Who are the Yakuza? Take a glimpse of the Japanese mafia and learn about the tattoo culture of the criminal underclass. Explore the legendary Yakuza influence on the world of ink and society at large, and learn about irezumi, popular motifs, and different types of Japanese pieces.
At this point, the Yakuza have become permanently incorporated into the cultural lexicon: Japan’s extraordinary underworld and their distinct tattoos have been featured in more than half a century’s film and television, from The Simpsons to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
While these vibrantly inked hooligans have been depicted across Japanese culture in a variety of different ways, they remain a very real group of criminals. The word Yakuza still strikes fear amongst the populace in Japan and around the world.
As famous for their criminal exploits and ruthless nature as much as for their vivid body art, the Japan’s Criminal underworld has fascinated more law-abiding people since the end of World War II. This piece will examine the unique tattoo culture of the Yakuza, but in order to understand their devotion to tattoo art we must first understand the origins of this powerful criminal syndicate.
What are the Yakuza?
Image: Leo U via Flickr CC By –NC 2.0
The Yakuza criminal organization originated in Japan. Known for ruthlessly enforced codes of conduct, Yakuza gang members are involved in a variety of different criminal enterprises, from gambling and extortion to kidnapping and murder. During the 1960’s, at the height of their activity, Japanese police estimated the total Yakuza membership at more than 200,000. Despite lower numbers and dwindling membership in recent years, the Yakuza remains criminally active both domestically and abroad.
Their highly regimented organizational structure and several unique practices, like yubitsume —the act of amputating the little finger of the left hand as punishment or atonement—set these gangsters apart from other criminal groups.
Despite their criminal success and brutal tactics, it is Yakuza gang members striking and colorful traditional full body tattoos that have caught the imagination of the West, helping to promote their exotic and glamorous identity over the day to day drudgery of hustling onsen owners, pimping from love hotels, and peddling bootlegged booze and cigarettes in shady nightclubs.
A Historic View: From Punitive Tattoos to Art
As with most things, using historical circumstances as a lens through which to view circumstances can provide deeper and more profound understanding. The Yakuza and their tattoos are no different.
While there remains some debate among scholars, it is generally accepted that the modern Yakuza can be traced back to the two lowest social groups in Japanese history. During the mid-Edo period (1603-1868) the tekiya were peddlers that sold stolen and shoddy goods and the bakuto ran gambling operations. It was from these two lowly castes that the first Yakuza clan descended.
It was also during the Edo period that the seeds for the modern Japanese tradition of decorative tattoos—known as irezumi —were sown. Previously, tattoos were used as a simple means to mark and punish criminals. Known as Irezumi Kei, these so called “punishment tattoos” were given to individuals who committed relatively small offences, like burglary and theft. Placed on the center of the forehead, these marks would permanently relegate the wearer to a further life of exile and crime.
During the Edo period, the growing popularity of woodblock prints served as inspiration for the large and detailed tattoos that were becoming more common. Another essential development in the popularity of decorative tattoos was the release of the Chinese novel Suikoden, a story of courage and bravery that depicted heroic men, bodies adorned with images of dragons, tigers and flowers.
There was an immediate increase in demand for decorative tattoos following the release of Suikoden. Every irezumi artist of the period had to be able translate Suikoden’s themes into tattoo meanings.
The role of woodblock prints in Japanese culture and the growth of body art didn’t stop at inspiration. As demand for tattoos grew, it was the woodblock artists themselves that began applying them. Utilizing the same tools that they used for carving their woodblocks, the artists would chisel and gouge designs into the bodies of their clients. Another important contribution from the woodblock artists was their use of nara ink, the famous pigment that changes from blue to black when aged under the skin.
During this early stage of modern Japanese tattoo there is dispute among scholars as to who wore these elaborate, almost tribal tattoos. Some argue that it was lowly criminal elements that adopted the practice as a form of thumbing their collective noses at the older tradition of tattoo design. Others believe that Yakuza tattoos gained popularity among wealthy merchants that were prohibited from displaying wealth and instead got expensive tattoos to flaunt their affluence.
