs and patterns
that the Ainu tattoo designs, which can occasionally
be seen in present day Ainu communities, are the
continuation of the original designs found on the clay
Haniwa. Whereas Japanese irezumi took a
different turn, decorative and protective tattoos
disappeared and for a while the only body decoration seen
was the geishin (criminal tattoo).

In a 1716 code, tattooing was no longer associated with the
death penalty, but with rather minor offences such as
“flattery with ulterior motives” and also around this time
there is some evidence of people tattooing over their
criminal marks with pretty designs. It is commonly believed
that decorative tattooing came back into popularity in Japan
as a result of criminals and untouchables trying to hide
their bars and circles, and it is also proposed that the
later practise of leaving the inner arm bare came about
because this is where such tattoos were usually placed. The
tattoo wearer could prove that he was not hiding any marks
of identification.

However, Richie and Buruma argue that “by the time the
decorative tattoo had appeared, in the late seventeenth
century, such markings of criminals and untouchables were no
longer widely used.” Although geishin were not
abolished until 1870 Richie and Buruma reject this theory,
claiming that tattooing as embellishment was already well
known by the end of the seventeenth century. The tattoos
however, were not yet pictorial. They comment on the
practise of decorative tattooing amongst prostitutes and
refer to Ihara Saikaku’s “Kosoku Ichidai Otoko
(1682, The life of an Amorous Man) wherein he records the
habits of prostitutes tattooing the name of a favourite
client on their inner arm and of lovers tattooing pledges of
undying love for each other.

A common one was the name of the beloved and then the
ideograph for inochi (life)...sometimes the final
stroke was lengthened to indicate the length and strength of
the pledge.

Saikaku Yorozu no Fumi Hogu (1678 The Great Mirror
and the Art of Love) also apparently mentions a woman being
tattooed on her left elbow with the same number of dots as
her lover’s age. This sort of tattooing seems to have
flourished in the pleasure quarters and so maintained the
links between tattooing and marginal, outsider figures.

However, Richie and Buruma also mention the religious pledge
that clearly endured popularity at around this time. Pious
phrases or prayers were inscribed on the skin and this
practise seems to have been common enough to comment on. An
apparently famous example was one Iyaemon who had the
Buddhist incantation “Namu Amida Butsu” tattooed on
his back.

These types of love pledges or religious pledges, known as
irebokuro (An inserted beauty spot) are still seen
today and certainly existed in the Edo period (1600-1868).
But it seems unfair to reject the idea that decorative
tattooing arose from people attempting to cover their
geishin and I think it is reasonable to conclude that
both irebokuro and geishin can be cited as
forerunners to the sudden emergence of decorative pictorial

Nevertheless, shortly afterwards, irebokuro were
banned by the Government. In fact, during the Tokugawa
period tattooing was repeatedly prohibited but these laws
seemed to make little difference. In the same way as
previously, when the Tokugawa Government banned the wearing
of fine and colourful clothes and the populace responded by
wearing plain kimonos with brightly coloured silk linings,
when the Government banned irezumi it prompted the
rebellious sector of society to cover their bodies. Indeed
this prohibition is what inspired the shape of the
irezumi. The ink usually ends at the elbow and mid
thigh and there is a considerable gap across the chest so
that the tattoo would not show when wearing either a kimono
or a happi coat.

Since irezumi of the geishin cover-up and the
irebokuro were associated with the criminal community
and the under class anyway, prohibition was often
ineffective and in the periods between prohibition, the art

The most significant boom in irezumi happened in the
period 1751-1800 during which time a Chinese book called
Shui-Hu-Chuan (In Japanese; the Suikoden, in
English; The Water Margin) was very popular in the capital
Edo. It contained swash-buckling tales of an outlaw named
Sung-Chiang and his 108 followers. Although the heroes
revolted against a corrupt bureaucracy, they all exhibited
“their humanity, their decency and their sense of rightness”
and it is clear why these characters appealed to those
itinerant members of society likely to get

Many of the heroes themselves were tattooed, Shishin’s back
was covered with nine dragons, Rochishin was decorated with
flowers and Busho was tattooed with a tiger. In 1820 Bakin
produced the edition “Shimpen Suikogaden” illustrated
by Hokusai and in 1827 Kuniyoshi’s illustrated edition was
published. These prints, together with woodblock prints of
ukiyo-e (pictures form the floating world) and scenes
from Kabuki theatre appealed to gangsters, merchants and
tradesmen and formed the basis of most tattoos. Even today
the majority of full body, irezumi suits are chosen
from books of the Suikoden or Edo period wood block prints
and this form of body art survives alongside newer reference
books such as “The 101 Demons of Horiyoshi” which are seen
in every tattoo shop in Japan, whether tatu or

In fact, both the methods and designs of irezumi
remain largely unchanged from the early nineteenth century
until the present day and where preserved skins with
irezumi remain in Yokohama Tattoo Museum and in the
Tokyo Medical School, they are virtually indistinguishable
from modern day irezumi.

In 1868, the Government expected that Western visitors
coming to Japan would disapprove of irezumi, it was
prohibited once again and many of the horishis’ books
of designs were burned. However, in contrast to Government
opinion, foreigners seemed to like the custom and often
hired out people with tattoos as their palanquin bearers. It
was also at this time that many foreigners themselves
requested irezumi. Most notably, King George of
England who had a dragon tattooed on his forearm when he was
a prince and King Nicholas of Russia. In Japan tattooing
remained prohibited for anybody except foreigners until 1945
but the art form continued covertly once more with people
disguising their tattoo studios as printing houses and the

Since horishis’ clients were usually shadowy members
of the under classes or groups such as firemen or
construction workers, the profession managed to remain
largely underground until after World War II.

