Speaking for the societal change itself, tattoos are no longer a punishment or marker of criminality in modern Japan (as they were in the Kofun and early Edo period) and are now decorative and individualistic in nature. This followed after the lower and middle class disregard for higher class designations of tattoos as a form of impurity or connections with criminality. “There are clear records of tattooing as punishment from the governmental records of this period [Edo]. Following the example of China, the Japanese government started utilizing tattooing, beatings and exile as a more honorable substitution for more severe forms of corporal punishment (Gamborg 27).” The exile markers of the Kofun period adds to the position of tattoos being a part of a narrative of impurity in which the undesired actor is made visible and expelled from the rest of the group. What adds to the complexity of tattooing is why individuals would tattoo themselves if such an action cuts them off from communal resources. “From the end of the kofun period to the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868), there is little evidence of tattooing. It seems strange however that tattooing should disappear altogether during this period only to reappear again a thousand years later.” (Gamborg 26).
Since the Edo period is known for strict rules enforced by the shogunate as well, the tattoo trend as an internal art form may have been one of the forms of resistance to overly strict enforcement of other rules, and the lull in tattooing simply a disappearance from the public eye. There is no mention, for example, of the punishment for getting a tattoo in 1811 and 1842, which shows only the disdain of the higher class who made the regulation. For arson and other high crimes there are clear, brutal punishments, such as being burned alive for arson charges or having a nose or ear cut off (Dunn 33). It follows that tattooing while associated with the lower class, held cultural significance in its designs and individual meaning which gave the wearer the impression of selfhood and agency in choosing the design.
While many lower class citizens started to get tattoos in the Edo period, they were not outwardly visible in day to day activities. Citizens were already not permitted to wear the same clothing as the warrior or ruling class, so having an external marker, a tattoo, that separates the body further from society raises questions on the functionality of this action, apart from cultural reasons. Doing so would alienate one even more from the community. Acting in a homogenous manner concerning bare bodies was disrupted in instances where most of the body is shown, such as festivals when upper portions of clothing are removed and bathing, once one has a tattoo. Ostentatious tattoos were hidden by clothing for the most part in the Edo period up until the present, so there were limited attempts to ban them because they were not intentionally thrust into the public eye. “In the 19th century, they [horimono-type tattoos] became so popular that the Bakufu banished them in 1811 and 1842— without much effect, however”(Stolzenberg 105). Even in revealing the tattoos, wearers had a sense of internal pride about them that owed to the cultural sense of pride in themselves or their profession which was celebrated in society.
Coming out of the Edo period, tattoos didn’t lose much of their subtlety as a connection with eroticism or the lower class. “The tattooer by Tanizaki Junichiro, a short story from 1910… is a well-known work in Japanese literature…set in the pleasure quarters of Edo in the 1840’s, it tells the story of a master tattooer and his search for the perfect female client for his master piece tattoo. When he finally finds her and tattoos her, his tattoo completely transforms and empowers her, turning her into a seductive femme fatale of unparalleled beauty. Surely this story has been an important factor in contributing to the image of Japanese tattoos as erotically appealing and something quasi magical that bestows unusual powers on its wearers” (Gamborg 40). This power transfer identifies well with firefighters choosing tattoos that seemed talismanic in nature, as having the ability to signify an end of approval by higher social connections and to permanently mark in one’s skin the ideal or notion desired by the tattoo.
Moving into modern Japan, Hitomi Kanehara’s 2005 novel Snakes and Earrings touches on the main protagonist Lui’s desire to get an obscure tattoo called a Kirin (Kanehara 32). Lui introduces her other desires in her discussion with her friends about tattoos to distance herself from the “Barbie girl” misconceptions about her character she has dealt with, chafing at other people’s notions of what people of her sex should look like, or how the way they treat their bodies is prioritized with society ahead of the individual. Like Edo's firefighters, she takes her skin as her own possession by tattooing it while her uniform for her job and other aspects of her life are regulated for the communal good. Those seeking a tattoo in Japans’ and many other narratives seek a transformation, but it appears Japan’s tattooing narrative has progressed from criminalistic connotations to rougish, mysterious and erotic combinations.
Dunn, Charles J. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. London: Charles E Tuttle Company, Inc., 1969.
Gamborg, Dag Joakim. “Japanese Traditional Tatooing in Modern Japan.” University of Oslo., 2012.
Kanehara, Hitomi. Snakes and Earrings, Penguin Group Publishing. 2005.
Stolzenberg, Thorsten. "Between Coquetry and Gallantry." Stockhom University. 2016.