Opening to the West and Changing Attitudes
Towards the end of the 19th century Japan was moving away from traditionally isolationist policies and looking towards the West for greater interaction economically. It was during this time – the Meiji period – that Japanese authorities outlawed tattoos. This change in the legality of irezumi was an attempt to protect Japan’s outward appearance and hide elements of society.
Whether this was a valid or concern is less important than the results: tattoos were further pushed to the fringes of society, squarely into the realm of criminals and outlaws.
Every outlaw from the lowliest Yakuza member to Oyabun (Yakuza boss) that the authorities felt would tarnish Japan’s image in the West was marginalized, driving Yakuza culture underground, where despite everything it still managed to grow exponentially.
In 1948, after the defeat of Imperial Japan, American occupying forces raised the ban on tattooing in Japan, although the association with Japanese Organized crime and Yakuza tattoo remained. With thousands of soldiers stationed on mainland Japan, and almost all of them looking to get ink, traditional Japanese tattoo found a new home. Despite Japan’s embarrassment over their nation’s body art and their visibility as Yakuza symbols, once people in the West saw this incredible tattooing they were hooked.
The popularity of Japanese culture and irezumi tattoo among US soldiers directly influenced the growth of the American Traditional tattoo art. In fact, world famous tattoo artist Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins was so enamored with the tattoo art of the Japanese masters that he got the nickname “Hori Smoku”—his own play on the honorific hori bestowed on tattoo masters and the exclamation “holy smokes!”
Irezumi: Terms, Designs and Meaning
Like many elements of Japanese society, the tradition known as irezumi tattoo uses extremely specific terminology to describe different patterns, shapes, and designs.
Horimon literally means carving, and this term is used for the etchings on the blade of a sword as well as being another term for traditional tattoo. The term tebori also references the specific act of carving designs into the body and is used to describe the process of applying Yakuza tattoo design by hand. A horishi is a tattoo artist and shakki describes the sound of needles puncturing the skin to apply ink.
Along with these terms, there is also a complex vocabulary for describing the different placements and sizes of Yakuza tattoos. A hikae refers to the chest pieces that are common in Japanese tattooing and when two of these pieces are combined while leaving a negative space in the middle they are referred to as a muneware.
The different arm sleeves also have their own terms; nagasode refers to a full sleeve and is usually incorporated into a hikae . A shichibu on the other hand translates as a 7/10 sleeve, starting from the shoulder and finishing at the mid-forearm and a gobu is a half sleeve, finishing at the elbow.
Yakuza gang members are famous for their traditional full body tattoos. These dramatic pieces also have their own terms to describe the different shapes and placement of tattoos. The muneware sōshinbori is the term used for a full bodysuit tattoo with the distinctive center portion left blank and a body suit that doesn’t use this negative space is called a donburi sōshinbori.
Even the shape of the negative space in an unadorned armpit has a name: if it is in a round shape it is called koban gata and a triangular shaped area is known as katabori . One of the most painful parts of body tattoos to ink, some Yakuza choose to get their armpits tattooed – this is known as taubushi.
To complete the full body tattoo, the legs must also be tattooed. When the shorts are finished and the entire inner thigh is covered with ink this piece is known as hanzubon.
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The incredible tattoo design that characterizes irezumi traditional tattoo use different animals—both real and mythical—and scenes from nature to tell epic stories of honor and bravery.
The dragon, known as ryu, are powerful elements in Japanese tattoo. Unlike the West, in Japan these mythical creatures are considered benevolent. The dragon is a powerful symbol of good luck, blessings, wisdom and strength.
Their ability to take on the traits of different animals—the body of a snake, the scales of a koi fish, and the talons of hawk etc — make dragons endlessly customizable and the perfect muse for those looking to use a symbolic tattoo idea.
