Japanese Tattoos: History, Meanings, Symbolism & Designs - Saved Tattoo (2023)

Japanese tattoos are probably the most popular and most recognizable tattoo styles. The Japanese tattoo tradition has existed for thousands of years now, and even to this day, it carries a veil of mystery and unknown to a lot of us.

So, if you’re looking to get a Japanese tattoo, but aren’t sure about the meaning or the design you should get, then this is the right place to be. In the following paragraphs we’ll dive into the symbolism, meaning, and design of Japanese tattoos, so let’s get started!

Japanese Tattoos – Explained

The History And Culture

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Before World War II, Japanese tattoos were used to depict social status as well as spiritual devotion. They were also used as a form of a charm for protection and spirituality.

However, Japanese tattoos were also used as a form of punishment for criminals and slaves, which also directly referred to the social status of those social groups.

However such tattoo practices were banned by the Japanese Emperor in the Edo period. That is when tattoos became a symbol of crime, the Japanese underground, and the Yakuza. However, Japan’slegal prohibition of tattooswas completely lifted in 1948 under the US occupation. That is when the Japanese tattoo artists began catering to American servicemen and the military.

In the 1980s, Japanese tattoos became a global phenomenon mostly due to the rock bands getting Japanese traditional tattoos. After that, this global phenomenon just kept expanding.

The world was and still is amazed by the incredible Japanese tattoos, and to this day foreigners seek the best Japanese tattoo artists to get a true traditional tattoo.

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The Meaning And Design Of The Traditional Japanese Tattoos

Here are the meanings and designs of the most popular traditional Japanese tattoos. They all carry historical, traditional meanings that stem from myths, legends, and traditional stories. All of the Japanese traditional tattoos need to be designed by experienced tattoo artists and done by hand.

Ryu Tattoo – Japanese Dragon Tattoo

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This is the most popular Japanese tattoo design. The Japanese dragon symbolizes strength, wisdom, blessing, and the force of good. The symbolism stems from the traditional belief that dragons can manipulate elements for the benefit of the people and the good in this world.

Japanese dragon tattoos generally vary in design, so the dragon can have a head of a camel, the body of a snake or fish, the talons of an eagle, etc.

It usually comprises the elements of different animals or mythical creatures and occupies large parts of the body (most often the ‘sleeve’ area of the arm, the shoulder area, the upper and lower back, and upper thighs.

Kappa Tattoo – Japanese Turtle Tattoo

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Another popular Japanese tattoo design stems from the myth of a monstrous turtle and giant salamanders reaching from the shallow water to grab everyone near.

Because of this myth, Kappa’s are described as troublemakers and law-breakers. They apparently like to kidnap children and assault women, which is definitely beyond mythical and a cover story for the law-breaking outcasts.

We are not sure why such tattoos are popular with foreigners, but we assume the majority of people don’t really know the story and the meaning of the Turtle tattoos.

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When it comes to the design of the tattoo, the most notable feature is the little water-filled cavity on the top of the turtle’s head. When the cavity is dry, this means that the turtle is powerless.

Tengu Tattoos – Japanese Supernatural/Ghost Tattoos

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These tattoos usually feature humanoid variations of supernatural creatures with demonic features. The creatures usually have elongated noses and generally sinister appearances.

They are often colored in red and black to further emphasize their wrathful symbolism. These creatures often carry the meaning of war and destruction, so the red color also depicts militant symbolism. The tattoo is often placed somewhere visible, but the majority of people tend to place it on the back, upper thigh, or chest area.

Also Read:

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Koi Tattoos – Japanese Koi Fish Tattoos

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The story of the koi fish swimming upward the stream, reaching the top of a waterfall, and being transformed into a dragon is one of the most popular Japanese and Chinese legends.

Koi fish is a traditional Japanese symbol of wealth, success, ability to overcome struggles, courage, and determination. Depending on the color of the Koi fish tattoo, it can carry a combination of different meanings, for example; masculinity, motherhood, strength, bravery, independence, success, wealth, desire, etc.

Foo Dog Or Karajishi Tattoos – Japanese Lion Tattoos

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The Japanese lion tattoo isn’t really what you might expect them to be. The lion in such tattoos is a combination of a dog and a lion, where the lion has rather pointed ears.

Therefore, the meaning of such a tattoo is often dual, comprising the meaning of the dog and the lion. The symbolism often refers to courage, bravery, protection, strength, loyalty, etc.

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Both dog and the lion in Japanese tradition carry the meaning of one’s heroic aspirations and the need to serve as protectors. Japanese lion tattoos can be both small or big, and they sit best on the shoulder and arm area, especially the forearm, as well as the calf and thigh area.

