Japan’s tattoo history

Japan has a complicated relationship with tattoos. This is a very brief overview of Japan’s tattoo history.

Pre Edo (Before 1600)

Early history of tattoos in Japan is a but unclear, sometimes used for spiritual or status purposes. Around 300CE to 600CE tattoos began to be used to mark criminals.

Edo Period (1600 – 1868)

Tattoos are still used as punishment but fads for fashion tattoos come and go. Most notably in 1827-1830 a series of woodblock prints by Utagawa kuniyoshi based on Suikoden (a Chinese epic featuring heavily tattooed character ) started a craze for large tattoos.

Meiji Period to Occupation (1868 – 1948)

In 1868 the Japanese government outlawed tattoos hoping to avoid ridicule as the country was newly opened to communication with the West. Tattoos now illegal because closely associated with the Japanese criminal underworld.

Occupation to new century (1948 – 2000)

In 1948 US occupation forces legalize tattoos but they retain the connection with criminality. Tattoos become increasingly popular with younger generations due to western influence.

2000 – Present

In 2000 a new law stating tattoos can only be performed by fully licensed medical doctors is enacted but very rarely enforced. Tattoos continue to grow in popularity with younger generation and visitors to Japan. Since the prosecution of studios in 2015 for operating without medical licenses in Osaka, tattoo artists around Japan have been campaigning for an overhaul of tattoo laws and a specific license for tattooist.