Another common element that can be found in some of the best Japanese tattoos, koi fish are considered good luck. There are a variety of meanings that can be assigned to these fish. The direction the koi fish swim, color and number of fish can all change the meaning of a koi tattoo. Their incredible lifespans—koi fish can live up to 200 years— and their prevalence in Japanese mythology make them powerful images.
The demons of Japanese mythology, oni , make for fierce hannya mask tattoos thanks to their fangs, claws and grimacing faces. Depicted with a variety of skin colors, oni are harbingers of death and disaster and are often depicted holding swords or clubs.
Common in both Japanese and Chinese cultures foo dogs are elements in tattoos that hold a variety of meanings. These “lion dogs” are often placed at the entrance to homes and temples as powerful symbols of protection. Always in a pair—one male, one female—foo dogs provide artists room to explore a variety of interesting designs.
Much like the phoenix in Western tradition, the Japanese hou-ou is a fiery bird with a variety of meanings, making it the perfect subject for tattoos. A complex creature, the hou-ou is both a symbol of harmony and disharmony: in myths the hou-ou descends from the heavens during times of peace and tranquility, only to flee back to the sky when strife and turmoil return. These vibrant birds are also powerful symbols of fidelity, passion, fire and the sun.
Snakes have been popular elements in tattoos for decades, and they have a prominent place in Japanese tradition as well. Known as hebi , snakes are symbols of rebirth and change as well as guardians of wealth and riches.
Some of the most compelling—albeit gruesome—of Japanese tattoos come in the form of namakubi. These grotesque tattoos depict the severed heads of samurai and are rooted in the feudal era of Japan. A time of rival warlords, this period was characterized by traditions of honor and battle. The act of seppuku, or ritual suicide, where a disgraced samurai warrior would disembowel himself followed by beheading was common. These dramatic tattoos serve as a reminder of the impermanence of life as well as powerful odes to duty and honor, and make for popular motifs in Yakuza tattoo
A variety of flowers are utilized in Japanese tattoo art although the cherry blossom and peony— sakura and botan respectively—are some of the most common blooming elements in tattoo design, and wider art. Cherry blossoms with their short, but beautiful life cycle are profound symbols of the transitory nature of life, a theme drawn from Buddhism. Peonies on the other hand are known as the “King Flower” and are held in the highest regard in Japan. These regal flowers are the perfect addition to any tattoo.
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To say that Japan’s relationship with tattoos is complex would be a gross understatement. Despite the growing acceptance of tattoos around the world, things are not so cut and dry in Japan. Many young Japanese are becoming interested in tattoos however society as a whole still frowns on permanent ink.
As recently as 2012 there were active campaigns threatening the livelihoods of those who sport ink, despite tattoos not being illegal. Then mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto started a campaign to push companies to fire their employees that had tattoos, even if never visible.
According to an article in the Economist, “He is on a mission to force workers in his government to admit to any tattoos in obvious places. If they have them, they should remove them—or find work elsewhere.”
These conservative attitudes, as well as the continued association with Yakuza, are apparent in other facets of Japanese society. Most public bath houses and swimming pools still maintain a ban on visible tattoos requiring customers to cover their ink regardless of ethnicity or tattoo style.
An Enduring Tradition
While the rest of society is still coming to terms with the changing attitudes about ink, the irezumi tradition is alive and well within the Yakuza: any doubt about this can be quickly snuffed out upon seeing pictures of the Sanja Matsuri. This Shinto holiday has become a de facto tattoo convention for Yakuza. Thousands of members descend on the sleepy village once a year to show off their ink and demonstrate pride at their outlaw heritage and in their tattoos.
Image: Tokyo Times via Flickr CC By NC-ND 2.0
Source: The Yakuza and Tattoos – All You Need to Know [2022 Information Guide] – Tekmonk Bio, The Yakuza and Tattoos – All You Need to Know [2022 Information Guide] – KOLNetworth, The Yakuza and Tattoos – All You Need to Know [2022 Information Guide] – Blogtomoney