Hebi Irezumi Tattoos – Japanese Snake Tattoos

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In Japanese, Hebi means snake, and Irezumi means tattooing. The Japanese snake tattoos often depict the oriental idea of a snake. Nevertheless, the snake in the Japanese tradition carries a meaning of rebirth, transformation, and change, mostly because snakes are known for shedding their skin. Japanese snake tattoos can also be a symbol of good luck if a snake is white.

However, if the tattoo depicts a black or dead snake, that is considered to be a very bad omen. The snake tattoos are often placed on the shoulder, arm, and chest area, as it seems these areas present the imagery the best.

Hou-ou Tattoos – Japanese Phoenix Tattoos

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In Japan, the phoenix is a symbol of the imperial household. Therefore, the meaning of the Japanese phoenix tattoos often revolves around the imperial characteristics, like obedience, justice, fire, sun, etc.

However, the phoenix can also symbolize both harmony and disharmony, as well as good and bad times. The phoenix is often depicted in rather big tattoos; it has a longer neck, exceptionally large wings, and often features the color scheme of fire and sun.

Japanese Tattoos And FAQs

What Is A Japanese Tattoo?

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A Japanese tattoo can be a traditional or modern depiction of the Japanese mythical creatures and legends onto one’s body. The process of Japanese tattooing is known as Irezumi and can be done using non-electrical tools (Tebori technique) or the mainstream tattoo needle.

Japanese tattoos are often associated with the Japanese mafia or Yakuza, but nowadays is a global phenomenon and a style that appeals to foreigners and visitors of Japan.

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Do Colors In Japanese Tattoos Have Meaning?

Yes, of course! Colors are one of the main features of a traditional Japanese tattoo design. Let’s take a look at some of the main color meanings;

  • White – this is the color of death in Japan, so it usually carries a negative connotation in tattoos. However, depending on the style and design of the tattoo, the white color can mean things like innocence, purity, and truth. It often symbolizes a new start or a new chance, which is how the Japanese people observe death (as a chance for a new beginning).
  • Black – this color is one of the essential colors for Japanese tattoos. It often depicts things like masculinity and fatherhood. Other times it can symbolize mourning, struggles, or one’s ability to overcome struggles in life. Black is the color that is often associated with the Japanese underground tattoo culture.
  • Red – this color is the color of joy and happiness in the Japanese tradition and culture. It generally symbolizes love, bravery, motherhood, and power. However, depending on the style and design of a tattoo, the red color can carry a meaning of battle, war, and destruction, especially when paired with black or dark tones.
  • Blue – the blue color often symbolizes masculinity and fertility, and is used in the design of the Koi fish tattoos. The color also symbolizes calmness and serenity.
  • Gold/yellow – often used in the design of tattoos like Koi fish, dragon or phoenix, the gold/yellow color symbolize strength, power, prosperity, wealth, good luck, and success.

Why Are Japanese Tattoos Associated With Crime?

The reason Japanese tattoos are often associated with crime lies in the events of the Edo period. During the Edo era (1603-1869), criminals and slaves were branded with tattoos toidentify and punishthem.

During this era, people like murderers, burglars, attackers, and anyone doing something illegal had to wear a tattoo that would show their social status and criminal history.

Even though the ban on tattoos remained until World War II, in 1948 the ban was lifted with the arrival of the US army. However, the stigma remained, and nowadays Japanese tattoos are associated with the underground, mafia, and Yakuza.

Read More:Are Tattoos Illegal in Japan? (A Guide to Visiting Japan With Tattoos)

Is It Disrespectful To Get A Japanese Tattoo As A Foreigner?

Japanese people are not generally offended when foreigners get traditional Japanese tattoos. They even find it flattering that foreigners are interested in their history, tradition, and culture.

However, what they do find disrespectful is when foreigners get traditional Japanese tattoos without actually knowing the meaning behind the tattoo.

So, make sure to always research the meaning of a particular tattoo design if it’s traditional. This way you’ll avoid offending and disrespecting the Japanese tradition and culture.

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What Are The Rules Of Japanese Tattoo Design?

  • Rule no.1 – Japanese tattoos have to be bright, unique, and rich in detail.
  • Rule no.2 – Japanese tattoos need to have a big design, and usually take large body areas like the chest, the sleeve arm area, the upper and lower back, the upper thigh and the buttocks area, etc.
  • Rule no.3 – Japanese tattoos need to have traditional themes, symbols, and characters from myths and legends.
  • Rule no.4 – true Japanese tattoos need to be done by hand. The tattoo artist will use a technique called ‘Tebori’.

