Japanese Tattooing – Past to Present

Japanese Tattooing from the Past to the Present
by Mieko Yamada

jomonperiodThe Jomon to the pre-Edo period
The origin of tattooing in Japan has been traced back to the Jomon period (10,000 B. C. ~ 300 B. C.). Jomon means “pattern of rope.” Many ceramic pots with markings of rope were found in that period. Clay figurines produced in this period are called dogu. Scholars consider that some dogus show tattoo-like markings on their faces and bodies. The oldest dogus whose faces have a depiction of tattooing were found near Osaka in 1977. They are estimated to date from dated the fifth century B. C. (Richie,1980).  During the Yayoi  period (300 B. C. ~ 300 A. D.) clay figurines with tattoo markings were also found (Yoshioka, 1996).

The custom of tattooing in Japan is described in the third century Chinese  history,Gishiwajinden,  which is the oldest record mentioning Japan. Japan is called Wa, and the custom of tattooing is mentioned in this text:

The men of Wa tattoo their faces and paint their bodies with designs. They are fond of diving for fish and shells. Long ago they decorated their bodies in order to protect themselves from large fish. Later these designs became ornamental. Body painting differs among the various tribes. The position and size of the designs vary according to the rank of individuals…. They smear their bodies with pink and scarlet just as we Chinese use powder (Tsunoda and Goodrich, cited by Dalby, 1993: 22).

The Kofun period (300 A. D.- 600 A. D.) came after the Yayoi era. The word kofun means an old tomb. In this period, hilly tombs in many places were made, and the clay figures in the shape of dolls, horses and huts were also found in the tombs. The clay figures are called haniwa, which is the counterpart of dogu in the Jomon era. Markings on some haniwa are regarded as patterns of tattoos.

In 622 A. D., an envoy of China recorded the custom of Japanese tattooing in Zuisho. There is a section, “Ryukyu kokuden” in it, and the practice of tattooing among the Ryukyu women is described. The Ryukyu islands are today in Okinawa prefecture, the southern most part of Japan. When it was an independent country it was threatened by the rule of China and Japan.

This record, Zuisho, shows Okinawa and Taiwan already established trading in those days. However, it is not confirmed whether  Ryukyu in Zuisho itself refers to Okinawa or Taiwan. Many scholars state that the design of Okinawan tattoo is similar to the tattooing style in a part of aboriginal Taiwanese (Yoshioka, 1996). The Okinawan tattoo may be connected not only with the custom of tattooing in Taiwan but also with South East Asia.

thekojikiIt was not until the eighth century that the first Japanese printed books appeared. The Kojiki(712 A. D.) mentions that there are two types of tattoos. One is a mark of distinction on a man of very high status, and the other is to identify criminals (McCallum, 1988). Later, the Chronicles of Japan, the Nihonshoki, was complied in 720 A.D. According to the Nihonshoki, a person named Azumi no Murajihamako was tattooed as punishment for treason. This was an example of the punitive application of tattooing. McCallum (1988) summarizes the practice of Japanese tattooing during the Kofun period. In the early Kofun period, the tattoo persisted as a socially acceptable practice. However, it seems to have acquired negative associations, perhaps from the middle of the period (McCallum, 1988).

Between 600 A.D. and 1600, there is little literature regarding the custom of tattooing. Tamabayashi (1956) and Van Gulik (1982) state the Joei Code issued in 1232 mentions penal tattooing. According to some scholars (Richie; 1980, Van Gulik; 1982), tattooing was used to mark and distinguish the social outcasts. Consequently, the people who were tattooed as punishment formed minority groups, called eta (the euphemism of village people) and hinin (non-humans).

Iizawa (1973) and Tamabayashi (1956) report that the custom of tattooing is also found among Samurai warriors in the sixteenth century. In certain areas, the samurai had tattoos for identification.

Soldiers wore armor and had other identifying belongings, of course, but scavengers often stripped dead bodies on a battlefield , which made identification difficult. Tattoos offered certain identification (Iizawa, 1973; 252).

satsumaclanDuring the Tensho era (1573~1591), the samurai soldiers of the Satsuma clan (now Kagoshima region) were tattooed with Japanese characters on the upper arms. However, this information is not clearly confirmed.

Tattooing in the Ainu and the Ryukyu

Ryukyu tattooing was first mentioned in 1461. However, some scholars consider the description of tattooing in theZuisho of 622 to be the oldest record of the Ryukyu tattoo even though this information is still speculative (Yoshioka, 1996).  The oldest reports of Ainu tattoos were recorded by an Italian researcher, Girolamo de Angelis in 1612 and 1621 (Yoshioka, 1996). The Ainus were tattooed on the face as well as the back of the hands and arms. The tattoos were done around the lips, cheeks, the forehead or the eyebrows. There are several motivations for Ainu tattooing: cosmetic purposes, tribal purposes, sexual maturity, religious purposes and adornment. Although only the Ainu women’s tattoos were mentioned in most cases, it was also reported that the men were tattooed in some regions (Takayama; 1969, Yoshioka; 1996).

