Tattoos: The Art of Japanese Irezumi

Tattoos: The Art of Japanese Irezumi

Tattoos or Irezumi may be trending worldwide right now, but that’s far from the truth here in Japan. Once seeked out by King George V and Nicholas II, now inked bodies are hidden behind turtlenecks on hot summer days and banned in beaches and nightclubs. Is this a country that is suffering from tattoo-phobia? And where did such a deep rooted negative stigma come from?

History Of Tattoos In Japan

The main reason for the society’s anti-tattoo view is the association it has with the Yakuza and organized crime. But this wasn’t always the case. As far back as 10000 B.C, tattoos was considered spiritual or a status symbol.

The golden era of body inking was the Edo period brought on by the military dictatorship led by corrupt samurai who had closed off the Japan from the rest of the world. The lower classes stripped of their rights seeked refuge in art which gave birth to Kabuki, ukiyo-e woodblock prints and of course tattoos. Firefighters, carpenters, and palanquin bearers inked carps and water dragons as a symbol or protection against the heat. Indigenous groups bore face tattoos as a talisman. This of course pissed off the dictators who began to use this creative expression as a form of punishment for criminals, who would become known as the infamous yakuza today.

Tattoo Japan
Source: RocketNews24

In 1872, a nation wide tattoo ban was put in place. The country was at risk of invasion and the government felt the less barbaric Japan looked to westerners (ironic, right?), the higher chances of being left alone. The inked faces of the Ainu women of Hokkaido, and the hand tattoos of okinawan women were all prohibited from practising their culture. During this period, over 700 were arrested in Okinawa for arrested for getting tattoos.

This led all tattoo artists to go underground until 1941 when the ban was lifted due to the arrival of the U.S Occupation forces. During this time, Japanese inspired tattoos in the western world were becoming all the rage, but as we all know this wasn’t the case for the country of origin.

Tattoos Today

Tattoo artists can freely express their art but it has not been an easy journey for them. In Japan, tattoo artists are required to have a medical license and will find themselves behind bars if they tattoo a minor. In 2012, the mayor of Osaka started an anti-tattoo campaign for company workers with an ultimatum of either remove tattoos or be fired. And a surprising number of the population were supportive of this idea.

Tattoo Japan
Source: GaijinPot

Where Are Tattoos Prohibited?


If you have a tattoo anywhere on your body, unfortunately you are not allowed to experience the uber relaxing hot springs of Japan unless you can find, and are willing to pay more for a private session.

Night Clubs

If you’re heading to Shibuya for some dancing and drinks with a obvious shoulder tattoo. It’s probably better to cover it up or you might be turned away at the door.


A lot of companies refuse to hire or fire employees with tattoos.


Unless you want to experience the embarrassment of an old man with a megaphone telling you off for not covering up your tattoos like I did, it’s better to come prepared to the beach with some fully covered clothes.

Swimming Pools

Like everywhere else that requires minimal clothes in Japan, pools are no exception to the tattoo ban.

Don’t be dismayed from visiting Japan if you are tattooed, more Japanese people don’t seem to mind foreigners that are inked. The rejection of the art may be dominant within Japanese society but change is happening! Japanese youth are a lot more interested in the art, particularly western style as a means of fashion and self-expression. The tattoo shops are popping up on the streets of Harajuku with young artists who have trained in America and Mexico to develop their own style.

There are numerous types of tattoos but here’s the main breakdown!


Japan Tattoo
Source: Senseslost

Wabori tattoo designs are traditional and detailed often depicting mythological beasts, animals and flowers. They are distinctively different from yabori, or western style tattoos even though both often use the same techniques by artists.


tattoo japan
Source: StylesWeekly

Tebori is the traditional practise of hand-tattooing in Japan and is done by using a wooden or metal rod with an array of needles on the end. This is probably the more painful and detailed form of creating this art on the skin. Even though machine tattooing has become common in Japan along with the rest of the world, it is still quite common to find Tebori around shops in Japan. If you are a self-proclaimed xenophile that’s planning a trip to Japan, I’d say think long and hard before heading into the first tattoo shop you see to get a Tebori tattoo.

Even if they can be visually more appealing, they hella hurt! The needles have to be forced into the skin by just the strength of the artist, it can feel like you have a painful bruise for days. Not to mention that the traditional style takes 60% longer. Yikes! But if you can handle pain like a champ, go for it!

Tattoo Japan
Source: The Beaumont

Even with an obvious tattoo-phobia, it can come as a surprise at the sheer number of tattooed youth enjoying rays of sun at beaches throughout the country. The stigma may be going strong for baby boomers who grew up watching yakuza crime movies and were instilled by parents that tattoo means gangsters, but the generation of the internet age were exposed to the artistic side.

The government is now asking bathhouses to loosen up on their no tattoo rules, and some club owners are body art slide. It may not be anytime soon, but the future does look bright for tattoos in Japan!

Want to read more about Japanese culture? Check out our article about the Japanese Flag, the Naked Festival or the Cherry Blossom season in Japan.

Thumbnail Source: Jakwave