Tattooing Evolution during Edo Period Japan

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08/02/20 Cultural Studies Reference this

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Almost two hundred years after tattoos became legalized attitudes towards tattoos remain negative.  Signs that read, “No Tattoos Allowed” are visible on the streets and tattooed individuals are not allowed to attend public places, such as spas, saunas, or even pools. It is assessed within this paper that the sociocultural views of tattoos have not changed with the times or the laws due to its link to criminal history within the country.

Tattooing had been around for tens of thousands of years. Ancient Chinese works such as the Shui-bu-Chauan written in 1117-112, are suggested to have helped in the development tattooing in Japan.  While tattoos have been looked down upon in the Japanese culture due to stigmas.  Although, at the time of Edo period tattoos were still prohibited, still considered a time of culture and artistic renaissance after the fall of the Tokugawa. During this time, the first tattoos emerge in three specific groups of people. The tattooing of criminals, prostitutes and firemen during the Edo period in Japan, has led to negative perceptions toward tattoos in modern Japan. In this paper, we will go over three types of groups during the Edo period, courtesans, firemen, and lastly criminal tattoos as a means of punishment. Therefore, leading to the development of the branded tattooed Yakuza.

During this time, the Edo period was known as the floating world, which indicated a place of growing creativity, culture, and art. The floating world was an idea of Japanese culture that helped the citizen to leave the worries of everyday work behind and escape to a place of Kabuki Theater, and red-light districts, the well-known Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter.  Within the pleasure quarters of the floating world, some 4,000 different prostitutes were ready to serve.[1] The prostitutes of the time carried permits that allowed them to carry out their business, as the Tokugawa shogun had made prostitution legal at the time. Prostitutes of this time had several clients from different walks of life, they would show their devotion to their clients by committing acts of or vowels of commitment. These acts are what is called Shinju.

Shinju is a word that refers to the symbolic act of expressing fidelity within a relationship. There were many different types of Shinju within Japan during the Edo Period, especially within the pleasure districts between a courtesan and her lover. Some of the first examples of this we can see are within a collection of Chinese Poems Mumyosho (1105-1129), called the Blood of the Newt.[2]

A pair of shoes shed and left on upon the other, time after time, thus the Sign of the Newt has ceased to be.

 Shinju is also seen in Japanese literary works such as the seventeenth century book, “Shikido okagami” (Great Mirror of the Art of Love), written by Fujimoto Kizan (1626-1693). This novel describes the ins and outs of life during the Edo Period within the pleasure districts. Within the book there are explanations of shinju such as cutting their hair, ripping off fingernails, cutting off fingers, written oaths of blood, flesh piercing and tattooing.[3]

Within the main pleasure districts of Japan districts, it was not uncommon for this practice to take place in a form called irebokuro, or “love dots”. Irebokuro can be literally translated into two words. Ire, or ireri, which means “to insert”, and bokuro or hokuro “a beauty spot, a mole”.[4]  In a seventieth century work “The Life of an Amorous Man” written by Ihara Saikaku. It gives reference to tattooing of a homosexual relationship between two men.  The lover showed his devotion by tattooing the character of his name, while also signifying a secret homosexual affair between a priest and a samurai.[5]

During the Edo Period in Japan the tradition of Irebokuro had first originated within the pleasure districts of Okako and Kyoto and soon to Edo. Love dots or Irebokuro were a symbolization of commitment between a courtesan and her lover[6]. A small mole like dot would be tattooed on the in-between the thumb and the wrist[7]. This particular place was chosen because when lovers would hold hands they would be touching the dots. These small moles like tattoos were inconspicuous, unlike another variant called kishoubori. This different variant of a Shinju is the tattooing of the characters of the lover’s name.[8]

 While during this time tattoos were looked down upon as learned before in relation to tattooing criminals as punishment. This meant there was no professional occupation held at this point for such a thing. Usually when conducting this type of Shinju, the courtesan would ask the assistance of a friend or even make themselves, although they preferred their lover to apply the tattoo.[9]

 There were many reasons why courtesans had marked their body to signify their means of faithful companionship. One reason would be to satisfy their costumer, a way that secures more money and their future, it could symbolize secret affairs and personal desires. The main reason for ireborokou was in hopes that their lover would rescue and take them to a life of happiness. 

Irebokuro were inconspicuous and seldom noticed. Unlike the modern popular culture of full Japanese traditional body tattoos.  These tattoos can be traced back to one of the most important public occupations held at the time, Firefighting. During the Edo Period, most of the structures were built from wood, bamboo, straw, and paper.[10] Due to the overpopulation, crowded quarters, and the frequent earth quakes, it was not uncommon that a series of fires would outbreak. During this time, it is easy to see how firemen, or tobi no mono or hikeshi, would become the heroes of the city.