Ainu girls were first tattooed when they were 10 to 13 years old. Some women started when they were 5 or 6 years old. Their tattoos were completed by the time they reached marriageable age.  The patterns of the Ainu tattoos are related to their tribal clothing.

Tosabayashi (1948) presents the study on the patterns of the Ainu tattoo in detail. He mentions that the patterns of the tattoos are similar to the chastity belt that the Ainu women wore, and that Ainu tattoos symbolize virtue or purity. The Ainu tattoo is also used for protection from the atrocities committed by other tribes.

The Ryukyu tattoos, on the other hand, were done on only the back of the hands, including the fingers, the wrists and the knuckles. There are no examples of facial tattoo (Glacken, 1955). Tattooing is not practiced in every Ryukyu island. In some parts, both men and women got tattooed, but in others, only women had tattoos. In other parts of Ryukyu, no one was tattooed. The age at which tattooing began was different, depending on the areas of the Ryukyu islands or generation (Yoshioka, 1996).  The Ryukyu tattooing symbolized religious beliefs, sexual maturity, indication of marriage, body adornment, distinction of sex, and tribal customs. Glacken (1955) reports that the purpose of the Ryukyu women’s tattooing was to prevent being carried off to brothels in Japan. Kidnappings were frequent occurrences in the Ryukyu history and the Ryukyu people knew that the Japanese disliked tattooed women (Haring, 1969).

There are examples of therapeutic tattooing among the Ainu and the Ryukyu. It was believed that tattoos would heal the affected parts (Yoshioka, 1996). This is different from the medical tattoos, but more likely to be magical.
The Edo period (1600 -1867)

Socio-cultural Background 15

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo period, unified the country and set political power in Edo (the present Tokyo). He set the rigid social system and divided it into four classes, shi (samurai warriors), no (peasants), ko (artisans) and sho (merchants). These ranks were based on Confucianism. Samurai warriors were the highest rank. Peasants and artisans were a higher status than merchants, because they contributed to the country as producers. In those days, taxes were paid with the staple food of rice. Therefore, the peasants were seen as second class citizens.  Ieyasu continued to issue strict regulations, stressing religious thoughts. In 1614, he banned Christianity. Ieyasu’s proclamation against Christians clearly states that Japan is the country of the gods. Interestingly, Ieyasu also quotes the Confucian doctrine.Kung-fu-tze also said: “Body, hair and skin we have received from our father and mother; not to injure them is the beginning of filial piety. To preserve one’s body is to revere god”

(Ballu, 1945: 131). Filial piety is one of the important elements in the Confucian philosophical thoughts, and consists of filial duties toward parents: obedience, responsibility, and loyalty. It is the foundation of feudal ethics. Furthermore, Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi’s system was later guided by Hayashi Razan, one of the famous scholars of the early Edo era. Chu Hsi emphasizes human relationships in the Five Human Relations: between father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, older and younger brother, and friends (Sansom, 1963).

This is called the Genroku era (1688-1704), inother words, Ukiyo, or ”floating world.” The wordUkiyo stems from the Buddhist expression, and originally means “the dark,shifting world of existence, or transience of life.” As society changed through the centuries, the meaning became “floating world.” The novelist Ryoi initially used this term in his work, Ukiyo Monogatari,  ”Tales of the Floating World” (Williams, 1983). He describes the life in the early Edo era, that is, the Ukiyo world.

ukiyoeThe wealthy townspeople surrounding him were not worried about future salvation but rather enjoyed their materialistic, temporal existences and those pleasures appealing directly to the senses. They lived for the moment : “the fleeting moment” (Williams, 1983: 1).  Many prominent art works were produced, and chonin bunka, culture of the townspeople, was fully developed in this period.

Legal prostitution

Human passion and its physical expression were not controlled by an abstract moral code, whether ofchivalry or sin, but by aesthetics, by decorum for its own sake. Love was a kind of art for art’s sake, an exquisite piece of theater (Ian Buruma, “The Art of Prostitution”, in Behind the Mask, 1984:78). Geisha literally means a person engaging in art or entertainment. They are professional artists. The geisha are trained to play musical instruments, sing, and dance before making their debut as geisha. They are not prostitutes, but well-educated entertainers. Although the geisha were prohibited from engaging in prostitution, the prohibition was not always observed.

The term Geisha was first used in the Edo period. After the first geisha, Kasen of Ogiya, made her debut in 1762 (Akiyama; 1937, Fujimoto; 1915), the number of geisha increased rapidly. The clients were mostly samurai, but they were gradually replaced by townspeople (Nishiyama, 1997).

