Japanese Tattoos: The Meaning of Irezumi and the Most Popular Japanese Tattoo Motifs

  • CULTURE
  • History
  • 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. Nowadays, in most western countries, they are considered to be simply personal body art. In Japan, tattoos different meaning and much different treatment in society.

    Tattoo Rules in Japan

    If you have visited an onsen, or hot spring in Japan, you might have noticed that most of them prohibit visible tattoos, some prohibiting them to the point that you cannot even cover them. Same goes for swimming pools, gyms and other places where more skin shows. 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. Not wanting to be associated with the Yakuza, but not wanting to mention them in the ban, many places started banning tattoos in general.

    But the history of traditional Japanese tattoos goes further back than gangsters. Traditionally, Japanese tattoos were used to show social status and served as spiritual symbols for protection. Later on, tattoos can be seen in Buddhist culture as well. Over time, though, body art took on a criminal element. Criminals started being branded with ink as punishment and so as to mark them in the community. The modern association between those tattoo practices and the criminal element might have led to the adoption of tattoos by the Yakuza.

    Although tattooed people are refused entrance to some venues, it’s not like tattoos themselves are not banned in Japan. Even tattooed Yakuza members walk around showing off their ink in public at the Sanja Matsuri festival in Asakusa.

    In recent years, people have started challenging the old notions about tattoo rules and meanings, with even the Japanese government suggesting to onsen owners to loosen the rules a bit. Many onsen have indeed started being a bit more lenient with their tattoos policies, in small ways like introducing tattoo friendly times of day, allowing bandages, excluding foreign tourists from the tattoo ban, etc. Moreover, many sentos (public baths) allow tattoos.

    There are many tattoo artists’ shops where one could get inked, as many foreigners are interested in the traditional Japanese tattoo method or ‘irezumi’.

    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 seven 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, 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 as well. 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 believe they gain strength from their tiger tattoo, which gives them bravery and confidence.

    3. Phoenix

    The eternal bird that dies in flames and is reborn originates from Ancient Greek folklore, but it also has Asian counterparts that bear both similarities and differences. In Japan, the phoenix is called Hou-ou, and in Chinese it’s called Fenghuang. In both China and Japan, the phoenix as very positive meaning, believed to be uniting yin and yang, and it is a royal symbol. But, it is not always on fire! As the European phoenix, this phoenix too symbolizes the sun and fire, as well justice and fidelity. In Japan it can not only be found on traditional Japanese irezumi tattoos, but also on top of mikoshi, the sacred palanquins in which gods are thought to reside.

    4. Demons (Oni and Hannya)

    The Japanese horned demons, as well as the horned demon masks called Hannya and used in traditional Noh theatre, are popular for irezumi tattoos. No doubt it is because they are scary and fierce. However, these demons can also take on a guardian role and become more benevolent, as is the case of Raijin and Fujin, the God of Thunder and the God of Winds, respectively, guarding the gates at Senso-ji temple in Asakusa. Demons can also symbolize one’s inner demons, one’s anger, one’s strife, but also taming all of that. These tattoo symbols are definitely there to intimidate, but also look cool.

    5. Waves and Water

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    Waves for Rachel, from her request, thanks a lot! Done at @outlawz.tattoo ,🇨🇭 BERN, thanks again to everyone at the studio for your lovely hospitality, I'll be back between 6-11 May!!! Nexts guest-spots: 🇩🇪 HAMBURG 28-30 March, @traphouse_tattoos_hamburg 🇩🇪 LEIPZIG 17-20 April, @studio_394 🇩🇪 KÖLLN 25-27 April, @traphouse_tattoos_cologne 🇨🇭 BERN 6-11 May, @outlawz.tattoo #berntattoo #swisstattoo #berlintattoo #berlintattooer #berliner #berlintattooartist #hamburgtattoo #leipzigtattoo #kölntattoo #blinework #graphictattoo #contemporarytattooing #alternativetattoo #illustrationtattoo #inkdesign #inkstagram #inkspiration #wavestattoo #ladytattooers #guestartist #blxckink #enmanierenoire #pics_of_inked_ #blackworkartists #blacktattoomag #blackart #vladbladirons #tattoolookbook #tatuage

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    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, is fluid. 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 water. This charming contrast is another reason for this irezumi tattoo motif popularity.

    6. Koi carp

    Another popular traditional Japanese tattoo motif is the form of koi carp. The fish themselves are 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, and thus used as symbols for the Boys’ Festival traditional holiday. 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.

    7. 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, is a symbol of the shortness 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 those connotations, they are still regarded as beautiful and tied to good memories like the starting of the school year in April that coincides with the blossoming of the cherry trees in Japan.

    According to legends, 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 found themselves into Japanese tattoos.


    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?

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