Did you know that in some Japanese bath houses, anyone with a tattoo is refused entry? Seems a bit harsh, even for a conservative country like Japan, but the reason goes back hundreds of years…
Irezumi is the name given to tattooing in Japan, and refers to many different forms of traditional Japanese tattoos, or modern forms inspired or derived from these. Just to confuse things, the word can be written AND spoken in several different ways, and also translate into several different words, although the most common is literally “insert ink”.
Japanese tattoos date back thousands of years, but their meaning and role in society fluctuates with different time periods. It was around the Kofun period (300-600 AD) that tattoos began to take on negative associations. Criminals were tattooed as a form of punishment, so others would know they had committed a crime.
Tattoo fads came and went over the next thousand years, but the stigma lingered, and at the beginning of the Meiji period, tattoos were outlawed altogether. Of course, when you outlaw anything, you only drive it underground, so tattoos were now officially the cool thing to have, and as Japan opened up to the West, many came to seek the skills of traditional Japanese Tattoo Artists.
The connotations with criminality still persisted, with many associating tattoos with the Yakuza, Japan’s infamous mafia. This gave tattoos in Japan a stigma which is still seen today in the bath houses and other Japanese businesses. Japanese tattoos were legalised again after the war, but even today, a tattoo studio is hard to find. It is estimated there are around 300 tattoo artists in Japan; an incredibly small percentage considering its 127 million population.
If you’re interested in Japanese tattoos, then come see Tom at Sunset Studios. He's spent years studying Japanese tattoos and is always up for a chat about any design ideas you have.