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Tattoos have been an essential part of Japan throughout history, from the Jōmon period (14,000-400 BC) with the dogū clay figurines to the present with youth and fashion. Marking customs, tradition, religion, distinctive, anarchy, ritual of maturity, fidelity among other things. An art that has permeated and changed the lives of the Japanese.

By: Camilo Dussan Oviedo – Audiovisual and multimedia communication Intern CCJCI

Tattoos are a global concept today, but it was not always like that, there are many theories about where it originated and although it is not known exactly, it can be confirmed that Japan had a great influence on the culture of tattoos today. day. In Japan the tattoo had different meanings at different times. For example, in the Jōmon Period between the Amami and Ryūkyū islands located in southern Japan, women would get a tattoo known as a hajichi, which went from the tips of the fingers to the elbow and indicated that the woman had married.

At that time the tattoo was seen as a blessing and a ritual to maturity.

However, in the middle of the 7th century, beauty began to matter that could stand out in closed spaces, such as the touch of a kimono or aromas, due to this the practice of tattooing decreased until the Edo period.

Importance of Horimono

Due to the peace that existed in the Edo period (1603-1868), the most important practice of Japanese tattoo, the Horimonos, resurfaced. But what makes them so distinctive?

Tattoos back then were irezumi (入れ墨), meaning “inserted ink”. They were used in the Edo period to mark someone who had committed a crime giving tattoos a very negative connotation compared to how they were seen before. Throughout the Edo period, the practice of tattooing evolved into horimonos, which today refers to the traditional Japanese style that covers the back, arms, chest, and legs. Thanks to the ukiyo-e prints and their different themes and designs, the Japanese are attracted to these designs and return to tattooing, giving life to the horimonos.

Beginning in 1827, the master engraver Kuniyoshi Utagawa began a series of works based on suikoden. To the outlaws of the engravings, he illustrated them with tattoos that represented mythological creatures and religious symbols that covered most of the body, giving a new meaning to the horimono, thus creating the basis of the current Japanese tattoo.

Horimono was a normal and routine practice during the Edo period, there was no reason to hide it, however, the samurai viewed tattooing as a barbaric practice and considered themselves too dignified to be tattooed. Common people, unable to perform samurai practices such as seppuku, used horimono to show their bravery.

Tattoos during the Meiji era

The beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912) opened Japan to the world again, letting in Westerners. This generated that there were guests of honor and the Japanese rulers began to worry about their image since they thought that Westerners perceived tattoos as a primitive aspect of Japan, and for this reason in 1872 they decided to ban both irezumi and horimonos. The tradition managed to continue thanks to the fact that the tattooists camouflaged the places where they made tattoos with false posters in order to continue exercising their trade in peace, in addition to hiding the tattoos with kimonos.

Curiously, Westerners were fascinated by this practice, especially fishermen. Such was the impact of Japanese tattooing on Western culture at the time, that even King George V had a dragon and tiger tattooed during his stay in Japan in 1881.

Tattoos today

Thanks to the legacy left by the Americans in Japan after winning World War II, tattoos became legal again in 1948, despite this tattoos were still viewed with disapproval in Japanese territory. This got worse when in the 60s and 70s Japanese cinema was invaded by Yakuza films, which influenced the vision we have today. This bad image is seen mostly in older people.

Because the world is becoming more globalized, the Japanese have accepted the world of tattooing with better eyes, especially the younger generations who see it as fashionable, becoming increasingly popular. It is not certain how the vision of tattooing in Japan will evolve, but I know that it will continue to impact its history and culture as it has all this time.


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