Irezumi – Japan’s hidden treasure

Since 1929, in an effort to preserve pre-modern art forms, the Japanese government has bestowed the title ‘Living National Treasure’ upon practitioners of traditional crafts perceived as under threat from the forces of modernisation.

rom noh and kabuki theatre to sword making, traditional musical forms to woodblock printing, experts across a range of techniques for which Japan has been admired have received the distinction.

There is one traditional art form, however, who’s remaining practitioners are notably absent from the roll call of those so honoured; an art form much admired by enthusiast the world over and yet rarely acknowledged in a positive light within its homeland. This is the art of irezumi – traditional Japanese tattooing.

[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]the art of irezumi – traditional Japanese tattooing[/quote]

Irezumi generally depict images from history, nature, or Japanese folklore and legend framed by patterns representing waves, clouds or foliage to create a complete piece of art covering the majority of the wearer’s skin, and sometimes leaving only the hands, feet, and head unmarked. Practitioners of the style, known as “horishi” eschew modern methods of electric tattooing, preferring to rely on manual techniques developed in the pre-modern era..

The technique emerged in its current guise during the 17th and 18th century. Growing out of a practice of penal tattooing, criminals and others on the periphery of society increasingly chose to have their bodies covered in intricate designs as a means of accepting, and indeed celebrating their expulsion from mainstream society, as well as creating a visible bond with others in their position. In contrast to most western societies, this association of the tattooed body with outsider or criminal status has never been overcome – in the Japanese popular consciousness the wearing of irezumi remains inseparably linked with membership of the yakuza underworld

[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]In contrast to most western societies, this association of the tattooed body with outsider or criminal status has never been overcome[/quote]

To be tattooed is, therefore, to adopt a lifelong pariah status – wearers are routinely banned from public baths, swimming pools, fitness centres and, indeed, any other public space where the marking could be displayed. Even today, to be involved in the world of Japanese tattooing is considered a subversive, even deviant, act. In a move posited as keeping yakuza off of the public payroll, controversial mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, recently ordered the surveying and inspection of thousands of city workers to check for tattooing, stating that “some workplaces may tolerate tattoos, but that shouldn’t be the case for public servants, if they insist on having tattoos, they had better leave the city office and go to the private sector.”

The irony, however, is that, with Japanese authorities taking an ever firmer stance against organised crime in recent years, increasingly few initiates into the criminal fraternity choose to acquire irezumi, viewing them as an identifying marking.

Perhaps in reaction to this lack of acceptance, the irezumi fraternity has remained a resolutely closed world. Horishi never openly advertise their services or work out of shops open to the public. Rather, a referral is required from a trusted mutual acquaintance – usually an individual previously tattooed by the artist – and work will generally proceed within the tattoo master’s home. Clients are able to select from a limited repertoire of designs presented in the style of traditional woodblock prints. Deviation from this repertoire is extremely rare and, while the final decision is the client’s, the artist plays a significant role in deciding on the suitability of a particular design.

In keeping with global trends, the wearing of small, western style designs is seen in Japan as increasingly acceptable, particularly among the young but more traditional styles remain a distinct taboo. With its lack of recognition within Japan along with the gradual loss of its underworld customer base, while many tattoo artists emulate the style using modern tattooing equipment, the traditional practice of irezumi is an art form under undeniable pressure from all quarters – an art form which may soon be lost.

by Sam Jones


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