The Meaning Behind 5 of the Most Popular Japanese Tattoo Motifs

  • If you have visited an onsen (hot springs) in Japan, you might’ve noticed that most of them prohibit visible tattoos. 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. Over time, they 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 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

    While in the Western world dragons symbolize wealth, strength, and ferocity, 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.

    2. The Tiger

    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.

    3. Waves and Water

    Not unlike traditional Japanese paintings and wood prints, many Japanese tattoos feature water. Waves, in particular, are among the most recognizable elements of Japanese art. The image of water is often combined with koi carps, dragons, or Oni (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.

    4. Koi carps

    Another popular traditional Japanese tattoo motif is koi carps. They own typical masculine qualities such as strength and bravery. The koi carps 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 “Dragon’s Gate”. Legend has it that the koi who did were rewarded by turning into dragons. For this reason, koi also are a symbol of determination and a strong will to succeed.

    5. Cherry Blossoms

    A post shared by Irezumi Study (@irezumistudy) on

    The beautiful flowering and then all too soon fading and scattering of the cherry blossom made it a symbol of life itself. Its fragility stands for the fragility of human existence and its brief period of life. Emblematic of life’s fleeting nature, cherry blossoms represent mortality, love, magnificent beauty and sudden death. However, they are regarded as a good omen, making cherry blossom viewing, or hanami, a popular event in Japan.