In September of 2020, Japan officially made tattoos much easier to get, lifting away a long era of negative stigma around the art form. But, why were tattoos so stigmatized in the first place? In Japan, tattoos generally represent crime and gangs. Today, we want to talk about one gang you may have heard. Famous for their full-body coverage tattoos. But to understand their tattoos, let's understand who the Yakuza are and their relationship with Japan.
There is no set consensus of how the Yakuza came to be. However, the most common theory is that they originated from the social caste called the Burakumin. The Burakumin was the lowest of the low in society. They held the less than desirable jobs which included butchering, leather workers, and even executioners. At one point in history, there was even a strong attempt to completely force the Burakumin out of society as a whole. Due to this, the children of this class had to find any way to survive. They had two options. Carry on their parent's trade or turn to crime. in 1603, crime flourished in Japan. Stalls with stolen goods started popping up around Japan, mostly run by the Burakumin, desperate to earn enough to simply eat. Meanwhile, others set up illegal gambling houses in abandoned temples and shrines.
These shops allowed peddlers and gamblers to set up organized gangs. The gangs would then guard other peddlers’ shops, keeping them safe in exchange for protection money. And in those groups, the first Yakuza was born. And with this newfound power, the Yakuza was not going to let it go. And this is now the modern-day Yakuza as we know it. However, the Yakuza aren't only known for their crime life. During major disasters in Japan, such as the tsunami in 2011, the Yakuza were the first boots on. the ground handing out supplies and providing support to struggling families. And with the growth of the Yakuza, rules, and creeds whee established. The biggest of which was the core factor of the Yakuza becoming their new family, the boss as their father. Some new members would even cut ties with their own blood family. Among creeds like this, came the addition of rituals such as their famous bodysuits.
"The tattoos are crucial to yakuza members." However, they aren't used to symbolize the fact that they are a part of a gang or to show masculinity. According to Horiyoshi III, "If the Yakuza want to use tattoos to show the public that they’re in a gang, they will simply wear visible tattoos and say they are Yakuza. But they’re not that stupid." He continues by saying that " [The] Yakuza are trying to help people, and that’s what it is traditionally about. The tattoos are to show that they have the strength to help the weak. But it doesn’t need to be made public." But, not just anyone can get these tattoos. Tattoo masters such as Horiyoshi III choose if they are worthy of getting a tattoo according to BBC. But, even with those who get a bodysuit, you would be lucky to even see a glimpse of the tattoo. Because tattoos are still, until recently, considered a taboo in Japan, bodysuits strictly cut off at the cuff, ankle, and neck ensuring that none is visible with clothing on.
(Horiyoshi III, via Compulsivecontent)
And according to Horiyoshi III, this is what Japanese Culture is all about, being in the shadows. He describes the art to be like "Fireflies can only be seen at night because their beauty is only visible at night. They aren't appreciated in daylight. When something becomes a fashion, it isn’t fascinating anymore." He continues to display how intertwined Japanese culture is with the birth of tattoos. "Our spiritual culture is different from other countries because when we show our tattoos, it takes the form of a mysterious light that’s hidden and beautiful." This is very reminiscent of the culture of Japan where shadow and light are crucial elements around many things. From bonfires in theaters before light to modern-day Japanese architects.
The tattoos that the Yakuza do adorn on their body largely are of pieces of Japanese culture and history. For example, koi fish and dragons are often representative of wealth and prosperity, samurai warriors represent honor and a moral code, while geisha (female entertainers from Japan trained in traditional styles of performing art) stand as symbols of fertility, good fortune, and tradition. Other traditional Japanese designs that are featured in yakuza tattoos include lotus flowers, cherry blossoms, and tigers.
While the stigma in Japan may be slowly fading away, the meaning and history behind them remain powerful. From the rise of the Yakuza, respect for their culture has always been a central element. And while we move into a new era of tattoo art and tattoo culture, the influence the Yakuza have had over body art will always remain. And that may not be clearly evident from modern-day tattoo art. But if Horiyoshi III has taught us anything, the most beautiful things aren't visible in the daylight, they are appreciated in darkness