Yoshiwara was one of the famous pleasure districts, and the favorite site for the Edo culture such as Ukiyo-eKabuki plays, poetry and literature.  During the Edo period, prostitution was under the supervision of the Tokugawa government. It was legal, but a license was required. The yujos were  women who engaged in sexual activity with customers while the geisha  did not. Legal prostitution, in fact, continued until 1957 (Dalby, 1983).

Van Gulik (1982) points out that Japan’s marriage system and the subservient position of women in those days led to the flourishing of pleasure districts. Marriage was a family matter, and arranged between families in order to maintain their family name, social position, mutual interests and obligations. Romantic love, personal preference, and unconstrained social contacts between men and women were therefore usually sought in the entertainment quarters (Van Gulik, 1982: 21).

geishaThe life-style or status of women was based on Neo-Confucian ethics. Sansom (1963) describes this: The worst treatment of all was that to which a woman had to submit. During her life she had to devote herself to what were called the “three obediences” (sanju): to her parents when a child, to her husband when married, and to her children when she grew old. Too much learning was thought to spoil a girl’s character, but in the middle and upper classes some education was approved, in literature, music, and handwriting (p.89). In those days, Japanese men had sex with their wives for procreation, and with the Yujos for recreation (Dalby, 1983).

Kishobori - the vow tattoo

The term, irebokuro means tattoo, and was used in the Edo period. Ire or ireru, means to insert, and bokuro or hokuro is a beauty spot. In the early Edo period, tattoo was like a dot, not pictorial yet.  Irebokuro originated among the yujos, or legal prostitutes. The custom of irebokuro probably parallels the establishment of legal prostitution (Tamabayashi, 1956). According to Tamabayashi (1956), the major group of people who accepted irebokuro was the yujos, and the second was the geishas. Tattooing was rare among ordinary girls. On the other hand, in the case of the male population, the majority was the yujo or the geisha’s clients or womanizers. Tattooed priests and youngsters were sometimes seen.

Tamabayashi (1956) describes one of the old patterns of irebokuro: a man and a woman hold their hands together, and get a mole-like tattoo on each hand where the tip of the thumb reached. Irebokuro was a reminder for lovers, and showed a vow of eternal love. It is said that some yujos wore tattoos of their lover’s name and the Japanese character for life (inochi). It symbolized the strength of their pledge of love. Tamabayashi also mentions irebokuro in homosexuality between priests and young boys. These tattoos were also called kishobori, the vow tattoo.  The yujos were likely to choose to be tattooed on the arm, especially the inside of the arm and near the armpit, not the forearm (Tamabayashi, 1956). Their tattoos probably meant secret affairs, forbidden love or personal desires. The purpose of the yujo’s tattoos was one of serious promise, or nuptial proof, or eternal love, and the pledge of the heart and soul towards sincere love (Tamabayashi, 1956:24).  For others, the irebokuro was perhaps just a tool to please and keep their customers, and thus to succeed as a highest ranked courtean.

The Geishas and the Yujos made up strange customs to keep their clients. Several authors (Fujimoto; 1915, Tamabayashi; 1956, Seigle; 1993, Van Gulik; 1982) cite examples of the geisha’s behavior.

1. A woman gave a written pledge to her lover.
2. She tattooed the lover’s name in her arm.
3. She cut her hair.
4. She cut her little finger.
5. She tore off the nail of one of her fingers.
6. She stabbed her elbow or thigh (Fujimoto, 1915: 129).

In the literature of the Edo period, the practice of the pledge letter, tattooing, finger-cutting, hair-cutting, nail-tearing are often described (Seigle; 1993, Tamabayashi; 1956, Van Gulik; 1982). The purpose of the pledge letter was to get a few drops of blood from both the man and the woman (Seigle, 1993).  Tattooing was similar to the pledge letter. Many yujosand geishas tattooed themselves to please their customers.

However, tattooing was considered inelegant and indiscreet among high-ranking geisha, and they tended to avoid it (Seigle, 1993). Some customers insistedon it and the geisha were forced to submit. At the same time, they had to know how to erase tattoos. The courtesans cauterized tattoos with moxa (driedherb) and fire (Seigle; 1993, Tamabayashi; 1956,Van Gulik; 1982). The tattoo could be the cause of trouble if the courtesans had several different customers. There are records of the yujos and the geishas repeatedly having to tattoo over or remove old tattoos whenever their customers changed.  Finger and hair-cutting, and nail-tearing were more serious tokens than tattooing one’s name because they were obviously visible. The extreme form of love was shinju, double suicide. Many lovers committed double suicides, and this phenomenon peaked from the Genroku era (1688-1703) to 1720′s (Seigle, 1993). By the late Tokugawa era, kishoboriwas no longer popular.