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Tattoos in Japan are often associated with the samurai as well as criminal class. A samurai would be tattooed as a way to identify his body on the battlefield if his armor and weapons were looted. Today, it’s the criminal class that’s often noted for tattoos. This is because, centuries ago, criminals were separated from the population by authorities and identified by rings marked on their skin.

Say you did a bid for stealing. Before you got out, you’d leave with a mark that identified you as a criminal. And each time you went back in, your time would be symbolized by a tattoo. Did five crimes on five separate occasions? Guess what? You now have five rings, one ring for each crime. 

Reintroduction into Japanese society after serving time in prison was as difficult back then as it is today. No one would associate with you except other criminals who understood the discrimination you were going through. If society doesn’t want you, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna go hang out with the people like you.  That, in a nutshell, is how the yakuza was born and why tattoos were/are taboo in Japanese culture.

Even in the 21st century, around Japan, especially in spaces shared by the public, signs barring tattoo wearers can be seen at public baths, inns and gymnasiums. This is to prevent the yakuza from congregating or associating there.  The government of the Meijii period outlawed tattoos for 70 years, lifting the ban in 1948. Little that did, cuz the association with criminals and tattoos had already stuck in the public consciousness. 

If you see a Japanese person with a tattoo today, they are either young, influenced by the West, or have some association with the yakuza, not that they’d brag about being in the yakuza, a secret society that’s glorified in almost all Japanese media, especially films and manga.

Yakuza tattoos are usually all over the body tattoos done the traditional Japanese way: with steel needles attached to a short bamboo stick.

Called tebori (te meaning hand, bori meaning to carve) the process is very painful. Imagine being stabbed for hours and hours. Now imagine the tattoo you want is a dragon holding a peony in its claw and the dragon’s length spans your entire body. Yeah. It hurts just thinking about it. 

The yakuza were not the only Japanese citizens associated with tattoos. The Ainu, a Japanese, indigenous minority who lived around Hokkaido, and some parts of Russia, often tattooed their faces. Because of intermarriage and migration, estimates number the Ainu at around 200,000 in Japan.

Those who identify as pure Ainu are discriminated against in contemporary Japan. So, imagine if the Ainu were your peoples and you were living in 19th Century Japan, your life would have been wack because, if you have a tattoo, much less a tattoo on your face, you’re automatically considered a criminal. Sucked to be Ainu then and now.

Yakuza tattoos are often associated with men but over time daughters, mistresses and wives showed their loyalty to their men or their men’s gang by getting tattoos.

Not tiny ones either, we’re talking sleeves, we’re talking backs, the whole body. Talk about ride or die chicks.  

Check out some Japanese tattoos on both men and women on the following pages.

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Shoko Tendo, daughter of a yakuza boss, is the author of a memoir called “Yakuza moon: memoirs of a gangster’s daughter.” Above Tendo is photographed alongside her father. 

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A young woman receiving a tattoo while a yakuza member watches.

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Author Shoko Tendo’s yakuza tattoos.

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Ainu woman of Japan with bold facial and forearm tattoos that worked to repel evil spirits from entering her body. The Ainu also practiced medicinal forms of tattooing to relieve rheumatism. The last Ainu woman with tattooing died in 1998. Photograph ca. 1900.

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A yakuza mistress.