Also Read:50+ Best Japanese Flower Tattoo Design Ideas and Their Meanings


What are some of the historical meanings behind Japanese tattoos? ›

Traditionally, Japanese tattoos began as a means of conveying societal status as well as serving as spiritual symbols that were often used as a sort of charm for protection as well as symbolizing devotion, not unlike modern religious tattoos.

What are the meanings of Japanese tattoos? ›

Japanese Tattoos – Explained

Before World War II, Japanese tattoos were used to depict social status as well as spiritual devotion. They were also used as a form of a charm for protection and spirituality.

What are traditional Japanese tattoos? ›

Broadly speaking, tattooing in Japan is generally referred to as Irezumi. But more specifically, the traditional Japanese tattoo style is referred to as Wabori. Traditionally this was done by hand using needles fastened to bamboo sticks, and is referred to as Tebori which means hand carved or engraved.

What do Irezumi tattoos mean? ›

It is known for certain that Irezumi became associated with and proudly worn by the firemen, dashing figures of bravery and roguish sex-appeal who wore them as a form of spiritual aid and protection, thus the revered “Suit of Nine Dragons” to give power over wind and water.

What does Oni tattoo mean? ›

Oni Tattoos means the devil's ability to punish any evil or unjust act. You can embrace that meaning and show that you're a tough guy with this sleeve idea. This tattoo will protect you from evil and it will represent your bold character as well as your journey or the life that is ahead or behind you.

What does water mean in Japanese tattoo? ›

In Japanese culture, water represents purity and cleanliness, as well as being a symbol of abundance. It's easy to see why it is a popular tatto choice. Often paired with other Japanese tattoos, such hannya mask or japanese dragon tattoos, water is an important symbol in Japanese culture.

What is yakuza tattoo? ›

Yakuza tattoos can be colorful or complicated black outlines. They typically cover the entire body from the shoulders down to the legs, called a Yakuza bodysuit. Focused on Japanese mythology and the history of the Yakuza, these Japanese tattoos show the person's identity to the world.

What do frogs mean in Japanese tattoo? ›

Believed to hold infinite powers of prosperity, luck, and lifelong abundance, the Japanese frog is heralded as the god of rainfall during the tsuyu season and ensurer of harvests. With such a wealth of good fortune in its wake, the Japanese frog tattoo is the perfect totem for men of all walks of life.

What is a tattoo that means strength? ›

As mentioned earlier, the lotus flower is an ultimate symbol of personal emotional, and physical strength. The lotus design is suitable for both men and women and represents power, strength, endurance, and one's ability to overcome life's struggles.

What does a butterfly tattoo symbolism? ›

A paradigm of natural beauty, the butterfly is a long-standing symbol that represents faith, transformation, and freedom. Traditionally, the butterfly has also been closely connected to femininity and romantic love, which is why butterfly tattoo designs are so popular.

What does Hori mean in tattooing? ›

Hori, which means carving, is an honorific given to tattoo artists.

What does fan tattoo symbolize? ›

The fan symbol represents good luck and generosity.

What is a Horimono tattoo? ›

Horimono can also refer to the practice of traditional tattooing in Japanese culture; while irezumi usually refers to any tattooing (and often has negative connotations in Japan), "horimono" is usually used to describe full-body tattoos done in the traditional style.

What do Namakubi tattoo mean? ›

Namakubi or severed head tattoo is one of the classic motives in Japanese tattooing tradition, stemming from the warrior class of feudal Japan. They can have different meanings, like respect for your enemy, courage, and fearlessness, but one of the most common would be accepting one's fate with honor and dignity.

What is Tebori tattoo? ›

What is tebori tattoo? The traditional Japanese method of hand tattooing using a slender bamboo or metal tool with a needle grouping attached to the tip. The tattoo is made by rhythmically working the ink into the skin by using a gentle poking technique depending on whether lines, color or shading is being performed.

What does the hannya tattoo mean? ›

Though the overall story and appearance of the mask may seem dark, the word Hannya in Japanese actually means “wisdom” and the masks themselves are considered a symbol of good luck. In Japan today, the masks are often used as a means of warding off evil.

What does a Kitsune tattoo mean? ›

The word “kitsune” in Japanese tattoo culture means fox, and the animal itself is an integral part of the culture and mythology of Japan. Represented as intelligent and wise beings with a penchant for shapeshifting, the kitsune retains the Native American folklore of being a trickster or illusionist.

What does a hannya represent? ›

The hannya (般若) mask is a mask used in Japanese Noh theater, representing a jealous female demon. It is characterized by two sharp bull-like horns, metallic eyes, and a leering mouth.

What do waves symbolize in Japanese tattoos? ›

The wave in Japanese art is typically representative of power, fluidity, and movement. Such tattoos are often blended with animal motifs like koi fish, oni, or dragons, or represent the ever-changing nature of life.

