Save Tattooing in Japan
Chloé Carbonneau-Labrecque

Meeting with Taiki and Horiten

In April 2018, while visiting the country of the rising sun, tattoo artists Horiten, from Nara, and Taiki, from Osaka, were kind enough to meet with me and discuss the current situation of tattooing in Japan.

Both are self-educated tattoo artists who experienced different reactions from their relatives when they started their career. Horiten’s family had a disappointed reaction at first, which gradually came to change with time; while Taiki, on the other hand, had for first client his own mother. Taiki was facing some legal troubles following the application of a new law prohibiting tattoo artists from practicing their profession without a medical doctorate. He managed to win the trial, but tattooing in Japan remains an uncertain and frowned upon career.

Taiki in court (2017)

In 2001, Japan’s Health Ministry passed a law preventing unlicensed professionals – including tattoo artists – from inserting needles in the skin of a client. The 2015 Osaka Tattoo Convention was canceled following this new law. In April of the same year, the law was used against five tattoo artists who had to pay severe fines. One of them, Taiki, refused to pay and brought the question of whether tattooing was considered illegal to justice. However, he lost his case at Osaka’s Court in September 2017, but won at the second court.

Until recently, tattoo artists were seemingly in a grey zone, unburdened by the law. The government’s law aimed to fill this lack of health regulation regarding tattooing. In addition, some tattoo artists suspect politicians to force them to acquire doctor licenses because of alleged links with the criminal group Yakuza.

Assuming tattoo artists will keep on tattooing, even though their job is becoming illegal without a medical license,  this law probably brings more harm than good to health precautions in the profession. 

The current state of tattooing in South Korea provides a good example of this problem. There, tattooing is illegal and has been for some time. Meeting with Yuuz, a Korean tattoo artist, in a previous travel, I’ve been informed  that tattoo supplies are difficult to purchase. In fact, they have to be bought from abroad and in small quantities, in order not to raise suspicion at customs. This also applies to the disposable material necessary to protect the surfaces  used during appointments. Tattoo shops there are hidden, which makes it hard for future tattoo artists to find and get decent apprenticeships. In consequence, this leads them to practice without adequate formation.

Meanwhile, tattoo demands keep increasing, and the offer comes either from licensed doctors – which are not interested in that business – or from illegal tattoo artists with varying levels of sanitation and knowledge.

Inspired by the French system, Taiki is working on having health seminars in Japan. In fact, the French government once wanted to ban colored tattoos, and tattoo artist Tintin defended his cause and won. This resulted in health courses being made mandatory for French tattoo artists.

Traditionalists vs. New wave

While Taiki is trying to rally tattoo artists behind his cause, not all are ready to follow him. While some tattoo artists work in western-like studios with bright banners on the street, traditional horishis (tattoo artists) continue to work in hidden places.

Traditional tattoo artists are inclined to think that Taiki’s actions draw too much attention towards them, and they would rather  return to the grey zone situation.

Otatoo (Hori Benny)

Japan’s younger generations are getting more tattoos than ever. They are often inspired by the surrounding pop culture which, of course, includes mangas, animes and video games. This type of tattoo was called Otatoo, a combination of the words “Otaku” and “Tattoo”, by Hori Benny whose work is a great representation of this new style.

Back in 297 A.D., Chinese travelers wrote about Japanese people that used tattoos as ranking symbols and granted them protective powers. They were judged harshly because of the Confucianist belief that one should not sully the body that is given by one’s parents.

Ainus, Japan’s north aboriginal ethnic group

Ainus, Japan’s north aboriginal people, find their roots back in the Jomon Era, dating back as early as 12 000 years ago. Traditionally, the women wore  tattoos on their lips and geometric-patterned tattoos on their forearms and hands. Those were only made by other women, and were believed to be a heritage from an Ainu goddess. The tattoos on their lips were used to:

  • Prevent bad spirits and illness from entering through the mouth;
  • Declare a woman ready for marriage as a rite of passage;
  • Be able to reunite with her ancestors in the after-life.

A little knife called makiri was used for this practice and soot was rubbed on the incisions. In the beginning of the Edo and Meiji eras, Japanese authorities prohibited new generations of Ainus from continuing this tattoo tradition. The last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998.

IREZUMI, punitive tattoo

Irezumi was originally the word used to define punitive tattoos but is still being used today as a generic word for Japanese tattoos. Other words such as Horimono (engraving things) are also used, but the word “tattoo” is usually reserved for western tattoos.