Firemen were some of the first citizen in the Edo Period to wear full body tattoos, only leaving their hand, feet, and head free from ink.[11] After the Great Merieki Fire in 1657, the first fire companies were created. Most of these men were man up of unemployed gangsters, hired by the Baku to help put out fires throughout the city.[12] Tattoos during this time were illegal and considered barbaric. It is estimated that around 10,000 firemen had a tattoo of some sort or the other.[13]

Depending on the location and the companies of firefighters and other variants would constitute the kind of tattoos they would have. The firemen during the time were superstitious and thought tattooing their bodies with water creatures, such as dragons, octopus, or fish would help to deter burns or other serious injuring when fighting flames.[14] According to Mieko Yamada, she stated before the modernization of Japan, nudity was not seen as a symbol of sex appeal, but rather a part of everyday life. She states that firemen would work mostly naked to make sure their clothes did not catch on fire.[15] Thus, leading to the superstitious tattooing of water creatures that would help ward of the flames during the battles. The idea of tattooing their whole bodies did not come from nothing. During the creation of ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, illustrated tattooed heroes from ancient stories.

The story of Shui-bu Chuan, or Suikoden, was said to inspire the firemen of the time.  The novel was written during the years of 1117-1121, in China. Suikoden is the story of Sung Chaing and his rebel partners at the end of Sang Dynasty. The story is similar to the understanding of the Robin Hood. Sung Chaing and his band of rebel heroes would steal from the rich and giving the poor, all while fighting a corrupt government.[16] This story and its illustrated 108 heroes on wood block prints played a major role in the formation of Japanese tattoo style. The heroes of the story were courageous, brave, and signified everything the firemen considered themselves. The heroes of their own story.

Irezumi is a name used for the punitive tattoos that were inked to criminals depending on their crimes and position within Japan’s class system at the time. There are many works of literature that makes mentions of tattoo as punishment during early Japanese history. One the first literature written where penal tattooing is mentioned appeared in the Kojiki, written in 712 A.D.  Within the literature there is mention of marks of distinction to identify criminals.  Later in 720 AD the Nihonshoki recorded a person named Azumi no Murajihamako was tattooed as punishment for treason. Tattoos were not the only form for punishments during this time.[17]  Amputations and the cutting off of the nose or ears were also considered reasonable punishments. During these times tattooing was associated with a death penalty. Little literature was observed about penal tattooing until the Kyoho Reforms (1716-1736).[18] Under the eighth Tokugawa shogun, Yoshimnue, the “Hundred Articles of the Law, created a new code for penal punishments. Within the Hundred Artciles of the Law, irezumi was made the punishment of somewhat minor offenses, such as flatter ulterior motives, fraud and extortion, and even dealing in false goods.[19]

Tattooing became a representative of crime and punishment, the Edo period judicial system. The type of irezumi varied depending where the sentence was executed. For example, the use of Chinese character Ho usually took place in the Aki region, in the Tamba region a Chinese character is even seen to be tattooed in the forehead for a different kind of crime.  There are instances where two-centimeter-thick lines would be added to either the upper or lower arm, depending on where the punishment was carried out.  If the offense was repeated a third line would be added. In the province of Chikuzen, they would add line by line after each conviction. This would eventually create the character for inu, meaning dog.[20]

The listed above are just some of the examples of the different types of irezumi punishments that were carried out. There is no clear reasons as to why some of these irezumis were carried out, and what exactly what crimes would constitute this kind of punishment. One thing is clear that there are two assessed reasons, 1) permit makes are hard to hide and are considered shameful. In Japanese culture, there was nothing worse than shame. 2) To help citizen see the person as a criminal and to be weary of them as they are around them. This created a class of people that would usually go into hiding within the lowest class of people during the time, the Eta.[21]

The Eta class, the untouchables, a Japanese minority class comprised of the lowerest in the Japanese social system. The people who were in this class usually involved “taking a life” or dealing with death. These occupations could consist of; tanning, butchery, hunting, or undertaking. There is a large account of tattooed people within the class of people. It can be assess, that after criminals were tattooed they were exhiled to this group due to large accounts of persecution. They were seen through society as disgraceful and no one was willing to give them a chace anymore. This would lead a group of people to find other means of occupation and resources. This could be correlated with the rise of the yakuza.

