Monday, March 23, 2009

MIRANDA: Japanese Tattoo History

There is a long history of tattooing with the Japanese, or as they call it ‘irezumi’. Some believe that the first tattoos appeared in Japan around 10,000 BCE. The earliest evidence of tattooing in Japan was discovered in the form of clay figurines which have faces painted or engraved to represent tattoo marks.

Then after hundreds of years of the purposes for tattoos in Japan developing and changing, going through fads including tattoos for decorated lovers’ where only after the couple were married could there tattoos be completed.

The horis were the Japanese tattoo artists their use of colours, perspective, and imaginative designs gave the practice a whole new angle.

What prompted the rise and culmination of irezumi was the development of the art of woodblock printing, as well as the publication of the very popular illustrated Chinese novel, Suikoden, which illuminated tales of rebel bravery and manly courage with illustrated woodblock prints of men in heroic scenes. These men were displayed with their bodies covered in decorated images, including dragons and other mythical beasts, flowers, ravenous tigers as well as religious imagery. Because of the novel's popularity, people all over the country demanded the same type of tattoos found in the pages of the book to be put on their own bodies.

Some Japanese tattoo sybols and meanings...


In the Far East, the dragon represents the Four Elements - Earth, Wind, Fire and Water - and the four points of the compass - East, West, North and South - and dragons are simultaneously a symbol of Water, Earth, Underworld and Sky. The dragon is a culturally far-ranging character whose apparent bad temper should be interpreted as simply amoral, neither good nor evil. The forces of nature are not human-hearted, representing as they do the cycle of life and death, followed again by birth and renewal. Nature nurtures and nature destroys. So too, does the dragon.

As Dragons were said to represent the Four Elements, so the stories and myths of dragons who had dominion over Air, Water, Earth and Fire. Each of these elemental dragons had unique characteristics that had to be taken into consideration.

In Japanese lore are stories of creatures, which through their special quests, at the end of their journeys, were transformed into dragons. In Japan, these were often the stories of Carp/Koi who through their perseverance, journeys and struggles, in the end were transformed into dragons.


Koi fish, or Carp, are a fixture of Japanese tattooing and play an important role in Japanese myths, legends, fables and stories. In many of those stories, Koi are transformed through their efforts and perseverance, able to climb waterfalls or become dragons. The Koi as a symbol represents perseverance in the face of adversity and strength of character or purpose. The Carp can also represent wisdom, knowledge, longevity, and loyalty.

In tattoo imagery, especially in combination with flowing water, the koi symbolizes courage, achievement, and overcoming life’s obstacles.

In Japan the koi has long been a symbol of masculinity and strength. Legends tell of it leaping up the falls at Dragon Gate. In the process it transformed into a dragon, proof of its successful struggle against the long odds. If caught, the koi is said to await the cutting knife without a quiver, in the manner of the Samurai warrior facing the sword. A popular fish like the koi has spawned many legends and myths over the centuries.

The beauty and charm of the koi has made it a popular symbol for the family, especially in Japan where tubular flags designed as koi are raised on Children’s Day -- black koi for father, flame red koi for mother, blue and white for boy, and pink and red for girl. On Boys’ Day Festival in Japan, each son in the family is honoured by a koi flag as an inspiration to the young that they might grow strong and resilient like this exceptional fish.

It’s no surprise that koi tattoos are popular where masculinity is valued. In Japan, the koi would appear on a young man’s fore-arm or leg. As he continued his life’s journey he might eventually earn a dragon for his final back piece, echoing the legend of the leaping koi transforming into a dragon at Dragon Gate. Colouring, whiskers, scaling and special marks represent a range of qualities a young man might wish for in his life. For personal greatness and national pride, a white koi with a single red spot on the head would be the chosen design.


