art has several names - irezumi or horimono in the Japanese language.
Irezumi is the word for the traditional visible tattoo that covers large
parts of the body like the back. Japanese tattoo art has a very long
Since the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism on the Japanese
culture, tattoo art has a negative connotation for the majority of the
Japanese people. In the eyes of an average Japanese a tattoo is
considered a mark of a yakuza - a member of the Japanese mafia - or a
macho symbol of members of the lower classes. Early History of Tattoo Art
Archaeologists believe that the early settlers of Japan, the Ainu
people, used facial tattoos. Chinese documents report about the Wa
people - the Chinese name for their Japanese neighbors - and their
habits of diving into water for fish and shells and decorating the whole
body with tattoos. These reports are about 1700 years old.
For the higher developed Chinese culture, tattooing was a barbaric act.
When Buddhism was brought from China to Japan and with it a strong
influence of the Chinese culture, tattooing got negative connotations.
Criminals were marked with tattoos to punish and identify them in
During the Edo period - 1603-1868 - Japanese tattoo art became a part of
ukiyo-e - the floating world culture. Prostitutes - yujos - of the
pleasure quarters used tattoos to increase their attractiveness for
customers. Body tattoos were used by laborers and firemen.
From 1720 on, the tattooing of criminals became an official punishment
and replaced the amputation of the nose and the ears. The criminal
received a ring tattoo around the arm for each offense or a character
tattoo on his forehead. Tattooing criminals was continued until 1870,
when it was abolished by the new Meiji government of the Japanese
This visible punishment created a new class of outcasts that had no
place in society and nowhere to go. Many of these outlaws were ronin -
masterless samurai warriors. They had no alternatives than organizing in
gangs. These men formed the roots of yakuza - the organized criminals
in Japan in the twentieth century.