The History behind Japanese Tattoos

According to some claims, the history of Japanese tattoos goes back to the Paleolithic period. Not everyone agrees on that, but an ancient Mandarin text confirms tattoos were popular in the third century. That text specifies men would mark both their bodies and faces with different drawings.

Ikezumi, which is the Japanese word for a tattoo, remained popular for centuries. In the 19th century, a great master of woodblock prints, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, made a series of prints that show people with bodysuit tattoos. You can even see designs from this series in some modern Japanese body art, which is impressive.

It was around this time when the Japanese established that tattoos would also be a type of public shaming. They put tattoos on outcasts to embarrass them, and it would usually be on faces or visible areas. Some regions even established the practice of adding more tattoos for repeated offenders.

Emperor Meiji decided to outlaw tattoos in 1871. They remained illegal until 1948, which is when the ban was lifted. Nowadays it’s perfectly legal to get a tattoo in Japan, but there is a certain stigma around it.

The Unique Features of Japanese Tattoos

The Unique Features of Japanese Tattoos

Although they are a controversial topic for some locals, Japanese tattoos have an impressive history. Japanese tattoo meanings differ but they are renowned for their rich symbolism, expressiveness and bold features. . The stylists didn’t hesitate to use various shades and colors. Some preferred to stick to mixing only black and gray, but the artists didn’t hesitate to pinpoint the imagery with other shades when necessary.

As for the items featured on Japanese tattoo designs, you can choose anything from humans to animals, mythology creatures, flowers, and other things found in nature that represent the rich Japanese culture. Symbols and rich imagery around the focal point of the tattoo is also a common feature of this style.

Tattooing Styles and Colors

You have two primary styles to choose from – traditional and contemporary. The modern approach involves using tattoo machines and electricity. However, more people prefer  the traditional Japanese tattoo technique which is a longer process but it makes tattooing a unique experience. This technique is famous as Tebori, and it involves using handmade applicators while relying on the stylist’s abilities.

As for the colors, they are extremely important in the Japanese tattoo culture. Here is what particular shades represent:

  • Black. In Japan, black is the color of death and mourning. However, it’s the foundation of most tattoos, so the only thing to avoid is mixing it with white. Otherwise, black is the basic tattoo color, and it can also serve to add some mystery or pinpoint a specific section of your body art.
  • White. This color symbolizes innocence and purity but also a fresh start. It might also indicate passing away.
  • Blue. Japanese believe blue brings good luck, which is why they wear suits in this color often. You can show your dedication to work, and blue also represents fidelity.
  • Red. This color is associated with joy and happiness. That’s why we see it in New Year’s decorations, as well as birthdays, weddings, and similar events. Red also represents vitality and passion, and the traditional Japanese believed red tattoos could bring protection.
  • Purple. The famous royal color might be suitable to show your origin.
  • Yellow. Depending on the region, yellow can indicate prosperity and optimism. However, some regions consider this color deceitful.
  • Pink. Good health, delicate femininity, spring, and life, are all connected to this color. Females often choose this color for their tattoos.
  • Green. This is the color of nature in Japan and worldwide. You can show respect for our planet and pinpoint your awareness about the environment by using this color.

Japanese Tattoo Meanings  and Designs

Japanese Tattoo Meanings  and Designs

Are you looking for some Japanese tattoo ideas? Check out these symbols and creatures we often find in body art based on this culture.

Dragon Tattoos

Eastern cultures believe a dragon is a generous being that uses its supernatural abilities to do good deeds for humanity. The Japanese agree with the Westerns that dragons are powerful. However, they believe that these creatures combine wisdom with strength. That’s what makes dragons the most popular motif in Japanese tattoo culture.

Kanji Tattoo

Kanji is one of the ways to write in the Japanese language. It involves using Han or Chinese characters. If you find these symbols attractive, Japanese writing tattoos can be a smart choice.

You can use kanji to write nouns, adverbs, adjectives, and verbs. For example, you can imply you are courageous or pick any word that has a special meaning for you. You can use the internet or consult a language specialist to ensure you get the symbol right. Otherwise, you might end up spelling “soup” instead of “courage,” which would be a true mishap!

Koi Fish Tattoo

The famous koi fish is native to China but popular in Japan. The locals associate these creatures with courage and strength. The origin of that lies in the story about koi fish swimming upstream. They bravely fought to reach the Dragon’s Gate. Those who managed turned into dragons. That’s why koi fish is perfect for career-oriented people and those looking for success in any field. It’s an excellent option if you are looking to “transform” into a better version of yourself.


The meaning depends on the flower you select, and here are some suggestions:

  • Lotus. It’s the symbol of purity and spiritual awakening, which is why it’s among the most commonly tattooed flowers.
  • Chrysanthemum. This is the royal flower, and its associations also include joy, happiness, and longevity.
  • Peony. The Japanese consider it the “king of flowers.” They are masculine, and the associations include fruitfulness, richness, and success overall. Newlyweds often choose this tattoo for prosperity.


Snake is a protector, and these tattoos serve to keep you safe from bad fortune and illnesses. Japanese consider snakes wise creatures, so they can also help you make smart decisions. This animal is a symbol of good health overall, especially due to its regeneration capabilities.

Other Tattoos and Meanings in the Japanese Culture

Other Tattoos and Meanings in the Japanese Culture

Here are some other common themes to consider for a Japanese tattoo:

  • Demon masks. It’s more famous as an Oni mask. These demons punish evil and unjust, but the creature can also feature an evil supernatural spirit.
  • Waves and waters. The idea is to show life’s fluidity. Combining still water with waves shows peaceful and turbulent life periods. You can combine water with koi fish in your tattoos.
  • Skulls. Similar to other cultures, skulls represent death. You can pick them to show reverence for ancestors or a person you lost.
  • Fu-dog. This is a creature that is a combo between a dog and a lion. Their purpose is to protect and show the braveness of the one who chooses this tattoo.

Cultural Sensibilities and Legality

Getting tattoos was officially illegal in Japan from 1871 to 1948. Today, it is 100% legal, so you don’t have to worry about the law. However, tattoos are a controversial question in Japan.

They won’t mind a foreigner getting Japanese style tattoos. But what they might find offensive is getting a tattoo without exploring the culture and understanding the meaning behind the chosen piece. So when you make an appointment with the tattoo artist he will make sure you have chosen the right tattoo and have considered the cultural context of the design.

Japanese culture is different from those in the Western world. They stick to subtlety and don’t show off.

For these reasons, you should keep your tattoo hidden whenever possible. They will ask you at beaches, pools, and waterparks to cover up your tattoo. It’s best to look for tattoo-friendly locations online. Alternatively, you can cover your tattoo by putting a scarf or bandage over that area.

Older Post Newer Post