Despite their tumultuous history in Japan, tattoos maintain an irreplaceable role in the country’s history and culture. Tattooing origins in Japan are very similar to their role now, as fashion meant to decorate the body, but the practice eventually evolved into a method for identifying criminals. Permanently marking criminals with tattoos remained in practice for centuries, and as a result, tattoos gained a dark reputation. Nowadays, tattoos in Japan continue to hold a somewhat nefarious aura. Still, though they continue to hold association with criminality to this day--particularly connected to organized crime--they are growing ever more common due to increasingly open minds, the globalization of tattoo culture, and tourism. As tattoos become more commonplace throughout all of Japanese culture, they will become more socially acceptable. Although their dark reputation will eventually fade, the themes common to Japanese tattoos will not only remain, they will continue to influence the tattoo industry all over the world.
Japan is notoriously secular, but the natural world plays a vital role in Japanese culture and spirituality still influences the beliefs and practices of the nation. Although most Japanese citizens don’t consider themselves devoted followers of religion, most do participate in many practices from the Shinto religion. Shinto consists of the belief that the natural world is full of spirits, from plants to animals to rocks and bodies of water; each of these is accompanied by kami, an inherent essence. Consequently, whatever energy we send out into the world determines what we receive in return. Disrespecting the essential kami in the world around us will likely bring negativity into our lives, and vice versa. Animals and mythical creatures are therefore important themes both in Japanese culture overall and Irezumi specifically. Like many other cultures, different animals and mythical creatures are revered for different reasons.
Dragons for example, frequently combine the characteristics of various animals. Scales, talons, and fangs are among the characteristics lifted from other animals to create the fictional creature. Dragons are viewed as powerful, almost omnipotent beings, able to manipulate the elements and therefore alter our fate. Their great powers make them one of the most popular subjects in Irezumi. In contrast, other common creatures include demons, gods, and trickster spirits.
Though these creatures may be fictional, the myths about their origins are based in the real world, as many are inspired by real animals and their encounters with humans. Their accompanying myths sometimes serve as cautionary tales, while others represent legends of gods, and still others serve as symbols meant to bring good fortune. The Kappa for instance is a spirit known to cause havoc. According to myths, they harm children and assault women. In reality, their myth traces its roots to the Japanese giant salamander--strong amphibians that can be similarly destructive, albeit through their believed ability to drag passersby into the waters where they reside. On the other hand, motifs like the koi fish represent health and longevity because they’re revered for their long lifespans. These images each portray different messages. Whether they communicate strength, health, prosperity, they have in common their importance in Japanese culture overall
Many of these themes, particularly symbols like the koi, dragons, and cherry blossoms, have become staples of tattoo culture as a whole beyond Irezumi alone. Each of these elements are important to Japanese culture. Their influence is clear through not only tattoos, but also in other art forms which count the motifs common amongst Irezumi as major themes. Furthermore, the mythical creatures enshrined in Japanese art and Irezumi also find a place in fiction. These creatures appear in historic art, contemporary tattoos, Japanese anime, and the art of Western tattooists due largely to the unique influence Japanese tattooing has had on the world.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.