The Underbelly Of Japanese Art
ASIAN Geographic|AG 04/2021 - 149
Every day, hordes of smartly dressed men and women crowd the streets and subways of Japan, moving with hypnotising synchrony.
Yong Xin Ni Elyssa

Art or taboo? Tattoos are a controversial topic in Japan’s conservative society

But underneath the pressed blazers and polished loafers, a vast canvas of inked skin hidden in plain sight straddles the line between art and taboo.

Due to the explosive proliferation of yakuza films in Japan, many with just a passing understanding of irezumi – the Japanese term for all tattoo styles – would associate the art form with the notorious crime syndicate. This has cemented wabori, which refers to Japanese style tattooing, as a “mark of disaffiliation” from conventional society and a taboo subject amongst many in Japan today. The stigma and cultural aversion surrounding tattoos is so strong that those who adorn themselves with tattoos, referred to as irezumi no kata, or tattooed person, find themselves turned away from public establishments like bathhouses, pools, beaches, gyms, and even some restaurants due to their perceived affiliation with deviancy and crime. The modern Japanese perception of tattoos has complicated its standing as an art form, but to understand the struggle between taboo and art, there is a need to understand the numerous purposes and cultural implications of tattoos over the course of the nation’s history.

For many Japanese, tattoos are synonymous with criminal and deviant behaviour

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s woodblock print (ca. 1823) depicts an underwater fight between bandit Tammeijiro Genshogo, known for his striking tattoos, and General Ko

Kabuki actor performing on stage

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s woodblock print of tattooed hero Roshi Ensei (also known as Yan Qing) from the Chinese epic Shui Hu Zhuan

Kabuki actors wore intricate makeup to imitate the tattoos of the heroes in stories such as Shui Hu Zhuan (Water Margin)

Historical Associations with Deviancy

The notion that tattoos are synonymous with the underbelly of society is one shared by many countries around the world, but in Japan, such an aversion might have originated in China, where tattoos were first introduced for punitive purposes. The term irezumi, which translates to “inserting ink”, started becoming more frequently used in the 1720s when tattoos were used for punitive purposes in Japan. The irezumi was enforced by the ruling class as a means to brand criminals based on the severity of their crimes. The marks would range from a simple line around the forearm to a kanji on the forehead and were intended to make criminals easily recognisable to the public. The irezumi marked the beginning of the association between tattoos and crime, but by then, tattoos had already gained a reputation as a symbol of deviancy.

In the Edo period of the 1600s, Japanese society went through a plethora of changes as various domains of the island were unified under a central government for the first time. The peace and relative prosperity that resulted from the unification meant that the people of Japan had more time to engage in popular entertainment, including art forms such as kabuki plays and woodblock printmaking. The development of the art scene in the Edo period then gave rise to works of ukiyo-e, which means “pictures of the floating world”. They were intricate woodblock engravings that depict the vibrant urban lifestyle of the people of Edo. Scenes of famous novels, kabuki plays and myths were popular motifs. Initially, the images were intended to depict the mutability and mujÅ (impermanence) of human life, but they gradually embodied the hedonistic pursuits found in the red-light districts and theatres of Edo. These images then inspired the tattoo designs of the time and made its mark on wabori.

Alongside the rise of various forms of iconic Japanese art forms, Edo also saw their merchant class become increasingly powerful. In response, the Edo government enforced stricter rules to maintain both the lines of social stratification and a neo-Confucian moral social order. Regulations such as ones that defined the types of clothing certain classes were permitted to wear were established but were routinely flouted and tattoos became a way for those in the lower social class to indulge in deviant behavior in the face of a restrictive government. Images that reflected tales of underdogs that emerge triumph against evil governments resonated among the people, and artists that adapted such tales became influential figures in Japanese tattooing practice.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi was one of the movers and shakers that left an indelible mark on the art form. He produced a series of prints based on a well-known Chinese tale that sparked a tattoo boom and helped to elevate the artistry of tattooing in the Edo period to previously unseen levels. The story in question was Shui Hu Zhuan (水滸傳), known as Suikoden (Water Margin) in Japan, a pseudo-historical account of a group of righteous outlaws and their exploits against a corrupt government during the Song Dynasty. Though only six of the heroes in the saga were tattooed, Kuniyoshi took the liberty of incorporating 15 tattooed characters in his print series. Kabuki actors that adapted the play also painted on intricate makeup to imitate the tattoos of the heroes in the story.

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