The history of traditional Japanese tattoos, Irezumi and Horimono

Japanese tattooing is often called Irezumi in the west. Although this is a Japanese term (meaning to insert ink), it is not the correct name for what we now understand as traditional Japanese tattooing. The correct term for the artistic type of tattooing so famous throughout the west is Horimono (the carving of images).

Horimono illustration of Traditional Japanese Shishi Lion Dogused in tattoos
The Shishi Lion Dog, often found in traditional Japanese tattooing

Tattooing in Japan has a very ancient history with evidence of the practice going back to the third century b.c. But the kind of tattooing we think of today is a relatively more recent affair which started in the late 17th century.

Irezumi includes the type of tattooing that was done to mark criminals and the western style of tattooing (also known as wanpoint – one point) which consists of a single design, separate from the skin surrounding it. Horimono is seen as decorative and takes the entire body as one coherent canvas. The back is the central motif of the design and dictates the choice of subject for the rest of the body suit. For example if the back carries a design that is set in spring, maybe with cherry blossoms to indicate the season, then the rest of the bodysuit will also be set in the same season and the subjects will relate to the central motif of the backpiece.

The prefix of the word Horimono (Hori-to carve) is a reference to the fact that it was often the woodblock carvers of Edo (ancient Tokyo) who would moonlight as tattooists. The relationship between woodblock art (ukiyo-e) and Horimono is deep. Both were seen as lower art forms, connected to the universe of the floating world (the pleasure quarters of Edo) and in opposition to the Chinese and Confucian influenced interests of the higher classes.

It is within the simmering cultural hotpot of the floating world that Horimono develops and finds its golden age in the 1800s. The world of ukiyo-e is both influenced by the popularity of Horimono and in turn plays a major role in popularising Horimono even further.

The most salient example of this is the publication in Japan of the novel called “Suikoden”, known in Chinese as “heroes of the water margins”. This is a story of roguish yet virtuous characters, 108 outlaws who are in opposition to the corrupt rulers of the time and become folk heroes. This story resonated with the working classes of Edo, themselves subjected to the often cruel rule of the upper classes.

The story became so popular that many different version where illustrated and published to great commercial success over a period of more than 70 years. The most influential version was illustrated by Kuniyoshi and is known as “the 108 heroes of the Suikoden”.

Most of the heroes in the lavishly illustrated edition where depicted as sporting full body tattoos and this contributed greatly to stoking the interest of everyday people in getting themselves tattooed just like their favourite hero. The firemen of Edo where amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of full body tattooing, but also artisans, carpenters and labourers. Although interest in the tattoo phenomenon extended to the middle classes towards the beginning of the 19th century, it was never taken up with the same ubiquity.


The way in which tattooing was inserted in the skin was through a bundle of needles, tied onto a wooden or bamboo stick, poked into the skin in a kind of circular motion. This method is known as “tebori”. The ink came from the same “sumi” sticks (compressed charcoal) used in ink painting or calligraphy, and sometimes cadmium powder.

Originally the palette of colours would consist of only black and grey, and red and brown, obtained from mixing sumi black with either water (greys) or cadmium (brown). Eventually through the influence of American tattooists new colours where added to the mix and tattoo machines started replacing tebori, especially in the lining process. Nowadays there is a resurgence amongst practitioners of working only by hand and only with the two basic colours.


Aside from subjects from folk stories taken from ukiyo-e illustrations, there are classic subjects that are recurrent themes in Japanese tattooing. Amongst the most requested, especially in the west are a whole cohort of mystical animals such as the dragon (a favourite amongst firemen as they were thought to be impervious to fire);

The Crane

The Japanese Crane or ‘Tancho’ is a symbol of fidelity, good luck, love and long life. It is said to live a thousand years and it mates for life. It is said to bestow favours in exchange for sacrifices and it is believed that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. The crane is often paired with the minogame turtle as they are both symbols of longevity.

The Fox

Kitsune in Japanese, is a magical creature possessing both positive and negative characteristics. They are sensual and cunning creatures and are known to be shapeshifters. Several Japanese folk tales recount stories of foxes transforming into beautiful women to ensnare an unwitting warrior. They are also found in pairs, guarding shrines associated with the goddess Inari (god of rice). They can be seen holding a magic key (the key to the granary) in their mouths.

The paranormal abilities of foxes increase with age and more tails will grow in the process (they can have up to nine). A nine-tailed fox often turns white and becomes a tenko, a heavenly fox, and then ascends to the heavens. They are also believed to possess the ability to generate mystical fires (kitsune-by).

