The Japanese Tattoo

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Japanese tattoo (called irezumi, irebokuro and horimono) is an art form that has undergone numerous transformations and has reached incredible highs and extreme lows due to social and cultural changes over time. This indelible art form has been cherished, banned, resurrected, and regarded as taboo. Like many East Asian countries tattooing in Japan has deep connections to magic and religion, ritual and art, and at times has been considered to be much more than just aesthetically pleasing. Much like the Ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world”, and the Yamato-e landscape paintings of Japan, (Mason 278) this culture’s style of tattoo has most often gravitated toward storytelling. To select groups it is a way of life, but these groups are in the minority and its traditional images and methods are fading, unlike the “West” where the tattoo has exploded into popular culture and become more vogue than ever. With its past elevation to a cherished art form, why then have tattoos in Japan stayed in the category of taboo while here in America have become so incredibly popular? Though having a deep love and pride for their history, culture (which includes the tattooed) and surroundings, much of the decline in tattoo has to do with Japan’s profound desire to be looked upon as culture in control, a culture that cares very much what outsiders think of them. Though the early history of tattooing in Japan is hazy, the origin has been traced back to the Jomon period (10,000 B.C. ~ 300 B.C.) and was also found to exist in the Kofun period (300 A.D. ~ 600 A.D.) (Mason 14-29) painted on haniwa (clay figures) that guarded tomb mounds. There is also written evidence of tattooed people in both the Chinese San-kuo Chih (Account of the Three Kingdoms, compiled before A.D. 297) and the Japanese Kojiki “record of ancient matters” compiled around A.D. 710. (Richie and Buruma 11-33)

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