The samurai warrior is the penultimate symbol and epitome of masculine courage, honour and justice within Japanese tattooing, and the samurai represents the highest masculine ideals within Japanese culture. The samurai adhered to a strict code of conduct called ‘Bushido’, meaning 'the way of the warrior'. Bushido was based on the Zen Buddhist principles of Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Trust, Honour and Loyalty until death. Other ideals to which the samurai aspired were self-discipline, frugality, self-sacrifice and nobility.

Symbols of the sun, moon, and stars were used by the samurai and appeared on their helmets and flags. Their celestial powers were believed to aid the warrior in battle.

As a tattoo design, the samurai symbolizes all the highest ideals of Bushido, honour, loyalty and duty. It expresses the wearer's understanding and appreciation of the importance of living in the moment, of taking not one second of existence for granted.


The more popular demons come complete with horns, fangs, claws, and open mouths, scary enough to keep evil spirits at a distance.

According to Japanese folklore, there’s nothing worse than a demon who doesn’t like you! Considered a worse threat than war, famine, or disease, demons had to be taken seriously. The general belief in demons and their supernatural powers spawned a culture of heroes whose job it was to confront them, and to protect the land from their mischief.

Unlike demons in Western culture, the Japanese varieties -- depending on their mood -- might be sweet-natured and helpful to humans, lavishing their protection and guidance on those they take a fancy to. The Japanese typically decorated their homes with protective talismans, including images of demons.

Traditional and modern Japanese tattooing draws much of its imagery from the wood-block art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, much of which is devoted to demon figures and art.

Some favourite Japanese demons are Inuyasha the dog-demon, and the fox and raccoon demons who are shape-shifters and tricksters. There is the wolf-demon who, according to legend, has a romantic streak. And there’s the weasel, the toad, and centipedes. The ‘Oni’, or ogre-monster, is known to Japanese children even today, for its reputation for eating humans. It’s a tattoo-bearing creature with wild hair and long nails. Its job is to hunt down evil-doers and send them to the hell-realms. Perhaps because of the horns on its forehead, it’s reminiscent of the typical demon found in Christian cultures -- like the gargoyle.

Cherry Blossom

In Japan, cherry blossoms (sakura) are a metaphor for life. A brief, brilliant blooming, followed by the inevitable fall. Cherry blossom is a symbol of female beauty and sexuality.

Bushido, the samurai’s code, takes the cherry blossom as its emblem. The blooming of the cherry tree is the purest manifestation of beauty in Japanese culture, but then the blossom swiftly fades and is scattered by the wind. This is the perfect death for a true warrior, who has lived with constant awareness and acceptance of the precariousness and transitory nature of existence. The essence of Bushido, or the Way of the Warrior, is that the true Samurai lives every day knowing it may well be his last. A samurai's motto is, "This is a good day to die". The cherry blossom as a tattoo design is a powerful reminder that life is fleeting and we must live in the present and cherish every waking moment, for it may well be our last.

The Spring equinox is the time of cherry blossoms, a season of religious celebrations that feature invocations for a plentiful harvest. In this respect, the cherry blossom is seen as a symbol of prosperity and good luck. While the cherry fruit was a dominant symbol on a samurai’s sword sheath

Yin – Yang

The Yin-Yang symbol or Taijitu, with black representing yin and white representing yang. It is a symbol that reflects the inescapably intertwined duality of all things in nature, a common theme in Taoism. No quality is independent of its opposite, nor so pure that it does not contain its opposite in a diminished form: these concepts are depicted by the vague division between black and white, the flowing boundary between the two, and the smaller circles within the large regions.

Everything can be described as both yin and yang.

1. Yin and yang are opposites.
Everything has its opposite—although this is never absolute, only relative. No one thing is completely yin or completely yang. Each contains the seed of its opposite. For example, winter can turn into summer; "what goes up must come down".

2. Yin and yang are interdependent.
One cannot exist without the other. For example, day cannot exist without night. Light cannot exist without darkness.