Since 1945, the world of irezumi has become largely
associated with the yakuza and the majority, though
by no means all of a horishi’s clients are likely to
be gang members. It was not until the 1960s when the
American tattoo artist Sailor Jerry (Norman Keith Collins)
travelled through the Far East as a merchant marine that the
West became fully aware of Japanese tattooing. Sailor Jerry
was the first tattoo artist to include pictures of dragons
and other ‘oriental designs’ in his flash. It was also
Sailor Jerry who first introduced Western tattooing to Japan
when he developed a trade relationship with Horihide (Kazuo
Ôguri), exchanging American needles and tattoo
machines for designs and advice. He also introduced Don Ed
Hardy to the world of Japanese tattooing and it was he and
Horiyoshi III who are perhaps solely responsible for Western
tattooing finding popularity in Japan and for bringing
Japanese dragons, sakura, kanji and demons into popularity
in Western tattoos.

It is a contentious issue at present whether this melting
pot of ideas has been beneficial or detrimental to the
Japanese tattoo world and one which will be discussed later.

Designs.It is impossible to talk about Japanese irezumi
without mentioning Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s “Tsuzoku Suikoden
Gôketsu Hyakuhachinin
” (108 Heroes of the
Suikoden). These designs form a large part of all
full body tattoos and are often copied or else the artist
will draw his own illustration of another part of the story.
Pictures of the tattooed men often appear on tattooed men
and this is no doubt due to the attraction of an honourable
band of criminals to the yakuza who would consider
themselves just that.

However, other art forms appealing to the proletariat and
the underworld such as Kabuki theatre often form the basis
of irezumi designs. In several Kabuki plays including
“The Scarlet Princess of Edo”, the lead roles are tattooed
and where Kabuki masks form the background to large tattoos,
the central design is often taken from a Kabuki story.
Benten Kôzô is a particularly popular
irezumi design. He was a thief who often disguised
himself as a woman. When he was caught he pulled off his
clothing and revealed a heavily tattooed man.

However, the “Suikoden” and Kabuki theatre are not the only
themes central to irezumi tattoos. Other mythical
people, creatures and stories also feature.

Dragons, Koi carp and Gods all have their own
meaning, as do the blue clouds, pink sakura, maple leaves
and waves which make up the backgrounds of these amazing

Perhaps the most ubiquitous of all Japanese mythological
beasts and certainly the image which has frequently been
tattooed in the West is the dragon. Dragons are clearly very
alluring creatures and it is as common to see a tattoo of a
dragon borrowed from irezumi in a shop in Britain as
it is in Japan.

Symbolically it denotes wealth and it is a monster which
draws strength from all the creatures forming it. It is a
serpent that has the horns of a deer, the scales of a carp,
the four clawed talons of an eagle, the nose of a goblin and
whiskers and a moustache to accompany the flames growing
from its shoulders and hips. Because it lives in both air
and water, it is considered to offer protection from fire.
For this reason it was often chosen by Edo period fire
fighters who tattooed themselves superstitiously for
protection in their work.

It may seem unusual for such official and important figures
as fire fighters to have irezumi when it was so
frowned upon in Edo society but sources claim that
originally they were gaen (gangs) of otherwise
unemployable ruffians hired by the Government to fight one
large fire. It was only later that they were organised into
kumi (groups) and became Edo’s first fire department.
However, they kept up their rough and ready image and the
tattooing may have served the purpose of making them look
brave and fearless. It also prevented them from appearing
completely naked as they battled fires in their loincloths
and by having irezumi of dragons and other strong
watery creatures, they believed that they were ensuring
their own protection from the flames. This is interesting as
the concept of having tattoos for protection ties in with
the documentation of Japanese tattooing in the Wei
chronicles where the Wa were tattooed to “keep away
large fish and waterfowl”.

The fire fighters became one of the groups outside the
yakuza to be closely associated with irezumi.
Indeed it is still common today for fire fighters and
construction workers to be heavily tattooed along with the

Another tattoo, which is very popular amongst Japanese fire
fighters for its protective qualities, is the Koi
carp. It is often portrayed swimming upstream on the river
of someone’s back and is considered to be perhaps the
strongest symbol of bravery. An ancient Chinese tale tells
of a carp, which swam up a waterfall bravely to become a
dragon at the top. The watery connections are of obvious
appeal to fire fighters. However, perhaps the bravest aspect
of the Koi is that once caught it will lie
unflinching on the chopping board awaiting its fate.

Another popular category of tattoo is that of religious
deities. Fudô, the guardian of hell is a particularly
popular character. Fierce looking and surrounded by flames,
he holds a sword to knock down his enemies and a rope with
which to bind them. He is obviously attractive to young men
who fancy themselves as fierce warriors but he is a force
for good, a guardian of morals and this again reflects the
band of honourable gangsters in the “Suikoden” and the moral
code of the yakuza. Another popular religious tattoo
is that of the prayer “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” (Hail to
the Lotus Scripture of the Good Law). It “derives from the
fanatical Nichiren sect of Buddhism founded in AD1253, whose
six million followers today are still much addicted to
chanting and drumming. Their belief is that one perfect and
sincere utterance of this single prayer will ensure rebirth
in Nirvana, or Nothingness.” This practise quite possibly
relates back to the irebokuro of the sixteenth
century and is therefore more evidence against the
geishin theory of tattoo evolution.

Since people often seem to hope to acquire the qualities of
their tattoos it is not surprising that along with the
heroes of the “Suikoden”, other folk heroes are also
popular. One of the most common designs I have seen is of
Kintarô, also known as Koitarô. This mythical
sort of superboy has powers of strength and perseverance. He
is usually shown to be bright red and battling a giant carp.
The legend of Koitarô is central to the festival of
boys’ day on March the fifth and so again the notion of
being brave and manly comes into tattooing.

Kintarô’s mother, often in the act of breastfeeding
the boy is a popular design for women and beautiful women of
the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), female
Goddesses or other designs helpful to childbirth are also
common. One of these is the eastern dog/lion. The mythical
Korean dog (koma inu) and the Chinese lion (kara
) have become symbolic of guardianship and their
statues are often seen outside Japanese temples and shrines.
They are sometimes tattooed onto women’s bellies to protect
them in childbirth and the skin on the head of the Korean
dog was regarded as being stronger than a helmet.

Fellman says that the yang of their fierceness is always
contrasted with the yin of the peony flower for aesthetic
balance and in the examples which I have seen that certainly
does seem to be the case.

