Japanese Tattoos: History, Meanings, Symbolism & Designs

Japanese tattoos are probably the most popular and recognizable tattoo styles. The Japanese tattoo tradition has been around for thousands of years now, and even to this day it wears a mysterious veil unknown to many of us.

So, if you are looking to get a Japanese tattoo tattoo, but not sure what meaning or design you should get, then this is the right place. In the following paragraphs, we’ll dive into the symbolism, meaning, and design of Japanese tattoos, so let’s get started!

Japanese Tattoos – Explained

history and culture

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Prior to World War II, Japanese tattoos were used to represent social status as well as spiritual devotion. They were also used as a form of charm for protection and spirituality.

However, Japanese tattoos were also used as a form of punishment for criminals and slaves, which also directly referred to the social status of these social groups.

However, these tattooing practices were banned by the Japanese emperor in the Edo period. It was then that tattoos became a symbol of crime, the Japanese underground and the Yakuza. However, the legal ban on tattoos in Japan was completely lifted in 1948 under American occupation. It was then that Japanese tattoo artists began to cater to the American military and the military.

In the 1980s, Japanese tattoos became a worldwide phenomenon, mainly due to rock bands getting traditional Japanese tattoos. After that, this global phenomenon has continued to expand.

The world was and still is amazed by the amazing Japanese tattoos, and to this day, foreigners seek out the best Japanese tattoo artists to get a real traditional tattoo.

Read more: History of tattoos (a brief overview and interesting information for your “fun facts” collection)

The meaning and design of traditional Japanese tattoos

Here are the meanings and designs of the most popular traditional Japanese tattoos. They all carry historical and traditional meanings that derive from myths, legends and traditional stories. All traditional Japanese tattoos should be designed by experienced tattoo artists and done by hand.

Ryu Tattoo – Japanese Dragon Tattoo

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Image source: Instagram

It is the most popular Japanese tattoo design. The Japanese dragon symbolizes strength, wisdom, blessing and the force of good. The symbolism stems from the traditional belief that dragons can manipulate elements for the benefit of people and good in this world.

Japanese dragon tattoos usually vary in design, so the dragon may have a camel’s head, the body of a snake or a fish, the talons of an eagle, etc.

It usually includes the elements of different animals or mythical creatures and occupies large parts of the body (most often the “sleeve” of the arm, the shoulder region, the upper and lower back, and the upper thighs.

Kappa Tattoo – Japanese Turtle Tattoo

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Image source: Instagram

Another popular Japanese tattoo design stems from the myth of a monstrous turtle and giant salamanders reaching into shallow waters to grab everyone nearby.

Because of this myth, the Kappa are portrayed as troublemakers and lawbreakers. They apparently enjoy kidnapping children and assaulting women, which is definitely beyond myth and a cover story for outcasts who break the law.

We don’t know why these tattoos are popular with foreigners, but we guess most people don’t really know the history and meaning of turtle tattoos.

When it comes to the design of the tattoo, the most notable feature is the small water-filled cavity on the top of the turtle’s head. When the cavity is dry, it means the turtle is helpless.

Tengu Tattoos – Japanese Supernatural/Ghost Tattoos

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Image source: Instagram

These tattoos usually feature humanoid variations of supernatural creatures with demonic characteristics. The creatures typically have elongated noses and generally sinister appearances.

They are often colored red and black to further emphasize their wrathful symbolism. These creatures often carry the meaning of war and destruction, so the color red also represents militant symbolism. The tattoo is often placed in a visible location, but the majority of people tend to place it on the back, upper thigh, or chest.

Read also :

Koi Tattoos – Japanese Koi Fish Tattoos

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Image source: Instagram

The story of the koi fish going up the stream, reaching the top of a waterfall and turning into a dragon is one of the most popular Japanese and Chinese legends.

The Koi fish is a traditional Japanese symbol of wealth, success, ability to overcome difficulties, courage and determination. Depending on the color of the Koi fish tattoo, it can carry a combination of different meanings, for example; masculinity, motherhood, strength, bravery, independence, success, wealth, desire, etc.

Foo Dog or Karajishi Tattoos – Japanese Lion Tattoos

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Image source: Instagram

The Japanese lion tattoo is not quite what you might expect from them. The lion in such tattoos is a combination of a dog and a lion, where the lion has rather pointed ears.

Therefore, the meaning of such a tattoo is often double, including the meaning of the dog and the lion. Symbolism often refers to courage, bravery, protection, strength, loyalty, etc.

Both the dog and the lion in Japanese tradition carry the meaning of heroic aspirations and the need to serve as protectors. Japanese lion tattoos can be small or large, and they sit best on the shoulders and arms, especially the forearm, as well as the calves and thighs.

