The Meaning Behind 5 of the Most Popular Japanese Tattoo Motifs

  • CULTURE
  • Do you have a tattoo? If not, perhaps you are thinking of getting one. Many people have tattoos that symbolize things that are important to them, such as people, places, or nostalgic memories. Tattoos have different meanings around the world; for example, they have held different significant meanings in various tribes and religions for years. Now, in most western countries, they are considered to be simply personal body art. In Japan, they have their own meaning, and various types of tattoos resemble different things.

    If you have visited an onsen, or hot spring in Japan, you might have noticed that most of them prohibit visible tattoos. When you are out, particularly in summer, you might also notice that people cover up tattoos with bandages when they are in public places, especially places with children. The reason for that is the fact that in Japan, tattoos normally are worn by members of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

    Traditionally, Japanese tattoos were used to show social status and served as spiritual symbols for protection. This can be seen in Buddhist culture as well. Over time, though, body art took on a criminal element. The modern association between those traditional tattoos and the criminal element might have led to the adoption of tattoos by the Yakuza. However, this didn’t stop foreigners from being intrigued by the beautiful traditional designs to seek out the skills of Japanese tattoo artists – a practice that helped keep Japanese style tattoos alive.

    Images and symbols used in the Japanese style of tattooing usually have specific meanings to them. They are used to show a person’s beliefs, aspirations, or character traits. So, if you are considering getting a Japanese style tattoo, it might be a good idea to educate yourself about the meaning beforehand! These are five of the most common Japanese tattoo motifs and their meanings.

    1. The Japanese Dragon

    Dragons have been part of Japanese and Chinese folklore for centuries, and the Japanese versions are often associated with water. Dragons also tend to be associated with Buddhist temples, as can be seen in a lot of architecture. While in the western world, dragons are said to symbolize wealth, strength, and ferocity, and are often seen as evil creatures in stories and the like, in the east, they are seen as generous, benevolent forces that use their strength to do good for mankind. Another trait attributed to dragons is wisdom.

    Therefore, a dragon tattoo symbolizes wisdom and strength, and the desire to protect and serve.

    2. The Tiger

    Although the tiger is more of a Chinese symbol, it nevertheless holds some symbolism in Japan. Like the real animal, the tiger tattoo represents strength and courage, as well as long life. It protects from evil spirits and bad luck, as well as disease. In addition, the tiger is a symbol for the north and for autumn and is said to control the wind.

    In that case, a tiger tattoo protects the wearer from harm and helps them live longer. People gain strength from their tiger tattoo, which gives them bravery and confidence.

    3. Waves and Water

    Not unlike traditional Japanese paintings and woodblock prints, many Japanese tattoos feature a water theme. Waves, in particular, are among the most recognizable elements of Japanese art, whether it is the gentle flow of a river or the terrifying strength of a tsunami. The image of water is often combined with koi carp, dragons, or oni, Japanese demons. Apart from symbolizing strength and life, water tattoos stand for the belief that life, just like water, ebbs and flows. While being strong and swift, it can be gentle and calm as well.

    Water, and waves in particular, are historically greatly feared and respected by the Japanese as symbols of power and destruction, yet a symbol of life as no living organism can survive without it. This charming oxymoron is another reason for its popularity.

    4. Koi carp

    Another popular traditional Japanese tattoo motif is the form of koi carp. The fish themselves are also greatly loved and featured in temple ponds and rivers as well as architecture and traditional artworks. They are said to own several masculine qualities such as strength and bravery. The koi carp in China were known to attempt swimming upstream in the Yellow River, but only a few of them were able to swim past a point called the Dragon’s Gate. Legend has it that the koi who did were rewarded by turning into dragons. For this reason, koi carp are also a symbol of determination and a strong will to succeed.

    If you are a fan of Pokémon, you may be interested to know that the evolution of the weak and rather useless Magikarp into the strong, dragon-like Gyarados was inspired from the legend of the koi carp! Those with koi carp tattoos chose their motif for the symbolism of determination and bravery.

    5. Cherry Blossoms

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    The beautiful flowering and then all too soon fading and scattering of the cherry blossom, or “sakura” in Japanese, made it a symbol of life itself. Its fragility stands for the fragility of human existence and its brief yet beautiful period of life. Emblematic of life’s fleeting nature, cherry blossoms represent mortality, love, magnificent beauty, and sudden death. Despite the connotation, they are regarded as a good omen.

    Cherry blossoms are said to appear during the time when the gods stay on Earth for a short while. The flower is greatly loved in Japan, and every March and April you will see many people doing “hanami”, or cherry blossom viewing, and many sakura-themed foods, drinks, and items all over the country. Since cherry blossoms are such a huge part of Japanese culture, it isn’t surprising that they have their own tattoo motif as well.

    Tattoos continue to be mysterious and fascinating symbols in the form of body art. Despite their negative connotations in Japan, many Japanese people sport interesting tattoos with different meanings, and it is perfectly possible to get a traditional type of Japanese tattoo while you are in Japan, if you’d like. Were you surprised at any of the meanings of these ancient and important Japanese tattoos? Which symbolic pattern is your favorite?