The notion of contrast of yin and yang in the aesthetics of
the Japanese tattoo is and essential part of the designs and
Japanese horishi are proud of their ability to
present a balanced picture. For this reason, extraordinary
background designs are developed on most irezumi.
When there is fire in the main picture, one will usually
find rivers or waves in the background. One also see clouds,
thunder, lightning, beautiful peonies to counteract ferocity
and maple leaves to symbolise Japan.

Perhaps the most interesting background that is often seen
is that of the sakura (cherry blossom). The blossom
bursts in early spring and within three days its petals
fall. This brevity of life represents the short life span of
a warrior and it is often tattooed on yakuza and men
living dangerous lives to show that they accept their fate.
It is also tattooed around pictures of beautiful women to
represent the brief span of their blossoming youth.

The colours of a Japanese irezumi are traditionally
greens, reds, purples and black sumi ink. These days,
the inks used are bought from tattoo supply shops but
traditionally the red ink was made from cadmium and was said
to be so painful that only an inch or two of tattooing could
be endured before the pain was unbearable and a fever and
weakness often followed a session.

Another interesting point in the designs of irezumi
tattoos is the unique border at the edges of the tattooing.
Fixing the borders of the tattoo is done after the filling
in and the shading of colour is completed. Richie and Buruma
state that in the original irezumi sported by Edo
firemen, the design simply stopped at a hard edge running
around the neck, the wrists and the ankles. But in recent
years, the custom of just stopping at a straight edge
(bikiri) and the custom of incising three straight
lines around the irezumi as a sort of frame
(matsuba mikiri) have died out.

One also no longer sees the daybreak edging (akebono
) where the colour simply fades out, except
occasionally on partial irezumi where, for example,
only one arm and shoulder are covered by the design.
Nowadays, it seems the most popular border is the peony
edging (botan mikiri) where the edge of the tattoo is
formed by a ring of petal shapes.

Once the tattoo design is finally completed and the borders
have been fixed, the horishi will sign his
professional name (hori~) on the art work. Usually in a box
left blank under the arm or on the thigh. However, a true
Japanese irezumi will never be fully completed.
Somewhere there will always be a small piece of incomplete

Something must be somewhere left undone- perhaps only in
this way can the promise of the original inspiration and the
ideal of perfection be suggested.

The symbolism of the many designs and the various
expressions of yin and yang, not to mention the numerous
shading techniques and border designs are extensive. Years
of tradition, thought and study has led to this complex and
meaningful system of designs that one sees in modern
irezumi. It is little wonder that horishis
feel that they are being belittled when people ask for small
insignificant tattoo designs and little wonder that there is
a secrecy about one’s own methods and books of designs.

According to Horiyoshi III, there is little contact between
tattoo masters of different families in Japan as even the
locations of the tattoo studios are often guarded and not
advertised to clients until a commitment has been made.

Have you ever done things like go to another Japanese
horishi's place?

No! That's something I would never do to a Japanese horishi
because I have pride.

Nihon nohoka no horishisan no tokoro e ashi wo fundari mo

Iya. Sore ha nihon nohorishi ha mazu shinai. Puraido ga aru

Since Western style machine tattooing came to Japan and
street studios have been set up throughout the country. And
since Japanese tattoo designs have become so popular
throughout the Western world, there have obviously been
changes in Japanese irezumi and the Japanese tattooed
community. Horishi try to protect the methods and the
traditions of their art form but as technology improves,
they try not to be left behind. Their designs are copied and
exported and their clients are going to street tattoo
studios, but still, irezumi in Japan is a thriving
business. Clearly the boundaries around Japanese
irezumi are becoming increasingly blurred.

The Influence of Western Tattooing on irezumi
and the Influence of irezumi on Western
Sailor Jerry (born Norman Keith Collins) was an American
tattoo artist who can take a lot of the credit for
introducing American style tattoos into Japan and for
bringing “Oriental style” designs to tattoos in the West. He
had served as a merchant marine during the Second World War
and often tattooed at his ports of call, this is how he
first came into contact with Japanese irezumi.

However, it was not until 1960 when he opened his last
tattoo shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown that his interest in
Oriental tattooing really developed. He developed a trade
relationship with Horihide (Kazuo Ôguri) whereby he
would trade American needles and machines for designs and
advice and also developed a close relationship with
Horiyoshi II and Horisada. According to Margo de Mello,
Sailor Jerry “never forgave the Japanese for attacking Pearl
Harbor and for what he saw as their economic take over of
Hawaii (Hardy 1982c.). In fact by his own admission, Collins
wanted to “beat them at their own game”: to create an
American style that was based on what he called the “Jap
style of tattoo”, yet one that reflected imagery from the
United States.”

Collins was the first Western tattooist to use the idea of
filling in backgrounds with waves and clouds to create whole
body tattoos. He caught the interest of Don Ed Hardy who
would later go on to form a close friendship with Horiyoshi
III and to publish the first Western pictures of Japanese
tattooing in “TattooTime” magazine in 1980.

Don Ed Hardy felt a lot more positively about irezumi
and his experiences of Japan than Sailor Jerry. He wasn’t
interested in beating the Japs but only in redefining
American tattoo culture. He wanted to take tattooing off the
streets and give it more credibility as an art form and he
found that in Japan, tattooing was already a private
encounter between artist and client with a great deal of
ritual involved. This appealed to him and he took the
practice home with him.

One of the best things about being in Japan was, not only
was I able to understand more about Asian culture and
imagery but I found the context of tattoo so different from
in the West. I went there and worked in this studio in an
apartment building; it was all word-of-mouth and it was
really hard to get an appointment with this great tattooer

I had these delusions about being reborn Japanese...but the
point is, that's when I made my determination to run a
private studio. I wanted to set a stage to magnetize people
who would get big body tattoos, and create an awareness, an
acceptance, interest.

At the same time as Japanese tattooing was filtering in to
the West though, Western style tattooing was coming into
Japan through Hardy and Collins tattooing in Ôguri’s

At the same time, rockabillie culture also started to enter
Japan and as young people started to slick back their hair
and wear leather jackets, they also wanted Western style
tatu on their arms, just like their heroes.