What moon tattoo means? ›

Universally, the moon is the symbol of growth and change. Moreover, it symbolizes the night and passing of time, and it is a very popular image in tattoo art, unlike the sun as the symbol of permanency and eternal life.

What does a Japanese snake tattoo symbolize? ›

A Japanese snake tattoo can be a symbol of protection against illness or bad luck. It can also symbolize good luck, wisdom, strength and change.

What is the history of Ta Moko? ›

Moko originated in rituals of mourning for the dead. Women would haehae (cut) themselves with shells or obsidian and put soot in the wounds. In tradition, tā moko was brought from the underworld by a chief called Mataora, who married a tūrehu (spirit) called Niwareka. She fled to the underworld after he hit her.

What do Japanese waves symbolize? ›

The seigaiha or wave is a pattern of layered concentric circles creating arches, symbolic of waves or water and representing surges of good luck. It can also signify power and resilience.

What do waves symbolize in Japanese tattoos? ›

The wave in Japanese art is typically representative of power, fluidity, and movement. Such tattoos are often blended with animal motifs like koi fish, oni, or dragons, or represent the ever-changing nature of life.

What does dragon and tiger tattoo mean? ›

The symbolism behind a tiger-dragon tattoo is an admonition to remain somewhere between the extremes. Should you manage the balance between the hard, go-getter attitude of the tiger and the soft, enduring power of the dragon, you will be able to achieve great things.

Can anyone get a tā moko? ›

A moko can only be done by a Māori for a Māori. No respected Tā Moko artist (called Tohunga Tā Moko) would do one on a non-Māori, since it is strictly reserved for people with Māori whakapapa (genealogy). Māori-style tattoos, on the other hand, are considered a different art form and are referred to as Kirituhi.

Who can wear a moko? ›

In less than one generation that thinking has been largely discarded, as part of a deliberate “decolonising” of those perceived barriers – and as a result the practice of moko kauae is widespread, with a general consensus that the only eligibility criterion is whakapapa – if you are a Māori woman, you have the right to ...

What is Kirituhi tattoo? ›

Kirituhi translates to 'skin art' and was a way of allowing non-Maori to wear traditional Maori patterns without the issue of cultural appropriation. Many artists still use the term Kirituhi when tattooing non-Maori recipients.

What do Japanese clouds symbolize? ›

The Clouds: Kumo

It's a purely decorative pattern -linked with the admiration for nature – with the classical meaning of clouds: hope, impermanence, omen, proximity to Gods, change, …. It is also used as a signature / crest by the Japanese carpenters.

What does a hannya mask tattoo symbolize? ›

Though the overall story and appearance of the mask may seem dark, the word Hannya in Japanese actually means “wisdom” and the masks themselves are considered a symbol of good luck. In Japan today, the masks are often used as a means of warding off evil.

What does Mount Fuji symbolize? ›

Japan's sacred history and national identity are tied to this mountain, which, as author Edwin Bernbaum explains, “symbolizes the quest for beauty and perfection that has shaped so much of Japanese culture, both secular and sacred.”

What does cherry blossom tattoo mean? ›

It symbolizes Japanese beauty and pride, but it is also associated with life, impermanence, and love. For many, a cherry blossom tattoo is a reminder of how nothing lasts forever and encourages the wearer to celebrate each day.

What does a snake symbolize in Japanese tattoos? ›

Snake Tattoo Designs:

(Hebi) also quite unlike the Westernized view of the snake, in Japan, the snake is a symbol of protection against misfortune and illness, as well as a symbol of wisdom, good luck, strength, and change.

What tattoos symbolize mental health? ›

Semicolon. A semicolon tattoo through the lens of mental health is a symbol of solidarity between those of us who live and struggle with a mental illness or who have lost someone to suicide. "Semicolons are a very traditional, very popular mental health tattoo and they represent that it's not the end," explains Roman.

What does wolf tattoo symbolize? ›

They represent the spiritual protection, strength, loyalty, and the true nature of a wolf. They can also symbolize family, devotion, love, and luck. All of this symbolism fits into a simplistic, yet intricate and effective tribal wolf tattoo.

What does Draken tattoo mean? ›

The Chinese dragon tattoo has many meanings including good luck, protection, wisdom, peace, strength, and power. Getting Chinese dragon tattoos can help you enhance any of these skills or properties in your life.

What does a blue Japanese dragon mean? ›

Dragon tattoos symbolize bravery, wisdom, and strength. Black dragons are associated with experience and wisdom. Green dragons are associated with nature, and gold dragons represent value and a variety of virtues. Blue dragons are gentle, forgiving, and benevolent, while yellow dragons are noble companions.


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