In 720 A.D., the Chronicles of Japan stated that two Emperors punished subjects using tattoos. The latter  being punished because his dog ate an imperial bird. Punitive tattoos were different depending on the region in which they were made. An example of irezumi is the kanji inu (dog) that was carved on a criminal’s forehead.

By the end of the seventeenth century, criminals started to cover up their irezumi with larger designs. Because of that, tattooed people were associated with criminals and were rejected by society. 

Dot tattoos and the kanji inochi (life) with a lover’s name were popular amongst low ranking courtesans who used tattoos as love pledges. A small number of samurais might also have used tattoos to engrave their clan symbol or as tags to identify bodies on the battlefield. Firefighters and labor workers like miners also got inked for the believed protective attributes.

Ukiyo-e, the art of woodblock prints

Edo was a very prosperous period for Japanese culture with Kabuki, Sumo and Ukiyo-e appearing. Ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, were made by pressing paper on engraved wood blocks, each color having its own block. 

At the time, tattoo artists did not always design their work: in that case, Ukiyo-e artists were employed for the job. People usually know Ukiyo-e through Hokusai’s famous work: the great wave of Kanagawa. 

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Heroes Of Suikoden, Water Margin / All Men are Brothers

“Heroes Of Suikoden” is a novel about rebels fighting against a corrupt power. The original story comes from “Water Margin”, one of the four major classic novels of China with “A Romance of Three Kingdoms”, “Journey to the West” and “Dream of the Red Chamber”.

The book’s most popular prints were made by Utagawa Kuniyoshi in 1830. Hokusai and other artists also made their own depictions of the novel. While Hokusai’s work featured only four tattooed protagonists, Kuniyoshi’s pictured sixteen, putting emphasis on the rebel traits of those characters. His work influenced considerably later tattoo artists.

YAKUZA, since Edo

The middle ages in Japan were chaotic, with constant fighting amongst lords. When Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, many samurai lost their lords thereafter and became ronin (without masters). Ieyasu brought an end to these troubled times and started what would become 250 years of peace: the Edo period.

This peaceful time followed a restriction of the lords’ power and a strict hierarchy put in place by Ieyasu. However, some people were living outside that hierarchy, and the Shōgun needed a way to oversee their business. He gave the right to a family name and the right to wear a sword to chiefs that would control this part of the population. This community was composed of public workers, professional gamers, merchants, butchers, undertakers and the likes,  who were outcasts because of Shintoist and Confucianist beliefs. 

The name “yakuza” comes from some game’s losing combination: 8-9-3 (hachi-kyu-san) and represents one of the oldest mafia gangs often associated with labor work, prostitution, the drug market and blackmail. The first yakuzas are believed to have lived in the Edo era and their organization started with the outcasts’ community. It is a Yakuza belief and pride that some of the first yakuza clans’ leaders were actually the same ronin samurais who lost their masters before the beginning of the Edo period.

A code of honor – bushido – was duly followed amongst yakuzas, refraining them from harming anyone outside their ranks. Rites, like the tea ceremony for including a new member into a yakuza “family” and the cutting of the little finger for punishment, were followed. Full-body tattoos became a way for yakuzas to prove their loyalty for life to their clan and were symbols of rebellion against a strict society. Those full-body tattoos were called odoshibori.

After the Second World War, a great number of violent ex-soldiers and unemployed joined the yakuza, without giving much thought to the code of honor. Some started the Yamaguchi-Gumi of Kobe, organizing more and more illegal activities regardless of the bushido, hurting civilians and acting like gangsters. In the meanwhile, traditional yakuzas became politicized. Kodama Yoshio, a right-wing politician, was highly linked with them and brought Tokyo’s traditional yakuza clans together to face the Yamaguchi-Gumi gangsters which were giving yakuzas a bad reputation.

Sadly, since then, the Japanese tattoo culture, heavily associated with the yakuzas, gained the same poor reputation and has not been recovering since then.

Doctor Fukushi, conservation of tattooed skin

In the mid of the 1920s, Fukushi, a pathologist at Tokyo University, became interested by tattoos. While working at the charity hospital, he would offer to pay for the completion of body suits irezumi that some of his clients had. In return, he would obtain their skin post mortem. A lot of his work photographies were lost in the war, but over 105 skins remained. They are mainly exposed in the medical pathology museum of Tokyo University, which sadly is not open to the public.