Hebi Irezumi Tattoos – Japanese Snake Tattoos

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Image source: Instagram

In Japanese, Hebi means snake and Irezumi means tattoo. Japanese snake tattoos often represent the eastern idea of ​​a snake. Nevertheless, the snake in the Japanese tradition carries a meaning of rebirth, transformation and change, mainly because snakes are known to shed their skin. Japanese snake tattoos can also be a symbol of good luck if a snake is white.

However, if the tattoo depicts a black or dead snake, it is considered a very bad omen. Snake tattoos are often placed on the shoulders, arms and chest as these areas seem to present the best images.

Hou-ou Tattoos – Japanese Phoenix Tattoos

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Image source: Instagram

In Japan, the phoenix is ​​a symbol of the imperial house. Therefore, the meaning of Japanese phoenix tattoos often revolves around imperial characteristics, like obedience, justice, fire, sun, etc.

However, the phoenix can also symbolize both harmony and disharmony, as well as good and bad times. The phoenix is ​​often depicted in rather large tattoos; it has a longer neck, unusually large wings, and often exhibits the color scheme of fire and sunshine.

Japanese Tattoos and FAQs

What is a Japanese tattoo?

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A Japanese tattoo can be a traditional or modern depiction of mythical creatures and Japanese legends on the body. The Japanese tattooing process is known as Irezumi and can be done using non-electric tools (Tebori technique) or the traditional tattoo needle.

Japanese tattoos are often associated with the Japanese mafia or Yakuza, but today it is a global phenomenon and a style that appeals to foreigners and visitors to Japan.

Do Japanese tattoo colors have any meaning?

Yes of course! Colors are one of the main characteristics of a traditional Japanese tattoo design. Let’s take a look at some of the main color meanings;

  • White – this is the color of death in Japan, so it usually has a negative connotation in tattoos. However, depending on the style and design of the tattoo, the color white can signify things like innocence, purity, and truth. It often symbolizes a new beginning or a new chance, which is how the Japanese see death (as a chance for a new start).
  • Black – this color is one of the go-to colors for Japanese tattoos. It often depicts things like masculinity and fatherhood. Other times, it can symbolize mourning, struggles, or the ability to overcome life’s difficulties. Black is the color often associated with Japanese underground tattoo culture.
  • Red – this color is the color of joy and happiness in Japanese tradition and culture. It usually symbolizes love, bravery, motherhood and power. However, depending on the style and design of a tattoo, the color red can have a meaning of battle, war, and destruction, especially when paired with black or dark tones.
  • Blue – the color blue often symbolizes masculinity and fertility, and is used in the design of Koi fish tattoos. The color also symbolizes calm and serenity.
  • Gold/Yellow – Often used in the design of tattoos like the Koi Fish, Dragon or Phoenix, the gold/yellow color symbolizes strength, power, prosperity, wealth, luck and success.

Why are Japanese tattoos associated with crime?

The reason why Japanese tattoos are often associated with crime lies in the events of the Edo period. During the Edo period (1603-1869), criminals and slaves were branded with tattoos to identify and punish them.

At that time, people like murderers, burglars, muggers, and anyone doing anything illegal were required to wear a tattoo that would show their social status and criminal history.

Even though the ban on tattoos remained until World War II, in 1948, the ban was lifted with the arrival of the US military. However, the stigma remained and nowadays Japanese tattoos are associated with the underground, the mafia and the yakuza.

Read more: Are tattoos illegal in Japan? (A guide to visiting Japan with tattoos)

Is it disrespectful to get a Japanese tattoo as a foreigner?

Japanese people are generally not offended when foreigners get tattoos of traditional Japanese tattoos. They even find it flattering that foreigners are interested in their history, tradition and culture.

However, what they find disrespectful is when foreigners get tattoos of traditional Japanese tattoos without really knowing the meaning of the tattoo.

So make sure to always research the meaning of a particular tattoo design if it is traditional. This way you will avoid offending and disrespecting Japanese tradition and culture.

What are the Japanese tattoo design rules?

  • Rule #1 – Japanese tattoos should be bright, unique and rich in detail.
  • Rule #2 – Japanese tattoos should have a large design and usually take up large areas of the body like the chest, arm area, upper and lower back, upper thigh and thigh area. buttocks, etc.
  • Rule #3 – Japanese tattoos should have traditional themes, symbols and characters from myths and legends.
  • Rule #4 – real Japanese tattoos must be done by hand. The tattoo artist will use a technique called ‘Tebori’.

Also Read: 50+ Best Japanese Flower Tattoo Design Ideas And Their Meanings

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