From the boutiques and coffee shops of the town which is
called the centre of youth culture in Tokyo, Harajuku, came
American Rockabillie style. And here, the modern style young
people, using pomade would do the bop dance, dressed as
"wild ones".

Harajuku wa tokyo ni okeru wakamonobunka no shouten tomo
ieru machi de, butiiku, kissaten, nado no matate no mise
kara, amerikan rokabiri ga nagareteimasu. Soushite, koko
dewa, pomaado wo tsuketa rizento stairu no wakamono ga
uairudo wan no yosoide bappu wo odotte iru no desu.

The increased desire to look American and to fit in with
rock culture brought with it a whole new style of tattooing
for the Japanese. This was the birth of “wan-pointo“.
The trend only increased, with punk culture, heavy metal and
in particular American bands such as Motley Crüe all
encouraging tattooing as a badge of belonging and a way for
young people to set themselves apart from their parents.
Tatu studios opened up on the streets of most cities
in Japan and tattooing machines were more readily available
through magazine adverts. irezumi seemed to have been
forgotten by young people rebelling against society.

In the course of my research I distributed one hundred
questionnaires to three tatu studios in Sendai, Tokyo
and Hiroshima and received sixty responses. I also
interviewed tatu artists at “Tommy’s Fire” studio in
Hiroshima and at “Spotlight Tattoo” in Sendai. In order to
get a more informal and honest response from members of the
tatu community, I engaged in casual conversations at
the Tokyo Tattoo Convention and took a job in a hostess bar
where I was able to gauge the opinions of clients both with
and without tatu or irezumi in a relaxed and
informal setting.

Several of my informants had begun to tattoo themselves in
the early eighties simply because they saw their favourite
bands doing it.

Suki na bando no aatisto ga ireteita kara, jibun mo panku
bando wo shiteita kara.

There seems to be little evidence of any communication
between those artists practising Western tattooing and true
Japanese horishi. Even these days, several of the
Western stle tattoo artists I spoke to simply said that they
weren’t interested in irezumikyoumi ga nai
because it is completely different “zenzen chigaimasu
“. One of my informants told me that he hated
tattooing dragons and kanji on people because he saw himself
as a “new school” American artist. Just as Ed Hardy
fantasised about being “re-born” Japanese, it seems that
Japanese tattoo artists are fantasising about becoming
American, at least within their art. In fact, both of the
tatu artists I interviewed had travelled to America
to complete their practical training, they both remained in
contact with artists in the States, frequently went to
tattoo conventions there and in the case of Makoto Kato of
“Spotlight Tattoo”, he had been trained by “Spotlight Tattoo
Studio” in San Francisco and was allowed to take the name
with him back to Japan when he opened his own studio. So the
links between Japanese tatu artists and America are
very strong.

In Japan the situation remains that horishi have very
little contact with each other and certainly no contact with
street level electric needle tatu artists. From the
time I spent in street studios it seemed quite clear to me
that although tatu artists did serve yakuza
and whilst I met one or two gang members in the process of
being tattooed with full body suits, the main body of street
level clients seemed to be young people, male and female,
with an interest in tatu as a form of expressing

The horishi on the other hand tend to have a client
base containing more yakuza gang members and their
families but otherwise, there is little difference from the
construction workers, fire fighters and other young people
who go to get tattooed.

But the two groups remain very separate and run their
businesses in completely different ways. The tatu
artists run their businesses to make money, sending clients
through very quickly and charging prices according to
competition. The work occasionally resembles a production
line where clients are signed in by one apprentice,
receiving tatu from the artist and then being advised
on aftercare and sent home by another apprentice.
Horishi on the other hand, tend to work more like
professional artists and to treat their clients as members
of a close community. The focus here is much less about
money and more on creating good artwork on which they are
proud to sign their name. Horishi tend to stay well
clear of tatu artists techniques and even where it
might push the art forward, the majority of horishi
are scornful of electric tattooing implements.

The notable exception to this is Horiyoshi III who is the
man often credited with modernising irezumi. He
became interested in travelling around the world attending
conventions and watching Western tattoo artists at work. It
was thanks to his close relationship with Don Ed Hardy that
he was able to continue these travels researching designs
and techniques and changing his style slightly when he felt
that he could benefit from what he had learnt. He was the
first horishi to begin to use electric needles for
the outlining of his irezumi, although only for the
outline as it requires no shading.

Over there, I broke down the image I had of abroad up until
then, I was able to reconstruct it again within myself. I
got to know the world of foreign tattoo artists and was able
to look at Japanese tattooing from abroad. After that I
changed and so I feel very grateful to Ed Hardy.

Soko de sore made no kaigai ni taishite motteita imeji ga
gutagutatte kowarechatte, sore wo mata jibun no naka de
kumitatenaosu koto ga dekita ne. kaigai no shisei no sekai
wo shitte kaigai kara nihon no shisei wo miru yô ni
natta kara. Sore de boku wa kawattan dayo. Dakara, edo hadi
ni wa hijou ni kansha no kimochi ga arunda.

However, Horiyoshi III is certainly the exception to the
rule and he has even been accused of damaging irezumi
and frowning on other horishi because of his desire
to broaden his horizons. This is an accusation which he
strongly denies.

So the Westernisation of Japanese irezumi has not
really occurred, but rather irezumi has influenced
the West and in Japan, Western style tattooing has grown up
alongside but separately from the continuing tradition of
irezumi. Horiyoshi III at least at first, seems to be
the only horishi willing to even contemplate Western
tattooing at the present time.

Mainstream Social Attitudes.The historical association of tattooing with the lower ranks
of society such as gangsters, firefighters, merchants and
prostitutes followed by its irregular prohibition is largely
why tattooing is so frowned upon in Japan.

