Did Samurai Have Tattoos?


Although there are no samurai in modern-day Japan, the samurai, or bushi, are still an invaluable part of Japanese history. Today, many people get samurai or samurai-inspired tattoos to showcase their Japanese heritage or represent the Bushido Code. But did actual samurai have tattoos?

Most samurai probably didn’t have tattoos. Although some sites claim that samurai tattooed their bodies to make it easier to identify them if they died, there’s no scholarly information to confirm that. In fact, samurai actually banned tattooing during the Edo period (1603-1867).

This article will further explore the relationship between Japan’s famous samurai warriors and tattooing. It will also discuss Japanese irezumi and the negative connotations associated with tattoos in Japan.

Also see Did Samurai Have Long Hair? to learn more.

Samurai tattoos
Were there any Samurai with tattoos? See below

Were There Any Samurai With Tattoos?

There may have been a few early samurai with tattoos, as tattooing was popular in Japan in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. By the 7th century, tattoos were stigmatized and seen as barbaric and low-class. Samurai, who were elite warriors, weren’t likely to disgrace themselves with tattoos.

By the time 720 A.D. rolled around, tattoos were almost unheard of in Japan for anyone other than criminals, prisoners, and prostitutes. [1] Much as they were in Rome, tattoos in Japan were marks of shame and degradation; they marked someone immediately as being low class and unworthy. 

Unlike some cultures who conscripted people into the military and forced them to fight, in Japan, it was a great honor to be a samurai. They were superb warriors, feared and well-respected by all. Getting a tattoo would have sullied their reputations. 

There are a few websites that make different claims regarding tattoos and samurai. [2] These claims include the following:

  • Samurai got tattoos to fortify and protect themselves in battle.
  • Samurai used their unique tattoos to identify one another if they died in battle.
  • Samurai had tattoos that represented something sacred to them (i.e., religious symbols).
  • Samurai – and other Japanese people – believed tattoos could ward off evil spirits.

Unfortunately, finding scholarly sources that verify this information is challenging, leading most people to believe that samurai probably didn’t have tattoos.

Also see Did Samurai Wear Masks? to learn more.

Japanese tattoo
Why did Samurai ban tattoos? See below

Why Did Samurai Ban Tattoos?

The samurai ruling class wasn’t the only one attempting to ban tattoos in Japan. The Meiji emperor reinstated the ban in 1868, and other ruling dynasties and government officials spoke out publicly against tattoos, as well. 

Regardless, no matter who was issuing the ban, they all did so for similar reasons. [3]

The samurai tried to ban tattoos because tattooing was associated with criminals and eventually even organized crime in Japan. Additionally, tattoos were popular with the growing class of wealthy merchants, a class of people the samurai resented, so they banned any “displaying of wealth.”

They did this as a direct strike against the merchant class, but that didn’t stop the people from getting tattoos. They simply began getting them in places they could cover up with their clothing. This practice gave rise to the well-known art of Japanese tattooing, or irezumi. [4]

What Is Irezumi?

Irezumi literally means “inserting ink” and refers to the practice of getting large, elaborate, and colorful tattoos over vast portions of the body. Irezumi tattoos are also known as bodysuits because Japanese people would tattoo themselves so entirely that it looked like they were wearing clothes.

As the samurai ruling class, emperors, and other people in power became more and more steadfastly opposed to tattoos, the shadier side of Japan became more determined to get them. 

As a result, irezumi, or bodysuit tattoos, became inextricably linked to the Japanese Yakuza. Even today, people still make connections between the two. 

Also see Did Samurai Kill Civilians? to learn more.

How did early Japanese people give tattoos? See below

Yakuza and Tattoos

The Yakuza is a powerful and long-standing group in Japan who largely contribute to Japan’s organized crime problems, such as:

  • Prostitution
  • Racketeering
  • Gambling
  • Extortion
  • Etc.

There is more than one Yakuza group in Japan, and they aren’t necessarily considered “criminal groups,” despite the criminal activities in which they participate. [5]

One of the most defining characteristics of Yakuza members is irezumi. Yakuza members often have bodysuit – or full-body – tattoos that they cover with clothes and even makeup. Although these tattoos don’t serve the same purpose as gang tattoos in the United States, they easily mark someone as a Yakuza member.

How Did Early Japanese People Give Tattoos?

One of the most interesting things about irezumi is that even today, tattoo artists don’t use electronic or technological equipment to give tattoos. Instead, modern-day Japanese tattoos are given just as tattoos in the 17th century were.

Seventeenth-century Japanese people gave tattoos manually using a “fine wooden stick with four needles.” They used this stick, their hands, and their own strength to push the needles in manually at a rate of approximately two stabs per second. Tattoo artists still use this method in Japan today.

It’s a long, painful, and expensive process, which is another reason many of Japan’s tattoos are limited to members of the Yakuza; they are some of the only people who can afford them. It’s not unheard of for a tattoo artist to take up to a year or longer to complete a tattoo, and the prices for them are exorbitant. 

Also see Did Samurai Have Squires? to learn more.

Samurai Imagery in Modern Tattoos

Since it’s unlikely that samurai had tattoos, many people wonder why so many Japanese tattoos feature samurai and aspects of samurai culture or the Bushido code. 

Again, this comes back around to people wanting to represent their history and heritage through their body art. Plus, samurai were strong, powerful, feared, and respected. They were warriors, and having a tattoo of a samurai represents honor, bravery, strength, courage, and loyalty.

According to one popular tattoo site, samurai tattoos can also symbolize any of the following things: 

  • Service (or “to serve”)
  • Respect
  • Nobility
  • Masculinity
  • Self-discipline
  • A warrior spirit
  • Life and death [6]

Many samurai tattoos come with accompanying art that represents other elements of Japanese culture and heritage, including cherry blossom flowers, dragons, samurai weapons, koi fish, kabuki masks, or geishas. Kanji is another popular choice. 

Conclusion

Even though samurai probably didn’t have tattoos, many Japanese people have tattoos featuring samurai and the Bushido code to represent their history.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source
[6] Source

Related Articles