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Oriental Irezumi and Occidental Tattooing in Contemporary Japan.(eng)


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 body.

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 deshi.

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.



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 spirits.

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 tattooed.


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 tattoos.

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 flourished.

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 irezumi.

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 irezumi.

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 like.

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.



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 decorations.

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 Chi 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 yakuza.

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 shishi) 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 mikiri) 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 tattooing.


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 shitandesuka?

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


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 Tattooing.

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 Ôguri.

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 studio.

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 irezumi "kyoumi ga nai" because it is completely different "zenzen chigaimasu kara". 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 themselves.

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 yakuza.

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 imкji 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 misetakuarimasen.


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 tattooing.

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 way.



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 decorated.


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 Kyô" 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 omou" (I think they are artistic) and "oshare toshite" (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 kara) 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 kara/ 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's not that I get tattooed and go out because I want to make people think I am strong or frightening.

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 it.

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.



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 designs.

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 too.

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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