When I began this study, several of my friends were
disgusted by the idea whilst most of the women giggled, hid
their faces and turned red. I was told that it was not a
good subject to study in Japan (Nihon de wa tattoo ga
amari yokunai yo
. Yakuza no kankei ga aru kara.)
and on one occasion I was told that I ought not to continue
(shinai hô ga ii yo). There were many surprised
looks and warnings to be careful but also several people,
most astonishingly my University Professor, who offered to
introduce me to their yakuza acquaintances.

Perhaps only a half of all a horishi‘s clients are
yakuza but of all the non-tattooed people I spoke to,
very few of them seemed aware of non-yakuza tattoos.
People seemed to admit that young people had tatu
occasionally but this was usually associated with
bosôzoku bike gangs, whose members often graduate to
become yakuza in later life, or else it was
associated with teenage rebellion and a desire to be like a

In Japanese society where group belonging is very important,
tattooing oneself seems necessarily to lead to social
exclusion. Because of the perceived yakuza
associations, tattooed patrons are often not allowed to
enter sentô (public bathhouses), swimming pools
or onsen (hot spring) resorts. There are also some
beaches where tattoos are not welcome.

I met a single twenty-eight-year-old male who had a large
dragon shaped scar covering most of his back. He had been
tattooed at great length and at great expense and had then
had the tattoo removed which was apparently even more
painful and expensive than the tattooing. The only reason he
gave was that he wanted to be able to go to the onsen
with his children who were not yet born.

Whether or not this was the only reason for his
irezumi removal, social pressure to conform is
clearly a very strong dissuasive factor in tattooing.

I have met many informants who have had negative experiences
showing their tattoos in public, and for this reason many of
them avoided tatu which they could not hide during
the hot summer months.

Kakusukoto ga dekinai bubun ni wa ireru yûki wa ima
wa arimasen.

For the most part, the young people I interviewed had
several modern, wan-pointo tatu and had not told
their parents about their tattoos at all, even though most
of them were in their late twenties. On the occasions when
they had confessed, their parents’ reaction was unanimously
unsupportive, ranging from shock (shoku) to rage
(ryôshin wa gekidô. Henkenkata.)

These reactions seem generally to be brought about because
of irezumi‘s yakuza connections. For the most
part the parents seemed to feel that tattoos implied being a
gangster whatever their offspring’s motivations, which were
more likely to be related to a pop band or wanting to look
tough than an association with organised crime.

They think that TATTOO= gangster

TATTOO=gokudo da to omotte shiotteiru.

However, these informants were not merely concerned about
covering their tattoos in front of their parents, they also
spoke about being uncomfortable in public paces, especially
if they were with their contemporaries.

In Japan, the image of tattooing still isn't good. I think
that whatever happens it will have a bad image of fear and
yakuza. If you are someone who doesn't know about tattooing,
I think you have a bad image. When people I don't know see
that I have tattoos, they feel uneasy. On trains and buses
and other public places, if you are with (other) people who
are tattooed, most people feel anxious. It's not a good
feeling. I think it's hard to see tattooing as art in
Japan...even I don't really want to show people.

Nihon de wa tattoo no imeji ga mada yoku arimasen. Kowai,
yakuza nado warui imeji ga dôshitemo aru to omoimasu.
TATTOO ni kanshite amari shiranai hito kara sureba, warui
imêji da to omoimasu. Watashi no shiranai hito kara sureba,
TATTOO ga iertteiru no wo miru to fuan no nen ni idaku to
omoimasu. Densha, basu, nado kôkyô no monode,
TATTOO no iretteiru hitoto issho ni naru to ôku no
hito wa fuan ni omoi, ii kimochi de wa nai to omoimasu. ART
toshite TATTOO wo miru no wa, muzukashii to nihon de wa
omoimasu....amari watashi mo hito ni

This comment came from a twenty-eight-year-old male with
eleven Western style wan-pointo designs. He was well
educated, smart looking in every other way, but even working
as a bar tender he was obliged to cover his arms with long
sleeves when he was at work.

However, young people who have tatu do seem to form
their own, new groups within society and this can help to
overcome the feelings of ostracisation from mainstream
society. In some ways, getting tatu allows you to
access a new social group and affords a new sense of
belonging. I personally observed this when two men with
tatu arrived in a bar and almost immediately began
talking to each other about their artists and designs with
no introduction.

Throughout the world, tattooing often has rather shadowy
links with, for example, Hells Angels or the criminal
underclass. However, in Japan, the prejudice against the
tattooed individual is extreme. Clearly, to tattoo lovers
there are differences between tatu and irezumi
in design, tattooing method, and motivations for being
tattooed. But the social attitudes of others towards both
tatu and irezumi seem to remain equally
negative, particularly amongst the older generation.

These attitudes stem from the long-term use of
irezumi by the yakuza as badges of belonging
and methods of intimidation. When working as a hostess, it
became noticeable to me that the mama-san (female
boss) paid protection money to certain yakuza bosses
and a great fuss was made of these characters whenever they
came into the bar. Various members of the same kumi
(group) would come to the bar and if they weren’t
recognised, they would simply roll their sleeves up a little
to show the edges of their tattoos and more attention would
immediately be diverted towards them.

A similar use of irezumi as a reminder to behave
seemed to be occurring on a yakuza controlled beach
in Kôbe where large men with full body suits of
irezumi would occasionally parade up and down the
beach in swimming trunks keeping an eye on the tradesmen
working there.

Given that this type of intimidation certainly exists within
Japan, it is not surprising that people are quick to make
assumptions about the meaning of an individual’s tattoo and
their motivations in getting it. This, in turn, leads to a
particularly difficult situation for those people who are
tattooed for personal or aesthetic reasons.

However, circumstances do seem to be changing. Young people
are more aware of tatu and the increase in the number
of foreigners with tattoos in Japan has also helped to make
people more aware of the differences between wan-pointo
and irezumi. A tattooed female friend of
mine was allowed into a “no-tattoos” bath house and became
the centre of attention for a group of curious middle-age
women simply because she was foreign and therefore excluded
from suspicion of being a yakuza.

