Kian Forreal on the history of Japanese tattooing: Part 1.

Tattooing in Japan has a long history indeed but a very obscure one. The earliest appearance of tattoos in Japan are on Haniwa; clay figurines that have been found in, on and around Japanese tombs around the country during archeological digs that are dated as far back as the fifth century BC. Many of these figurines have facial and body tattoos depicted on them in various forms, it’s not clear what they represent or why they are used, but they are certainly tattoos.

The purpose of the markings could be for a number of reasons: religious or magical purposes, beautification or punitive. However, the last is unlikely as the Haniwa themselves were honorary statues meant to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife; it’s unlikely that the heavily punished would be used as guides for such an occasion.

According to early Japanese records, face and body tattoos were used by men and woman to indicate social rank, dependant upon on size and placement, as far back as the fifth century AD. Various records from Japan say the same thing, the people of Wa (early Japan) were heavily tattooed over their bodies according to social status.

For a few centuries tattooing disappeared from the record, returning in the 17th century when it was used punitively to mark criminals and untouchables (see Fig.1 and Fig.2). An entire punishment-mark vocabulary was created to identify and differentiate between criminal or untouchable and the area they committed their crime. In some areas the tattoo would be in the form of an ideograph for ‘dog’ on the forehead. In other areas it would be two black bars on the upper arm or a double line circling the arm, or a circle on the shoulder, and so on. Each area had a distinct mark so people knew where the criminal was from. While this punishment was not widely applied I suspect it was used on those criminals where few other options presented themselves. Japan, like any other culture, relies heavily on social and familial ties within the community. To be branded with one of these tattoos was like a living death in such a society as it guaranteed complete ostracisation from all of the community, worse than exile or decapitation.

This could explain the deep-seated stigma of tattooing in Japan’s upper classes and also why it has been repeatedly banned over the years. The country is again attempting to do so with regulations over tattooists and tattoos banned in some public places.

In trying to decipher how tattooing was transformed from rough punitive marks on criminals to the highest form of tattoo art in the world today we need to take a journey through a bit of history.

People have hypothesised that the criminals and untouchables used decorative tattooing to cover their marks and therefore blend back into society. While no doubt this did happen, it’s unlikely that this was the primary reason. Certainly the tradition of leaving the inner arm blank in sleeve tattoos has links to the punitive tattoo, so the wearer of the decorative tattoo could prove he wasn’t hiding any marks or bands of identification. Alas, by the time pictorial tattooing was taking hold in popular culture, the punitive tattoo mark was nearly a thing of the past. According to record, 1720 AD was the last year that punitive tattoos were sanctioned by the Japanese government.

By the 17th century, tattooing for aesthetic reasons was already well known around Japan and featured in contemporary literature read by the masses. Tattooing was common among the lower classes of society, prostitutes both high and low class, and their lovers, as well as courtesans, priests and acolytes.

These tattoos were not pictorial, they were more akin to pledges between lovers. A common tattoo was the ideograph or kanji for life tattooed beside the name of their lover small somewhere on the body, such as the inner thigh, to symbolise life-long commitment. Pledges to Buddha and vows or prayers were common tattoo subjects too and also found their way into the literature of the time.

These pledge tattoos were called irebokuru, “bokuru” or “hokuru” means mole or beauty spot. They were also called kisho-bori, which means “pledge marks”. Whether the tattoos were that small or it was just used euphemistically, the beauty spot tattoo helped tattooing on its way to becoming beautification.

The name is not to be confused with the word irezumi, which in Japanese culture was one the early words used for tattooing, “ire” means to insert or inject and “zumi’ or “sum” is the black wash ink made from charcoal residue sticks used in tattooing and calligraphy brush painting. Originally irezumi was the word used for the punitive tattoos and so many tattoo masters of the time refused to use it when describing artistic tattooing. However, now that it has lost its negative connotations it is used proudly today to describe the highly developed artistic tattoo that Japan is known for.

The small pledge tattoos caught the interest of authority and they were suppressed by the government of the time, the Tokugawa regime. The period is known as the Tokugawa or Edo period and dates from 1603-1868. Formally known as the Tokugawa Shogunate. Edo is the old name for Tokyo.

Click through for Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of this history. Part 2  details of how woodblock prints and tattooing are intertwined and how the class structure of Japan was partly responsible for the rise of elaborate Japanese bodysuits! Stay tuned.

Horisumi – Kian Forreal is a professional tattoo artist specialising in traditional Japanese tattooing with 22 years international tattoo experience. He has worked all over the world studying under some of the leading tattoo artists of today. In 2013 he was given an honorary Japanese tattoo name by Horiyoshi III in Japan. He is based out of Sydney, Australia where he owns and runs Authentink Tattoo Studio in Surry Hills. You can check his work and those of the other artists working there at