Illustration of Dragon

The Dragon

The dragon is surely one of the mythical creatures most associated with eastern cultures in general and Japan in particular. It is called Ryu in Japanese and is differentiated from the Chinese dragon by having three claws instead of four (although four clawed dragons do sometimes appear in Japanese art). They are an imperial symbol and sometimes paired with chrysanthemums (also an imperial symbol). They are,as already mentioned, in a yin/yang relationship with both phoenixes inn a male/female imperial bond and with tigers in a heaven/earth relationship.

They are water deities and a Buddhist symbol. Just like the Phoenix (and many other Japanese mythical creatures) they are made up of many disparate animal parts. In this case they are said to have a snake body, eagle talons, carp scales, the mane of a horse, the snout of a camel and the antlers of a deer. It is impervious to fire and for obvious reasons it was a cherished symbol (along with the carp, another water symbol) for Japanese firemen of the Edo period.

The Tiger

Tora in Japanese. It is one of the four celestial creatures and associated with the autumn season. They are believed to control the wind (while the dragon controls rain/water). Together with the dragon it is believed to be a ruler of the cosmos and the natural world. It also embodies qualities we can attribute it in its natural state such as strength but also dignity and bravery.

It is often depicted climbing on a large rock surrounded by bamboo. The rock is the earth of which the tiger is guardian (the dragon being associated with the heavens). Although there are no native tigers in Japan, they are present in Korea and China and tiger lore found its way into Japanese stories and art. In ukiyo-e it sometimes looks more like a tiger striped large cat as Japanese artists who had never seen a real one tried to depict them following third hand descriptions).

The Hannya

The Hannya (a devil-like female creature often represented as a mask used in kabuki plays, it represents the madness and anguish of a woman scorned).  The Hannya mask is a very popular subject in Japanese tattooing. It is one of the most recognisable masks used in Noh theatre. Noh theatre uses many different types of mask often carved from paulownia wood by expert craftsmen and can fetch very high prices. Cheaper versions of these can often be bought in tourist areas such as the famous Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. These souvenir masks are often made of papier-mâché or hemp cloth.

The Hannya character appears in many Noh plays and traditional stories. She is often found to be seducing the hero character before revealing her demonic nature. The mask is said to represent a woman who has become a demon tormented by jealousy and possessiveness. The masks expression alternates between anger and sorrowfulness depending on the angle at which it is viewed. It is traditionally white or red depending on the status of the female character associated with it.

The Shishi

Also known as lion dog and komainu, it is often found represented in twin sculptures, guarding the entrance to temples and shrines. Often one is shown with a mouth open and the other closed. This has exceptions but is a common feature of pairs of temple statues. It is meant to represent the beginning and end of all things. Similar to the alpha and omega concept that can be found in Christian churches. The pair is composed of a male and a female. Sometimes the male is seen with the right paw on a cloth ball. The female can have its left paw on a cub, representing the cycle of life.

Depictions of the lion can also often be seen carved into the end of beams holding up,the roof of temples. Legend described the female as she throws her cubs down a cliff and waits for the strongest to make it back up. For this aspect it is also a symbol of strength and resilience. It is also associated with power and success. They are closely associated with the peony flower (botan) and it is often depicted playing in peony fields.

The Phoenix

The Japanese Phoenix is distinct from the western Phoenix. The western Phoenix is a singular creature, requiring its death in flames before a new Phoenix is reborn from its ashes. The Japanese Phoenix (hō-ō or red bird) is believed to only appear to mark the beginning of a new era (in this sense it shares an idea of rebirth) and only in times of peace. It is said to repreßnt the Confucian values of loyalty, honesty, decorum and justice.

It is also a symbol of peace and guards the southern cosmic direction along with the dragon (east), the tortoise (north) and the tiger (west). It is also associated with the dragon in a female/male opposition/complement. Like many other Japanese mythical creatures, it is a chimeric animal said to include features including a birds beak, snake neck, tortoise back and fish tail. Its plumage is of the five mystical colours (black, white, red, green and yellow) and it has 12 or 13 tail feathers. It is an imperial symbol but more closely associated with the female aspect and hence the empress, the dragon being its counterpart.

The Carp

The koi carp is a ubiquitous image in Japan. It is male symbol and koi streamers (known as Koinobori) are set up during the spring celebration of “boy day” on the 5th of may.

They are imbued with many masculine qualities such as strength and bravery. In China they are known to swim upstream in the yellow river and those able to swim past the dragon gate would be rewarded by transforming into dragons. Because of this it can be a symbol for the ability to overcome obstacles.

When represented swimming upstream it signifies a current battle and when swimming downstream the achievement of those goals. A pair of koi’s can be used to represent yin and yang.