Equally, the media has been more helpful recently in
spelling out the differences and there are now a variety of
biker magazines and tattooing magazines, including foreign
publications, which are available in Japan and offer
articles on both tatu and irezumi with no
mention of gangsters. Most significantly perhaps, Horiyoshi
III has begun to host a yearly event called the Tokyo Tattoo
Convention. This event was not allowed to take place until
1999 as it was viewed as being potentially an excuse for a
gathering of yakuza, but Horiyoshi III instead
invited only foreign tattoo artists and tatu artists
from Japan. He was eventually allowed to host the event on
the condition that horishi and their clients could
attend as guests but would not specifically be invited nor
would they be allowed to run stalls. In its second year the
Tokyo Tattoo Convention attracted nearly a thousand guests,
many travelling from abroad, and it is heralded amongst the
international tattoo community as one of the most
interesting tattoo conventions to attend. It has been very
useful in allowing people who have tatu rather than
irezumi to separate themselves from the negative
social attitudes and has also taken another step towards
making the general population aware of the diversity of

In conclusion, it seems that the negative social attitudes
and prejudices against body decoration are felt across the
board from genuine gangsters to those with only one tattoo.
This uneasiness seems to be exploited by the yakuza
but suffered by the tatu enthusiasts who do not
necessarily want to be seen as aggressive or anti social.

The social climate in Japan does look like it will slowly
change to one of greater acceptance and one which will
recognise the differences between irezumi and tattoo and the
possibility of different reasons for acquiring either, but
at present the assumptions made about a decorated person are
usually negative.

If this is the case though, then we need to examine people’s
motivations to get irezumi and to get tatu. In
a country in which it is clearly quite difficult to exist
comfortably with tattoos it is fair to assume that people’s
motivations in getting tatu or an irezumi
piece must be anti-social up to a point, at least people
must be willing to be seen as non-conformist and to suffer
the daily inconvenience of being marked for life in this

Motivations.Clearly, the motivation of the yakuza and the
motivations of others who get tatu or irezumi
are likely to be slightly different. I interviewed and spoke
to a variety of people with tatu and irezumi
in an attempt to discover if their motivations were similar,
whether they had intended to exclude themselves from
mainstream society and whether they felt that their
tatu or irezumi had a purpose. Although one
cannot generalise only on the grounds of this research, I
feel that this sort of informal discussion in the field is
more likely to provide honest answers and insight into
people’s intentions than more formal questioning.

Jacob Raz who lived with and researched the yakuza
for several years speaks of tattooing within the
yakuza as a “symbolic costume” and he gives four
reasons why yakuza get tattoos;

(1)Passing an initiation rite to enter the order;(2) a proof
of perseverance and manliness (by going through the painful
process of tattooing);(3) the irreversibility of entering
the world of yakuza;(4)the bearing on one's body (preferably
with pride) the trademark of the order. One is ready to show
(and to show off) one's affiliation.

Horiyoshi III also suggested to Joy Hendry during her field
research in 1991 that a “strong motivation for acquiring
tattoos also included the idea of strengthening one’s
psychological or spiritual outlook (seishin)” and
this seems likely. The idea of a lifetime commitment though
seemed to be the greatest factor amongst the yakuza
to whom I spoke and in most cases the wives of the
yakuza men were also tattooed, although they were
more likely to have smaller, more feminine designs, for
example a Goddess covering only the back and buttocks rather
than coverage on shoulders, chest, arms and legs also.

According to Hendry, receiving irezumi also offered
some protection to yakuza who spent time in prison;
“they would then not only be admired by the other prisoners,
but looked after by the guards who would not want to spoil
the work” This use of irezumi to ensure preferential
treatment is similar to the yakuza who used
irezumi to intimidate and receive better attention in
the hostess bar and is clearly a very purposeful motivation
for yakuza to acquire body decoration.

Amongst those who prefer full body irezumi over
tatu but were not yakuza, the motivations were
widely varied. I met several fire fighters and construction
workers who were tattooed in accordance with the tradition
of their occupation. But other groups who have come to like
irezumi are sushi-makers and chefs and within
these groups, peer pressure to conform and get
irezumi is greater than the social stigma attached to
tattooing. Richie and Buruma wrote of a Japanese-style
restaurant in Fukugawa;

The tattooed three joined in attempting- eventually
successfully- to make the youth have himself decorated. The
reasons that they used were that one is not a man until one
is tattooed, that he would still be a kid,
shonbenkusai (stinking of piss) until he was thus

So, the ideas of tattooing in order to become a member of an
inner community (nakama) and in order to become manly
extend beyond the yakuza. Joy Hendry also talks of
young people in their late teens and early twenties, about a
fifth of whom had relatives with tattoos, in this case the
motivations for tattooing could be seen as the need to join
a familial nakama, or at least to be accepted.

Of those who had no affiliation with other tattooed people,
it could be argued that in getting irezumi they are
becoming a part of a larger nakama of the tattooed
community, Richie and Buruma say of these people that “his
skin supports him, specifically it defines him.” And suggest
that receiving irezumi is a method of finding a
nakama for a loner who has none of this own.

Since irezumi is a very traditional form of
expression in Japan, there are those who get irezumi
for nationalistic reasons and I have met both yakuza
and non-yakuza who felt that in receiving
irezumi rather than tattoo they were making a
commitment to the traditions of Japan.

As well as nationalism, religious commitment also seems to
feature as a reason for acquiring irezumi. It is
still common to see “Nam Myôhô Renge
” tattooed into a design and I have seen more
than one person with the meditative “Ohm” tattooed on
them, usually on their head.

Richie and Buruma speak of these religious tattoos as
talismanic saying “normally the talismanic tattoo is thought
of as a preventative, it makes the wearer safe; it protects
him and this indeed is perhaps the function of the
religious-symbol tattoos in Japan.” They also however,
mention the idea that after death one’s skin will be useful;
“they think of it as a kind of pelt which will be exhibited
in a medical museum” and so they will gain both some kind of
immortality and perhaps some sort of monetary reward for
their surviving dependants. In some cases, people would sell
their skins to be preserved after their death but would
receive he money in advence, whilst they were still living.
Unfortunately, the Tokyo Medical School no longer buys
tattooed skins and it is illegal to sell a dead man’s parts.

