When we look at Tattooed Ladies, we often think of them in the context of individuality, self-expression, and self-ownership. And in the United States, the history of women and tattoos is generally one of self-determination and independence. But in Asia, the relationship between women and ink is very different. Tattooing in Japan, especially, has many threads of cultural legacy that still inform the practice and its connotations today.
In antiquity, the Japanese were known to favor tattooing and decoration. Visiting Chinese remarked on the practice as “barbaric”, since most “civilized” Chinese subscribed to the Confucian ideal that tattooing was polluting to the body.
The Chinese did practice tattooing, however – but mostly in the form of marking criminals for life. Outside the sophisticated Confucian elite, soldiers were readying themselves for battle by getting talismanic tattoos of axes, and women living south of the Yangtze River were decorating their hands with tattoos of insects and snakes.
By the middle ages, decorative tattooing had been replaced by penal tattooing in Japan. Serious crimes were punished by tattooing symbols of the crime on the arms and even faces of the criminals. Such a punishment often resulted in being shunned by family and friends, as well as strangers – a dreadful outcome in a culture where relationships are central.
But in more remote areas of Japan, tattooing was alive and well. The Ainu people – who have lived continuously in Northernmost Japan for over 12,000 years – have a tradition of tattooing that is exclusively female. The Anchipiri (“Black Stone Mouth”) women were tattooed around the lips by a “Tattoo Aunt” or “Tattoo Woman” to repel evil spirits and show that they are ready for marriage. The pain of having a tattoo placed in such a sensitive area was also supposed to help the young woman endure the pain of childbirth. Though the pain may have been eased by the incantations given along with the soot: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.”
Ainu women also tattooed their hands and arms with braided geometric patterns. These patterns, which were begun while a girl was as young as six, were also designed to protect women from evil spirits. They were also similar to braided “girdles” worn secretly by women, and their designs were handed down from mother to daughter.
In the early 1800’s the Japanese shogunate outlawed the practice, banning tattoos in general. But the Ainu still tattooed their girls – who wouldn’t be able to marry or be welcomed into the afterlife without them. Still, the custom died out in the early twentieth century – the last remaining Ainu tattooed lady died in 1998.
And tattooed ladies didn’t just flourish in the north of Japan, either. On the southernmost Ryukyu islands, women had the backs of their hands and fingers tattooed during the winter months, after the field work had been done. While some of the tattoos were family crests and husbands’ ancestral signs, many of them were designed to show that the woman wearing them had mastered complex weaving patterns:
Tattoos on women were not always markers of beauty and great skill. During the Edo period, tattoos in Japanese society were worn by courtesans to mark the names of their lovers – or favorite clients. While new clients might be jealous of the names that preceded them, tattooing was less damaging to the “merchandise” than the alternative – sometimes women would chop off a segment of one of their fingers and present it as a gift to their beloved.
But tattoos were also becoming more widespread among men during the 17th and 18 centuries. Penal tattoos were given until 1870, and criminals would seek larger designs to cover their markings. Firemen were also getting tattoos, and were the first of the era to seek full-body designs. Since firemen often fought fires wearing only loincloths, these were considered show-off tattoos, but they were also markers of strength and camaraderie. And with the rise of the organized Yakuza criminal networks and their elaborate full bodysuit tattoos, tattoos became a thing for men – very tough men. That these tattooing traditions often criss-crossed with more traditional art forms didn’t prevent their stigmatization from association with these “tough guys”.
This legacy of tattooing from “the floating world” for women and from organized crime for men has left its mark on the attitudes towards tattooing in modern Japan. While tattoo artists from the US travel to Japan for inspiration and training, and lots of people get Japanese-inspired tattoos, Japanese people in general are not comfortable with inked skin. Moreover, for women, the impetus to get inked – with the exception of tribal peoples – has historically come from one’s involvement with a man, and usually one from the criminal underworld.
This hasn’t stopped more forward-thinking Japanese women from jumping into the tattoo world. But modern Tattooed Ladies tread a fine line between Good and Bad Girl. Many people still see tattoos as a criminal-only endeavor: most public baths don’t allow tattooed patrons, as they don’t want people involved in organized crime to scare away their other patrons. Banks routinely deny tattooed people loans, and people will stare in horror at tattoos on the subway. So most Japanese women – especially outside the big cities – won’t be getting inked any time soon.
But as tattoos as decoration become more widespread outside of Japan, it’s pretty much inevitable that Japanese women will want them more often. Already pop stars and hairstylists are flaunting feminine designs that say “Hey, I’m fabulous” more than they say “Hey, I’m devoted to my criminal lover”. And more female tattoo artists have arisen, for women who not only want more feminine designs, but may be uncomfortable showing skin to a male tattoo artist. But it’ll take some time for tattoos as ornamentation to be seen as just another choice: until there are some tattooed grandmothers around (or a new trend of tattooing our skills on our hands), Tattooed Ladies in Japan won’t get the respect they deserve.