Sanja Matsuri

Sanja Matsuri is a festival that also dates back to the Edo period. Taking place around Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temple, Sensō-ji in Asakusa, it celebrates the temple’s three founders. Mikoshis (small portable temples) are lifted in every street around the temple, each of them going towards the centre.

A rare sight of Yakuzas wearing only their fundoshi underwear to make their odoshibori visible can occur while the police calmly looks upon them without lifting a finger.

Royal Tattoos, Tsar Nikolai II, Edward VII and George V

In 1872, at the beginning of the Meiji era, the Ishiki Kai treaty was imposed to the Japanese society in order to make a good impression in front of the western visitors. With the prohibition of urinating in streets and mixed baths, tattoos became illegal. People who already had tattoos had to pay for a permit, and tattoo artists survived mainly because of Yakuzas. Other tattoo artists, however, decided to open shops in Yokohama, where the American consulate was located. There, their clientele consisted mainly of passing foreigners.

Western sailors were not the only ones eager to get inked: some head of states and members of royalty also came  a long way to have their permanent souvenir. From the british court, Kings Edward VII and George V respectively got a crusader cross and a dragon tattoo. It is said  that King Edward was the one to bring the sailor clothes fashion to Japan. The last Tsar of Russia also came to get a dragon tattoo during a trip when an assassination attempt towards him failed .
Tebori, traditional japanese tattooing

At first, Irezumi were done in black and red only, in questionable hygiene and on tatamis floor mats. It would take around 20-30 minutes to prepare each tebori, a tool consisting of a bamboo stick, silk, glue and needles, before the client’s arrival. There are different types of tebori techniques : Hanebori, Imotsuki, Shamisenbori and Tsukibori.

Hanebori, usually used for shading, is distinguished by a retracting movement that makes a particular sound and is more harsh to the skin. Shamisenbori, instead, uses smaller and more precise tebori tools that look more like pencils than the ordinary long ones.


Irezumi in Japan are made to be hidden under clothes to escape discrimination, such as difficulties at job interviews, to sign apartment contracts, or to open bank accounts. In comparison, western tattoos are often exposed proudly in front of others. There are many types of body suits or large pieces such as the Kame no Kou, turtle shell, and Munewari which is also called Jinbeibori, because it’s made to fit under a traditional clothing called Jinbei.

East meets with West, Sailor Jerry and Horihide (Kazuo Oguri)

During the era after WWII, Kazuo Oguro followed a very strict and long apprenticeship, which was usual in Japan. He lived under his master’s roof and spent years observing his work and practicing drawing before actually starting to tattoo. One of his career’s turning point was his encounter with Sailor Jerry when he was looking for tattoo supplies. Sailor Jerry, an important figure for western tattooers, had a studio in Hawaii and was well versed into Japanese tattoo culture.

Horiyoshi III and Shige 

Horiyoshi III, Yoshihito Nakano, first worked in a shipyard where he saw his first tattoos. He became the apprentice of Horiyoshi I and joined his ichimon (family of tattoo artists). The prefix “hori-”, combined with a new name, is given by the master when he judges that his pupil is ready. When Horiyoshi I decided that Nakano was, he gave him the name “Horiyoshi III”. 

Following his meeting with Don Ed Hardy (Sailor Jerry’s protégé) and his first convention in Rome, Horiyoshi III began using a tattoo machine for linings and started intense cultural researches for his work. Partnering with his wife, he opened a Tattoo Museum and also invented a stainless tebori tool that could be sterilized in an autoclave.

Shige began as a motorbike mechanic and was introduced to tattoos via biker culture. Shige is a self-taught tattoo artist whose art differs from the strict traditional style. In 2000, he met with a western figure, Philip Leu, followed by, yet again, cultural researches and by a large participation in international tattoo conventions. 

With special thanks to…

  • Horiren (Saitama-based Shamisenbori practitioner)
  • Horiten (Nara-based japanese tattoo artist)
  • Taiki Masuda (Tattoo artist involved in current legal battle, founder of “Save Tattooing in Japan”)
  • Kazma Takashima (Japanese translator during meetings)
  • Satoshi Yaku (Japanese speaker who helped with translations)
  • Playthislife Azusa (YouTuber who lived in Japan)


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