The question of beautification as a motivation for acquiring
irezumi is a debatable subject. Richie and Buruma
believe that irezumi is not a way of attracting the
opposite sex and state that any aesthetic value to be found
in irezumi is narcissistic;

In any event, I do not believe that Japanese women find
tattoos attractive. If anything, they find hem the
opposite...Specifically, a man is tattooed for his own sake.
In addition, and to a lesser degree, he has himself tattooed
for the admiration and envy of other men.

However, this seems to contradict evidence from Kitamura who
states that Horiyoshi III’s wife saw his tattoos for the
first time and felt an “instant attraction” towards him, and
also evidence from Horiyoshi III’s client books where people
speak of their motivations as being “gijutsu da to
” (I think they are artistic) and “oshare
” (personal adornment)” Indeed Hendry herself
speaks of the Horiyoshi III’s tattooing “creeping
appealingly up his neck”. It is true that many women,
completely separated from the irezumi world may find
this kind of adornment threatening and unattractive but
these are clearly not the type of women who irezumi
clients would wish to attract and it doesn’t seem possible
to me that men acquire irezumi to impress other men
only, to the exclusion of women. As for women receiving
irezumi, the main character in Tanizaki’s
Shisei” (The Tattooer) is a woman who is drugged to
sleep and then tattooed with a large spider. When she
awakes, she has become fantastically attractive and makes
victims of men, as a spider would.

To make you truly beautiful, I have poured my soul into this
tattoo. Today there is no woman in Japan to compare with
you. Your old fears are gone. All men will be your victims."

This popular book seems also to contradict Richie and
Buruma’s belief that “women who get themselves tattooed are
either the wives or companions of tattooers” since clearly,
certain groups of people do believe tattooed women to be
attractive. I have seen telephone clubs and strip clubs
specifically specialising only in tattooed women in the last
year. Of Horiyoshi III’s clients, in 1991 a third were women
and this figure is likely to have increased recently.

People’s motivations for getting tatu are not
entirely dissimilar from people’s reason for wanting
irezumi. The reasons tended to be a little less
serious and were often simply because a band they liked had
tattoos or because they are cool (Kakkô ii
) but since the implications and the commitment
involved in getting a small Western design are fewer and
less compared to a full body suit of irezumi, this is
not surprising. To be more manly (otokorashii) or to
rebel against one’s parents in the case of the teenagers
were common reasons but when asked whether the tatu
had any spiritual or religious significance, the answer was
unanimously no. There is an amount of peer pressure to get
tattooed amongst certain teenage gangs or tribes
(zoku) such as the Bosôzoku bike gangs
and the Yankees. Tattoos go with the uniform of team
overalls and bleached, permed hair and seem to be related to
a perceived rebel status.

At first..., in our case, at first we smoked cigarettes, and
then smoked at school...dyed our hair, and then had perms

However, there was a noticeable difference in the tattoos
preferred by these groups and by those non-affiliated. The
Bosôzoku and the Yankee groups, who were
much younger than the other informants, generally tended to
have poor quality, black ink tattoos which were often hand
done by themselves or their friends. Since they were
generally school age, a lack of money and free time seemed
to limit their desire to get professional tatu but
when asked about tatu artists, they showed little
interest in tattooing as art and only in its perceived
anti-social status.

In contrast, the others of my informants were extremely
interested in the aesthetic merits of tatu and
sported colourful and very detailed pieces by specific
artists. Whilst the reasons why they had begun to get
tattooed were often rather vague and light hearted (It was a
light feeling at first, because I thought they were cool-
saisho ni wa karui kimochi kara, kakkô ii to omotta
/ I was interested in Tattoo- because I started to
like tattoo, Tattoo ni kyômi ga ari, tattoo ga suki
ni natta kara desu
.) in most cases, their interest had
got more serious and regarding the tatu as art, they
set about collecting various designs by various artists.

To me, tattoo is art, I only do it for my own
satisfaction...it's not that I get tattooed and go out
because I want to make people think I am strong or

Jibun ni totte Tattoo wa art to ari, jikomanzoku de shika
sugimasen...hito ni taishite, tsuyoi, kowai to omowasu tame
ni ireru deru no de wa nai no desu.

One of my informants still lived with his parents at the age
of thirty, so that he could spend the wages from his
construction job on travelling around the world collecting
tattoos from artists such as Phillip Leu in Switzerland and
Tin Tin in France. When he travelled to San Francisco to
receive a tattoo from Bugs, the artists didn’t have time to
execute the design he wanted so he gave the artist free
reign to do something smaller which would take less time. He
ended up with two flying eyeballs on his belly about which
he is as proud as if they had been any other design. In this
case, the artist who tattooed the design was more important
than the design itself and the informant saw himself more as
a sort of art collector than a rebel.

My informants who had tatu had no interest in
irezumi, they either felt indifferent to the
traditional aspect, or else they were put off by the
yakuza type image it carried with no exceptions.

I have no real interest in tattooing methods. I am more
interested in design methods than tattooing methods. It
would be hard for me to find a hand tattooist in Hiroshima.
As you would think, hand tattooing has a yakuza image.

Watashi wa horikata ni amari kyômi ga arimasen.
Horikata yori zuan no kata ni kyômi ga arimasu.
Hiroshima de tebori no hito wo mitsukeru no wa watashi ni
totte muzukashii desu. Tebori no imeji wa yahari yakuza no
imeji ga ari.

Hand tattooing has the image of taking both time and money.
Electric tattooing has the image of being fast. That's about

Tebori wa jikan mo kakari okane mo kakri imeji ga
arimasu. Denkibori wa hayai imeji ga arimasu. Sore gurai no
mon desu.

For the most part, these tattooed clients also favoured
Western designs and slogans. Pin up girls, bleeding hearts
and daggers were all favourites and they seemed to have more
interest in the traditions of Western tattooing, calling it
orudo skuuru tatu” (old-school tattoo) than in the
traditions of Japan.

