Tattoos have been emerging throughout history, first appearing definitively 5,000 years ago. They have had unique meanings and uses in each culture across the world – being used as everything from pain relief to identifying markers. While tattoos have been culturally significant at certain points and places in history, other cultures across history have revered them with a negative connotation. Some cultures even seemed to go back and forth on the matter…
The first believed signs of tattooing in Japanese culture appeared in several tombs uncovered by archaeologists. The tombs contained clay figurines with painted or engraved marks upon their faces. Miraculously, these figurines have been dated back to approximately 5000 BC, in the Jōmon or Paleolithic periods. While these are some of the oldest relics found representing a tattooed-like appearance, historians cannot be certain, as no physical proof of a tattooed mummy has been located for this time period. It is entirely possible that the marked faces of the figurines document an active tattoo process, but it could also represent a simple face painting ritual performed by the people of this era, and therefore, has not been widely accepted as fact in the historical community.
When it comes to definitive proof of tattooing in Japanese culture, we move forward in time to 297 AD – the first written record of the practice, which has been referred to as Irezumi – traditional Japanese tattooing. At this time, a complete history of Chinese dynastic history was compiled by a local historian, who wrote that Japanese “men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs.” Many Chinese visitors to Japan during the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD) wrote about the detailed tattoos used by the Japanese. From their writing, historians have been able to gather that these markings were used as status symbols and portrayed some form of religious sentiment. The Chinese, like the Greeks and Romans, felt that tattoos were only worn by barbarians and criminals.
As the Chinese continued to frequent Japan on a larger scale, the local attitude towards tattooing began to shift, and by the Kofun period (300-600 AD), the Japanese rulers began to share the Chinese culture’s negative opinion towards tattooing. Because the practice had fallen into disfavor with the officials of Japanese government, decorative and religious tattooing began to quickly disappear.
It isn’t until 720 AD, however, that we see tattooing used as punishment in Japanese culture. According to Vanishing Tattoo, an uncovered Japanese record details the story of Hamako, Muraji of Azumi, who was brought before the court for plotting to rebel and overthrow the state. While this offense was generally punished by death, the Emperor decided to show mercy, deciding instead to tattoo the man with his offense.
The Japanese continued to shift their opinions of tattooing over the next several hundred years – with decorative tattooing gaining popularity in small bursts of time, before falling off in local favor again. While Japanese culture continues to have a double vision when it comes to tattoos, there have been some very unique and interesting events revolving around the activity since the late 1700s… but, that’s a story for another time!