The Japanese have developed one of the most beautiful and intricate systems of tattooing in the entire world. Tattooing is thought to date to the earliest evidence of human life on the Japanese islands, in the Jomon period (c. 10,000–300 B.C.E. ). Clay figurines from this period reveal detailed patterns of lines and dots that were either tattoos or body painting. Small clay figurines from the Yayoi period (c. 300 B.C.E. –300 C.E. ) called haniwa also show people decorated with symmetrical patterns of what look like tattoos. Little is known about these early forms of body decoration, but they provide evidence that tattooing has been practiced on the Japanese islands for thousands of years.
The Ainu people from the island of Hokkaido practice a distinctive form of tattooing. The Ainu are an ancient people who have retained many of their traditional ways, much like Native Americans in North America and Aborigines in Australia. The most striking element of Ainu tattooing was the mouth tattoo, which was worn only by women once they married to show their role in society. Over a period of years, a tattoo specialist would make cuts around the woman's mouth and dye them blue-black with powdered charcoal. At the end of the tattooing period the woman would have what looked like a large, black pair of lips that extended to a point on either cheek. Their eyebrows were also decorated with wavy lines, and some women would receive tattoos over their entire body. These ancient practices were ended by the Japanese government in the twentieth century, but they continue in traditional ceremonies with paint instead of tattoos.
As early as the sixth century C.E. , tattooing was used as a form of punishment in Japan and China. Criminals received tattoos on their foreheads and arms so that they could be easily recognized by others in society.
Modern tattooing customs started in Japan in about the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries among the lower classes. Prostitutes wore tattoos on the insides of their thighs, and grave-diggers and laborers also wore tattoos. Soon, however, members of the lower classes began to get more elaborate tattoos as a sign of fellowship with their fellow workers. These tattoos might cover the entire back, legs, and arms—in fact, everything but the face, hands, and feet. The designs were very complex, often featuring dragons, demons, or mythological creatures sprawling across the flesh, with flowers and leaves providing surrounding decoration. The primary colors were blue-black, green, and red. For a time in the nineteenth century the Japanese government banned such tattoos because they were considered barbaric, but the ban had little effect and was soon lifted.
Today, full-body tattooing, or zenshin-bori, continues to be practiced in Japan. People have been known to have even their head tattooed. Getting a full-body tattoo can take as long as a year, with one session per week. Modern inks allow for the introduction of even more color to these tattoos. Japanese designs, especially dragons, became popular in the West during the 1990s.
Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.
Hewitt, Kim. Mutilating the Body: Identity in Blood and Ink. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1997.
Sichel, Marion. Japan. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
[ See also Volume 5, 1980–2003: Tattooing ]