With the exception of Horiyoshi who is a horishi with
a genuine interest in tatu, horishi are
uninterested in tatu and tatu artists seem to
have little interest in irezumi. Each artist is
condescending about the other, with tatu artists
believing that horishi all have unpleasant
yakuza connections, take too long and charge too much
money and horishi believing that tatu artists
have given up their tradition and are not true craftsmen.

The only people who seem to be ignoring the boundaries
between the two techniques are yakuza who go to
Western style tattoo shops to get a full back piece done by
electric needle. Their motivations to get the tattoo are
similar to those expressed by yakuza who get
irezumi; a commitment for life, proof of perseverance
and a badge of belonging, but the results with which to
impress their oyabun are achieved much more quickly
and cheaply.

Conclusion.The motivations as well as the methods and designs involved
in tattooing and irezumi do, then, seem to be quite
different. There are overlaps in terms of the Yankees
and Bosôzoku with their perceived outcast
status and their need to be in a group and both tatu
and irezumi are reported to make the wearer feel more
confident. But the attitudes towards irezumi and the
attitudes towards Western style tatu are quite
different at times. Those involved in the fields class them
entirely separately and it seems that in terms of the
implications of the wearer and people’s motivations in
getting them, this is correct.

Horiyoshi III is currently becoming famous around the Globe
as the man who has ‘modernised irezumi.’ This is not
true as irezumi hasn’t literally modernised and it is
still performed in accordance with very rigid tradition and
ritual. However, Horiyoshi III is the first horishi
to show an interest in tatu. He has opened up
communication channels between the two groups by organising
the Tokyo Tattoo Convention and he has organised it publicly
and unashamedly, in an attempt to remove some oft he stigma
surrounding irezumi and tatu in mainstream
society. In addition he has borrowed from tatu and
now uses an electric tattoo machine to outline his
irezumi and he has borrowed some Western shading
techniques. In contrast to many other horishi, he is
keen that irezumi becomes known throughout the world
and these beliefs have led to him being thought of as a
maverick and a ‘moderniser’.

He himself, even seems confused as to how far he is prepared
to go against tradition though and in One Hundred and One
Demons of Horiyoshi III
he describes the dilemma;

For the background shading (in these prints) I broke with
tradition. Observance of tradition is definitely important
but it is important to open doors to further development.
Still, I can't escape an ever-so-slight feeling of spitting
in the face of a tradition that I respect and continue to
rely on.

Kitamura talks of his art as “struggling to find a careful
balance between ‘observances of tradition’ and ‘further
development'” and this balance is something which other
horishi have not even attempted to find, preferring
instead to stick rigidly to the traditional techniques and

One would have thought that since young people in Japan are
leaning more and more towards tatu rather than
irezumi as a fashionable decoration, irezumi
would be struggling to find a market and it would be
essential to modernise and modify the art form. However,
tatu artists and clients with both irezumi and
tatu all informed me that irezumi was very
popular and Horiyoshi III told me that the waiting list for
even an introductory appointment at his studio was a year
long. Yakuza still seem to make up a large part of a
horishi‘s client base and are more likely to prefer
irezumi because of its traditional associations.
However, increasingly, the people interested in
irezumi are foreigners. Horiyoshi III and Horihito
both travel around the world extensively offering
irezumi at conventions and studios to collectors. At
the Tokyo Tattoo Convention, more than twenty foreigners had
turned up in the hope of receiving irezumi and
irezumi has recently had an entire supplement devoted
to it in Skin Deep Magazine UK.

In a similar way to other cultural activities, like bonsai,
calligraphy and sumo, young Japanese are bored by the ritual
and the time taken to perfect irezumi, and instead
are buying into American culture and tattooing history. But
it seems that foreigners are fascinated by the ritual aspect
and the unique style of irezumi and are hurrying to
receive it. This is bound to have a significant effect on
the future of irezumi and is likely to make it world
famous and therefore less socially unacceptable in Japan

In addition to this, street level tatu shops are
increasing and making tattooing much more public and the
Internet, club culture and satellite television are making
young people much more internationally aware. The awareness
of international attitudes to tattooing is likely to remove
some of the social stigma that is still attached to
irezumi and tatu in Japan, and the emergence
of club culture has brought new fashions to tattooing across
the world. Young ‘cyberkids’ in England, Japan, Europe and
America alike have taken to going out dancing in fantastic
fluorescent outfits with glowing ultra violet tatu to
complete the image. This dance culture is much more
international and larger even than punk and will certainly
have an effect on the popularity of tattoos.

It seems impossible to me that tattooing and tatu
will continue to grow more and more popular but
irezumi will remain an underground traditional art
form. It is likely that it will evolve considerably over the
coming years, but hopefully it will evolve within the
confines of its own tradition and style. It will certainly
become more common to see irezumi outside of Japan as
this is already the case, but since tatu artists show
very little interest in irezumi and the foreign
artists who show an interest are keen to preserve the
traditional and ritual aspects of the art form it is
unlikely to change or die out.

Far from being a dying art, it seems that irezumi may
benefit from the competition afforded by tatu and
evolve and emerge to become internationally appreciated art.


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11 thoughts on “Oriental Irezumi and Occidental Tattooing in Contemporary Japan”

    1. Thanks. Such a shame that I haven’t been back to Japan in years and have forgotten most of my Japanese too.
      Have accumulated quite a lot of tattoos in the meantime though.

  1. Hello,

    I fell over your blog when doing some research on something totally unrelated. I am trying to get some information on the concept of perfection in regard to Japanese tatoos.

    This quote “Something must be somewhere left undone- perhaps only in this way can the promise of the original inspiration and the ideal of perfection be suggested.” is quite interesting.

    The reason why I was looking into irezumi, is that I once heard that a minor imperfection would made by the tatoo artist on purpose, in a way to indicate that perfection cannot be achieved but only strived for.

    Have you by any chance heard about this philisophy?

    I am not knowledgeable on eastern/japanese philisophy or religion, but the view on perfection is quite interesting.

      1. I am writing on a blog entry about perfection in software development and the philosophy and japanese tatoo analogy would be quite interesting to evaluate and use.

        Thanks for the swift response.

        take care,


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