The term “yakuza” can be used to refer to either individual gangsters and criminals or as the organized crime group in general. It is said that yakuza had originated during the Tokogawa shogunate rule. They were a group of outcasts, or Ronin, who had turned into the saviors of villagers during a time where Samurais ran free and Baku did what it wanted though its region. [22] Yakuza tattoos have more recently become known by the public due to media and its idea of what the yakuza is. It is witnessed that yakuza tattoos cover the whole body of the individual except for the hands, feet, head, and a small strip down the chest and torso, as to stay hidden from civilians and police alike. This style of tattoo is not only limited to the yakuza, but it is the style best associated with the group. In most occasions the tattoos have no link to the yakuza and are instead personal to the individual. The relationship between the tattoo master and their customer takes weeks and once the tattoo master understands the customer, it is then the tattoo that meets the customers personality will be inked into the skin forever.[23]

Tattooing can be seen throughout Japan’s history and it was not always criminal. The decision to make tattoos a means of punishment has set the stage for the future generation’s percention of tattoand the tattooing of the modern perception of tattoos can be traced back during the Edo period where tattoos were still considered barbaric and illegal. It was a time of oppression of individualism, but also a time where art have flourished and entertainment was on the rise. The link between people’s behaviors towards tattoos in modern times can be directly related to their ideas of the people who had gotten tattooed during the Edo period. Starting with criminals, people would see the tattoos and correlate them with criminal acts.  Firemen were feared for their verbosity and covered in tattoos. While prostitution was legal they were still among the lower class of people during this time in Japan. While there were several inspirational works of art during this time tattooing was not considered one of them and they are still to this day thought of in the same manner.

Works Cited

  • Boyd, Oscar. 2018. ‘Yakuza Tattoo’ : Inside the secretive world of the yakuza’s tattoos. September 15. Accessed November 21, 2018. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2018/09/15/books/yakuza-tattoo-inside-secretive-world-yakuzas-tattoos/#.W_wT5ZNKi34.
  • Britannica, Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2018. Encyclopaedia Britannica. October 09. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/yakuza.
  • Buss, Lauren, and Hodges Karen. 2017. “Marked: Tattoo as an Expression of the Psyce.” Psychological Perspectives (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group) 60: 4-38.
  • Donald, McCallum. 1995. “Historical and Cultural Dimensions of the Tattoo in Japan .” Marks of Civilization 109-134.
  • Ozawa, Emiko, and Carole Shammas. 2012. Investigating in the Early Modern Built Enviornment: Europeans, Asians, Settlers, and Indigenout Societies. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill .
  • Rogers, Lawrence. 1994. “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not. Shinu and Shikido Okagami.” Monumenta Nipponica 49 (1): 31-60.
  • Segawa Seigle, Cecilia. 1993. “Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan.” The Journal of Asian Studies 1033-1035.
  • Van Gulik, W. R. 1982. Irezumi: The Pattern of Dematography in Japan. Leiden: Vokenkunde.
  • Yamada, Mieko. 2009. “Westernization and cultural resistance in tattooing practices in contemporary Japan.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (4): 319-338.

[1] Segawa Seigle, Cecilia. 1993. “Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan.” The Journal of Asian Studies 1033-1035.

[2] Rogers, Lawrence. 1994. “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not. Shinu and Shikido Okagami.” Monumenta Nipponica 49 (1): 31-60.

[3] IBID

[4] Donald, McCallum. 1995. “Historical and Cultural Dimensions of the Tattoo in Japan .” Marks of Civilization 109-134.

[5] Rogers, Lawrence. 1994. “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not. Shinu and Shikido Okagami.” Monumenta Nipponica 49 (1): 31-60.

[6] IBID, Rogers, pg.

[7] Donald, McCallum. 1995. “Historical and Cultural Dimensions of the Tattoo in Japan .” Marks of Civilization 109-134.

[8] Yamada, Mieko. 2009. “Westernization and cultural resistance in tattooing practices in contemporary Japan.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (4): 319-338.

[9] IBID MCCallum

[10] Ozawa, Emiko, and Carole Shammas. 2012. Investigating in the Early Modern Built Enviornment: Europeans, Asians, Settlers, and Indigenout Societies. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill .

[11] IBID McCallum

[12] IBID Yamada

[13] IBID McCallum

[14] IBID McCallum

[15] IBID Yamada

[16] IBID McCallum

[17] Van Gulik, W. R. 1982. Irezumi: The Pattern of Dematography in Japan. Leiden: Vokenkunde.

[18] Yamada, Mieko. 2009. “Westernization and cultural resistance in tattooing practices in contemporary Japan.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (4): 319-338.

[19] Van Gulik, W. R. 1982. Irezumi: The Pattern of Dematography in Japan. Leiden: Vokenkunde.

[20] IBID

[21] IBID

[22] Britannica, Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2018. Encyclopaedia Britannica. October 09. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/yakuza.

[23] Boyd, Oscar. 2018. ‘Yakuza Tattoo’ : Inside the secretive world of the yakuza’s tattoos. September 15. Accessed November 21, 2018. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2018/09/15/books/yakuza-tattoo-inside-secretive-world-yakuzas-tattoos/#.W_wT5ZNKi34.

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