Japanese tattoos, called irezumi, are one of the most popular styles in tattoo art, but were you aware that every image used in Japanese tattoos has a meaning and purpose? The deep meaning of these tattoos have added a depth to the art that has helped them persist for centuries and increased their appeal to so many outside of Japanese culture. If you’re thinking about getting a Japanese tattoo, we recommend reading this guide to get acquainted with the meaning of traditional irezumi. There’s a lot to learn and if you’re going to put something on your body that lasts forever, you should at least understand what it means.
There’s a lot to cover, so if you know exactly what you’re looking for, here’s a table of contents. Just click a link and it’ll take you to that section of the page. This guide includes pictures of the most common irezumi.
Traditionally, Irezumi began as a means of conveying societal status as well as serving as spiritual symbols that were often used as a sort of charm for protection as well as symbolizing devotion, not unlike modern religious tattoos. Over time, tattoos in Japanese culture developed as a form of punishment similar to what was seen in Rome where it was common practice to tattoo prisoners of war, criminals, and slaves as a means of making their status in society instantly recognizable. Eventually the practice faded and tattoos returned as a status symbol among the merchant class who were, interestingly enough, banned from flaunting their wealth.
Following World War II, tattoos were outlawed by the Emperor of Japan in an effort to improve Japan’s image in the west. Tattoos in Japan then took on a criminal element, but this didn’t stop foreigners from being intrigued. Naturally, they would seek out the skills of Japanese tattoo artists–a practice that helped keep Japanese style tattoos alive, particularly since tattoos in Japan itself are looked down on. The modern association between Japanese traditional tattoos and the criminal element is said to have led to the adoption of tattoos by the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. This has also served to promote the aesthetic of Japanese traditional tattoos much in the same way American traditional tattoos were promoted. The element of criminality, or social taboo, created and air of danger and appeal.
Today many people proudly wear Japanese style tattoos for their beautiful artistic merits, flowing composition, and the deep meaning associated with the many aspects of Japanese tattoo designs.
Japanese tattoo meaning is tied to the various creatures, plants, and people depicted in the tattoo. This goes beyond the typical metaphoric or implied meaning inherent to all art– These images are used to convey a person’s beliefs, aspirations, or character traits. In some cases they even tell famous stories and myths. Called “motifs“, these design elements are intended to have the same meaning wherever they are used so that meaning is not unique to the individual. That means that anyone that sees the tattoo can instantly recognize the meaning and what they wearer wants to have conveyed, be it personality traits, character attributes, or association with a criminal organization.
Tattoo Meaning: wisdom, strength, force for good, wind/water
Dragons in the West traditionally symbolize strength, ferocity, and wealth. Dragons are destructive forces, but they are also considered guardians. The Japanese, and the East in general, see dragons differently. In traditional Japanese tattoo art dragons are generous, benevolent forces that use their strength to do good for mankind. Wisdom is another trait attributed to dragons. These positive connotations have made dragon tattoos among the most popular of Japanese style tattoos.
Japanese tattoos of koi fish are another of the most popular tattoo designs in traditional Japanese tattoo art. Koi are a specially bred type of carp, a fish native to China. Koi are given masculine qualities in traditional Eastern folklore such as strength and bravery. The Koi in China are known to swim upstream in the Yellow River, but very few swim past a point known as “Dragon’s Gate”. Koi who make it past Dragon’s Gate are said to be rewarded by turning into dragons. For this reason, Koi also symbolize determination and a strong desire to succeed and become “something more”.
This tattoo, like many other irezumi, shares a background with other cultures. The Phoenix is a bird that is consumed by fire and then rises from its own ashes. The story exists in many cultures and at many times throughout history, including Greek and Roman mythology, Middle Eastern folklore, and even the Americas. The Japanese phoenix story draws its source from the story that’s indigenous to mainland China. The Chinese phoenix has a different background from the phoenix story the Western world is familiar with.
The Chinese phoenix tattoo, represents both the masculine and the feminine– Yin and Yang.The name of the phoenix in Chinese is feng huang; feng – a male bird and huang, a female one. It is said to appear only in times of peace and prosperity. It is also said that the Chinese phoenix is a creature of morality, shunning those who do not meet its high moral standards. The phoenix is said to exemplify justice and graciousness. It does not tolerate abuse of power.
The Japanese tiger tattoo carries with it the same traits we attribute to the real animal–strength and courage, but also long life. The tiger tattoo wards off evil spirits, bad luck, and disease. The tiger is a symbol for both the North and for autumn, they control the wind, and they are one of the four sacred animals.
This tattoo resembles both a lion and a dog. More specifically, it looks like a lion with pointed ears. Fu Dogs are protective, strong, and courageous. As statues they serve to keep evil out, as tattoos they serve as protectors and often indicate a courageous person with heroic aspirations.
In traditional Japanese tattoos, the snake holds a wide range of meanings and performs a number of important functions. Among its many attributes are protection from illness, disaster, and bad fortune. Snake tattoos also represent wisdom and protection, particularly from the results of bad decisions. The snake also embodies regeneration, healing, and medicine. Revered in Japanese culture, the snake was associated with medicinal rites and remedies. As a symbol of good luck, it was also though to bring good health.
The Japanese snake tattoo also represents the Divine Feminine, or the holy female attributes. It was thought that much in the same way a snake sheds its skin, a woman could take on the positive attributes of a man. Seems a little sexist, but it was ancient Japan, after all.
The image of the human skull in the majority of tattoo culture– and art in general, has a negative connotation (such as death, danger, and an ill fate), the skull used in Japanese tattoos is intended to be a positive representation of the natural life cycle.
Traditionally, the Japanese skull tattoo represents change, which makes sense as death is the greatest change man can experience. See more skull tattoo styles.
Japanese flower tattoos have a wide variety of meaning and are a very important and highly valued design in traditional Japanese tattoo art. For the sake of convenience, we’ve included the information about Japanese flower tattoos in our Flower Tattoos section.
The Oni Mask tattoo in Japanese tattoos is extremely common and refers to the belief in a spirit world in which demons carry out their roles of punishing the unjust and evil, as well as spreading disease (seems like a random thing to be responsible for, but I guess it fits in with the whole evil-doing business).
While Oni are known for being evil, some Oni are good and are seen as protectors. One instance of this would include a monk who becomes an Oni after death to protect his temple. In English, the word Oni is best translated as ogre or troll (the Japanese word for “demon” is actually “yokai“). Oni, in traditional Japanese folklore, we marauding ogres known for terrorizing villages and tormenting villagers. Oni’s association with demons in Japanese tattoo art has more to do with ogres being grouped into the realm of supernatural creatures (along with yokai) than anything else. Still, the symbolism holds as the imagery of the marauding ogre isn’t far from the idea of the evil spirit which the tattoo aims to convey.
Many Japanese tattoos feature water. Specifically, waves are an element of Japanese tattoo art that are perhaps among the most recognizable (Think traditional Japanese artists, like Hokusai). In addition to symbolizing strength and life, water tattoos convey the belief that life, like water, ebbs and flows. It is strong and swift when necessary, but can be gentle and calm as well.
Looking for Something More Unique?
These aren’t for everyone, but if you want to get a traditional Japanese tattoo with some more interesting subject matter, be sure to check out our post on Yokai tattoos. These tattoos feature odd creatures from Japanese folklore and ghost stories. Some you might recognize, or you might not. One thing’s for sure, you won’t see many people sporting these.