3. Yin and yang can be further subdivided into yin and yang. Any yin or yang aspect can be further subdivided into yin and yang. For example, temperature can be seen as either hot or cold. However, hot can be further divided into warm or burning; cold into cool or icy. Within each spectrum, there is a smaller spectrum; every beginning is a moment in time, and has a beginning and end, just as every hour has a beginning and end.

4. Yin and yang consume and support each other.
Yin and yang are usually held in balance—as one increases, the other decreases. However, imbalances can occur. There are four possible imbalances: Excess yin, excess yang, yin deficiency, and yang deficiency. During the switch to Daylight saving time, for example, there is more 'yin' than 'yang'. They can again be seen as a pair: by excess of yin there is a yang deficiency and vice versa. The imbalance is also a relative factor: the excess of yang "forces" yin to be more "concentrated".

5. Yin and yang can transform into one another.
At a particular stage, yin can transform into yang and vice versa. For example, night changes into day; warmth cools; life changes to death. However this transformation is relative too. Night and day coexist on Earth at the same time when shown from space.

6. Part of yin is in yang and part of yang is in yin.
The dots in each serve:

as a reminder that there are always traces of one in the other. For example, there is always light within the dark (e.g., the stars at night) these qualities are never completely one or the other.

as a reminder that absolute extreme side transforms instantly into the opposite, or that the labels yin and yang are conditioned by an observer's point of view. For example, the hardest stone is easiest to break. This can show that absolute discrimination between the two is artificial.


In traditional Japanese tattooing, certain design elements are often paired together, dragons, lions and demons with various flowers - in effect a delicate balancing of power with beauty. Peonies, or "botan" are a flower symbol that is traditionally paired with a Japanese lion, or "Shishi". This pairing is called Karajishi, and the ferocity of the lion is tempered by the beauty of the peony. But rather than merely being a simple symbolic example of Yin and Yang at work, the peony is a powerful tattoo design element in its own right.

The Peony is a flower with a history of cultivation and veneration that goes back thousands of years. In Japan, the peony is a floral symbol with meaning on par with the Chrysanthemum, the Lotus and the Cherry Blossom. The Peony is regarded as a symbol of wealth, and remember Japan, stone lions are used to guard palaces and homes, temples and sacred places, so the pairing of the peony with the lion in tattooing is no accident.

As a tattoo design, the peony symbolizes wealth, prosperity, and good fortune. According to Japanese tattooing tradition, peonies also symbolize daring, risk taking and the gambler's or Samurai's devil-may-care approach to life. A gambler's next bet may be his last, a true Samurai according to the Code of Bushido, or The Way of the Warrior, lives each day as if it may be his last.

The peony is a potent symbol of beauty, of the fragility and fleeting nature of existence and the knowledge that acquiring great rewards comes only by taking great risks.


Covers an entire genre of tattoo designs, but Japanese kanji account for nearly twenty percent of tattoo design searches. Kanji is one of the three common Japanese alphabets (the other two are Katakana and Hiragana). Kanji is a set of ideographic symbols (symbols that represent ideas) developed in China, and is extremely difficult to learn. This is mostly because there are well over a thousand Kanji symbols in everyday use in Japan, plus around another thousand that are used more occasionally! Not only this but the context they are used in can change the pronunciation of each symbol quite considerably.

Hannya Mask

The most well-known of the Oni demon masks in Japanese theatre, the Hannya mask has two sharp horns protruding from the temples, and bulging eyes staring from beneath a glowering forehead. The mouth is a gaping hole with grotesquely exaggerated canine teeth protruding from the mouth like the fangs of a wild animal. With its range of fierce emotions and expressions, the Hannya mask is a favourite tattoo image with enthusiasts of traditional Japanese tattooing.

The Hannya mask represents a woman who has been betrayed by love and is filled with rage, jealousy and hatred. She has become a demon. In fact, she bears little resemblance to a woman at all.
The social rank of the demon-woman is indicated by the colours of the mask. The lighter tones identify her as a member of the aristocracy, while a red lower half places her in the lower classes, and a completely red visage declares her a true demon. The darker the tones of the complexion, the more violent the portrayal of the emotions of the character who wears the mask.

