Japanese tattoos have had a complicated history, even the mafia has taken a liking to them

In Japan, tattoos have had a deep symbolism and meaning since time immemorial. The first mentions of tattoos in Japan are 7000 years old. For most of Japan’s history, tattoos were the privilege or rather punishment of criminals. But then things changed.

Up until the late 17th century, tattooing was a stigma where a thief or murderer was also tattooed as part of their punishment, letting everyone know who they were dealing with. Those who had tattoos lived on the fringes of society, not accepted by their families or communities. From the 17th century onwards, things changed with the influence of China. In the novel Suikoden, there are images of warriors having epic battles and their bodies are richly tattooed. This gave tattoos a new meaning and popularity in Japan, giving birth to the Japanese tattoo irezumi, which had nothing to do with criminality. Scenes of ancient famous warriors and samurai prevailed, sometimes also dragons and other symbols. The predominant colour of tattoos was blue.

Tattoos became a status symbol in the 17th century. Rich merchants and wealthy people did not like to wear expensive jewellery in public for traditional and safety reasons, preferring instead to be adorned with tattoos.

Later, especially in the second half of the 19th century, tattoos caught on with the dreaded Yakuza criminal organization. The Japanese equivalent of the mafia began to practice modifications of the original convict tattoos. Tattooists began to embellish these and add additional symbols and decorations to them, so that not only did they depict the life story of the yakuza member in question, what he had done or done, but also other details of his life. The tattoo was a commitment and a symbol of loyalty. Those who marked themselves in this way were forever affirming that they were a member of the organization.

Today, the tattoo situation in Japan is ambivalent. The older population in particular still perceives it primarily as a sign of criminals and, for example, spas and fitness centres prohibit entry to people with tattoos; on the other hand, young Japanese people already perceive tattoos differently, probably in the same way as their peers in the West. This is why it is growing in popularity among young people, although it is not nearly as popular as in Europe or America.


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