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Prior to the Edo period Japan was a feudal state, which was militarised for so long that it came to revere the Samurai and their avowed code of chivalrous conduct that gave them an almost God-like status amongst the people of Japan. This code filtered its way down into the commoner’s life and their relations to one another – master and servant, employer and employee, landlord and tenant and master craftsman and apprentice. Soon all Japanese people came to regard life as a parallel between lord and vassal.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as Japan was undergoing structural and cultural change, there was a move away from a rice-based economy to a money-based economy with the Tokugawa shogunate no longer a feudal state. There was no longer constant war and the Samurai became more of an oppressive part of the culture than the gallant warriors they were celebrated as.

The laws of the era dictated that the Samurai class had almost unrestricted power, including the freedom to murder members of the lower classes as they wished. This resulted in over 400,000 Samurai families living off the backs of the peasants, producing nothing themselves.

The inability of the Samurai to adapt to the changing power dynamic within the country soon saw them fall out of favour with the other classes and they were no longer regarded as the gallant and heroic warriors of yesteryear.

People often ask if the Samurai themselves were tattooed. There is little information on this other than the occasional record of an individual Samurai getting their family crest tattooed on their chest or torso in the event they died in battle. Often armour was stolen and there was a need for identification.

There were often cases where if an individual knew they were likely to be defeated in battle they got a Buddhist prayer tattooed on them or their posthumous Buddhist name inscribed on them for their trip to the afterlife. There is no record at all of Samurai themselves getting horimono (or full body tattoo) as far as I know.

The people of the day needed a new role model to idealise in replace of the Samurai and several figures came forth to satisfy this need. The first were the hikeshi (the firemen) and the second were the otokodate (the street knights). They both embodied warrior codes and became the heroes of the Edo (early Tokyo) people not to mention the subject of numerous plays and prints. Both groups were also the most heavily tattooed of the sons of Edo.

The fact Japan was so densely populated with the houses made of wood, bamboo, straw and paper, meant the threat of fire was omnipresent. Earthquakes were a usual occurrence and often started fires, as did typhoons, while other fire incidents were sparked through the careless use of cooking fires and lanterns. The task of the brave firemen was to contain the fire by tearing down houses and creating firebreaks to prevent the fires from spreading. There were 93 large fires during the Edo period, several of which nearly destroyed the entire city.

This high-risk was work performed by the young, heavily tattooed men of Edo and was sometimes taken on with bare upper torsos so that the men could work freely and quickly. More often than not the hikeski wore a reversible heavy jacket emblazoned with their fire company’s logo or mon (Japanese emblem) on one size, and elaborate and ornate dragons, water and creatures on the other in a manner not dissimilar to the full-body tattoos they displayed at every opportunity.

They gained a reputation for being daring and gallant and were immortalised in plays and woodblock prints throughout the various ‘floating worlds’ of the city. Not just for their fire fighting skill but also for the ongoing rivalries between different factions and fire companies that sometimes ended in brawls on the street, even during the course of fighting fires!

To understand the link between tattoos and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints – pictures of the floating world) we need to immerse ourselves in the Japan of the past. Japan was an agrarian society with rice as the medium of exchange amongst the people. The farmers and peasants who made up 80% of the population paid their taxes in rice and hard labour.

These peasants and farmers were strictly governed in every aspect of their lives. They were prohibited from leaving their farms, and both men and woman had to work dawn to dusk every day to meet the high rice quotas set by the ruler of the area their village was in. They were collectively punished for crimes committed by other families living in the same village and constantly watched and monitored for infractions. The list goes on.

There were many peasant uprisings against the Samurai class that were the landowners and tax collectors of the time, and while the farmers fought them with crude weapons and tactics, they could never overthrow them or the class system in place.

As basic industrialisation of the lands and farming techniques improved some farmers diversified their crops to acquire some wealth when the economy changed to a money-based system. The merchants and artisans became a burgeoning class in their own right and were resented by the ruling class. These Chonin, as the artisan class was called, were confined to certain parts of the city and were also closely monitored by the regime.

Some townspeople formed resistance groups to fight off the bands of warrior gangs that harassed and brutalised the peasants and merchants out of boredom. These groups were collectively called the Otokodate (street knights) with many covertly financed through the wealthy merchants themselves. These street knights developed their own code of chivalrous conduct, were structured along military lines, and sought training and assistance from roving Ronin (a Samurai with no lord or master) who would help them.

Whilst not allowed to wear two swords, they developed their own weapons and fighting methods and they too were regarded as heroes by the public and seen in famous plays and prints of that era. In many of the plays the Otokodate that slays the Samurai aggressor in the final climatic duel has a full body of Japanese tattoos to show the audience!

So while people could not confront their Samurai oppressors for the injustices they endured on the street they could live vicariously through the Otokodate who stood up for them and were becoming part of the cultural fabric in this period.

If you’d like to read Part 1 and Part 2 of Japanese Tattooing, or to continue the History with Part 4 click through the links. 

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 www.authentink.com