The Yakuza have long been associated with the art of tattooing. Tattoos themselves have been a part of Japanese culture for many thousands of years. Examples of tattoos can be found dating back to the Jomon period (ca. 14,000–300 BCE) where clay figures were found with what appears to be tattooed designs on the faces. However, it was not until the Edo period (from 1603 to 1867) that the Yakuza adopted tattoos as a symbol of their membership & status within this infamous criminal organization.
Traditional Japanese Tattooing – Irezumi
Yakuza tattoos fall under the blanket terminology of “irezumi”. Irezumi literally translates to “inserting ink” in Japanese. These tattoos are generally characterized by large, often colourful and elaborate designs. They can cover large areas of the body including the back, parts of the arms, buttocks, chest and stomach. The tattoos are usually done by hand using a specialist technique called tebori.
Tebori is a process that involves inserting ink into the skin using a specialised rod. The entire process is known to be extremely painful and can take months or even years to complete. For Yakuza members, it is considered a rite of passage; spiritually and literally engraining them deeper into the criminal lifestyle.
Yakuza Tattoo Designs & Their Meanings
The tattoo designs tend to feature imagery that is symbolic of the Yakuza’s way of life. Common designs include dragons, tigers, oni (a demon of Japanese folklore), koi fish & samurai warriors. These symbols are meant to convey the strength, power & courage of the Yakuza as well as their unwavering loyalty to their clan.
Dragons, for example, are considered powerful & protective creatures. These represent the strength and authority of the Yakuza. Tigers, on the other hand, are often used to represent both ferocity & fearlessness when faced with danger. Koi fish are known for their ability to swim upstream; they are a symbol of perseverance & determination, reflecting the resilience of a Yakuza. Finally, Oni tattoos can be a symbol of luck and a means to ward off bad omens.
One of the most iconic symbols of the Yakuza is the full-body suit tattoo. This is an extensive tattoo that covers significant areas of the body with a specific theme such as those previously mentioned. Getting a full-body tattoo is symbolic. It represents ultimate commitment and loyalty to the Yakuza. It is also a mark of prestige & status within the organization. Only the highest-ranking members of the Yakuza are known to be allowed to have full-body suit tattoos. They are only given to members who have proven their worth and dedication to the family.
Other Yakuza Tattoo Motifs
Irezumi is unique to each bearer, so naturally, designs can vary significantly. Other Yakuza tattoo motifs can include traditional Japanese heroes (Teitoku Son or Kou Son Shou from the Water Margin stories, for example). Tattoos can also feature a variety of deities (e.g. Hotei, one of the seven gods of fortune or Bodhisattva Kannon, the goddess of mercy). Japanese lion dogs to guard against evil spirits or the frog, Kairu for good luck are just a couple more examples of motifs that can be used in Yakuza tattoos. Yakuza sometimes also incorporate the symbol of their clan into their irezumi to demonstrate loyalty; this has been documented on a number of members from the yamaguchi-gumi, for example.
The Perception of Tattoos in Japan
Yakuza tattoos can be a reliable way to identify members, especially since the Japanese government began to crack down on the criminal enterprise. Because of this, tattoos are often kept hidden and are only revealed in privacy or when necessary to do so.
However, in recent years, the Yakuza have moved away from the spotlight. Following tough government sanctions, their presence has been on the decline and because of this, the perception of tattoos in Japan is slowly beginning to change. Tattoos are becoming more accepted in mainstream Japanese society and some young people are getting them as a form of self-expression. However, there are still many places where tattoos are frowned upon. Many bathhouses, for example, will not permit your entrance if you are displaying tattoos (whether you’re a Yakuza or not).
Despite their negative connotations, Yakuza tattoos offer an interesting glimpse into the culture of the Japanese mafia and their way of life. The traditional irezumi tattoos are a symbol of the strength, power & loyalty of the organization and their unique designs continue to captivate and intrigue people to this very day.