Although the woman depicted by the Hannya Mask is a woman so hideously jealous that she has become a monster, the suffering and passion of this ‘victim of unrequited love’ is revealed in the details of the mask decoration, especially around the eyes. An artful tattooist will pay attention to this human aspect of the demon-woman.

In Japan, the Hannya mask is a popular good luck motif, and, like other terrifying icons, is believed to ward off evil spirits from the home.

The Hannya mask as a tattoo is often incorporated into a larger, more elaborate Japanese tattoo design, as just one in many elements that make up the story being related.


For mischievous designs in art and tattoo, there’s plenty to choose from amongst this trickster’s portfolio. And as a martial arts motif, the Tengu lends itself to many more interpretations. As a tattoo symbol, the Tengu may be seen as a reminder to the wearer to adhere to the samurai's code of Bushido and virtues of honour, duty, courage and loyalty and to guard against personal weaknesses and vices.

The Tengu’s magical powers allowed them to shape-shift, appear in people’s dreams, and to speak to humans without moving their mouths. They could also transport themselves short distances without moving their wings. Early legends tell of the demon shape-shifting into a woman, and sometimes into the Buddha, in order to lead priests astray. But over time, the Tengu came to be hailed as protectors of the Dharma. When a corrupt or pretentious monk died, it is said that he was sent to the realm of the Tengu where he was punished by being given a long-nose. These monk-ghosts became symbol of fallen monks (and warriors).

Oni Mask

In Japanese folk lore, the Oni is the demon associated with all kinds of evil and distressful emotions. These demons are said to lurk around the dying, rushing in to pull souls down to hell. In demon hierarchy, they are worse than the Tengu (the crow-like or long-nosed goblin mischief-maker), wreaking serious damage to humans and devastation to the land.

With its ferocious expression, bulging eyes, snarling mouth, and horns sprouting from either side of its forehead, the Oni strongly resembles the devil as portrayed in western religious and folk art. As tattoos, they are often sported on the backs of hands and snarling up the sides of torsos.

Devil images and masks were used to terrify humans and also to frighten away other evil spirits. Plagues, famine and earthquakes were attributed to the Oni.


Phoenix as a symbol of rebirth and the resurrection, leaving the old world for the new world of the spirit, dying and rising again, reborn. It symbolized the victory of life over death, immortality, and Christ’s resurrection. Jewish legend describes the phoenix as the one creature that did not leave paradise with Adam, and that its legendary longevity is due to abstaining from the forbidden fruit that tempted the 'first man'. On Roman coins, the phoenix represented an undying empire.
In Japan, the phoenix is found carved into sword hilts, and the image of the bird seen as embroidery on kimonos. Along with the sun, the phoenix is one of the emblems of the Japanese Empire. In Japanese tattooing the phoenix is often twinned with the the dragon, symbolizing yin and yang, the harmonious combining of the best of the feminine and masculine virtues.

The phoenix as a tattoo symbol is often associated with feminine qualities, each part of its body representing a specific virtue. Duty, goodness, kindness and reliability are some of the lesser known aspects of the phoenix. The flame images represent purification and transformation through fire and adversity.


Tigers are associated with power, ferocity, passion and sensuality, beauty and speed, cruelty and wrath. The appearance of a tiger in a dream may signal that new power or passion may awaken within you


  1. Miranda, Irezumi tattoos are colourful and amazing and tell a story with a real meaning. I really like what Irezumi tattoos symbolize, the Cherry Blossom, Koi, Tigers etc.

  2. MIRANDA - we got drunk that night!
    Thats no excuse to post pictures of us with the tattoo's we got!!!

  3. I love the vibrancy of the blues and reds in these tattoos. It's interesting to learn of the superstitious element to Japanese tattooing i.e. using certain images as a protection against evil.