All about Japanese tattoos

Japanese tattoos are an integral part of Japanese customs. Innumerable intriguing or monstrous characters appear on them.

Originally, Japanese tattoos, called Iruzemi, came from mafia gangs. Tattoos represented an indelible punishment for their misdeeds.

Japanese yakuza tattoos

Yakuza Gang Tattoo in Tokyo - Photographer Horace Bistrol | Source juxtapoz

During the Edo period, criminals were marked by the Irezumi kei at the front. Tattooed designs differed according to geographical areas and the crimes involved. Over time, this punishment tattoo turned into a mark on the arm. Finally this use was totally eradicated in 1872.

Japanese traditions and representations reveal innumerable creatures, we will expose here the most outstanding stories and characters of Japanese mythology.

It is impossible to go around the many illustrations and stories of Japanese tattoos, however the magnificent selection we present to you should help you discover the great richness of this traditional Japanese know-how that cannot be ignored!

This panorama of Irezumi tattoos will introduce you to the beauties of Japanese tattooing and deepen their symbolism.

Crane Tattoo Meaning 

japanese crane tattoo

Tattoo by Victor J Webster | Source Tattoodo 

The crane is a bird that has a strong place in the spirit of the Japanese, who call them Tsuru, or bird of happiness.

The crane brings long life and luck. The belief remains that these birds can live for thousands of years. It is a really important animal that appears in many Japanese legends. For those who like authentic designs, it may be wise to choose it.

The crane is also appreciated for its elegance, whether it is on its legs or in full flight. Its graceful appearance has fascinated the Japanese for a long time.

japanese crane

Image of a Japanese crane 

Present throughout Japanese mythology, they have been an endless source of inspiration for illustrators and also for tattoo artists.

The crane can also be found in other far-flung traditions, for example in Sweden: the story "The Royal Crane" tells how a crane loyal to the many powers helped a king to win the love of the one he wanted for his queen.

In Japan, there are many myths and children's stories about cranes, the most famous being "The Grateful Crane", or "Tsuru no Ongaeshi".

In this tale, a hunter at the bottom of a wood delivers a crane by removing the arrow that has bruised it. This crane is embodied in the body of the hunter's wife, to design a garment sewn with feather threads.

The most important symbol of this beautiful bird is therefore loyalty.

Wearing the image of a crane with a tattoo helps to keep in mind how determination and perseverance face all disasters. The immaculate white down also represents charm, youth and good fortune.

Indeed, there is no better auspice than to spend your life under the ravishing features of a crane!

Cardigan with cranes motifs

buy Cardigan for men

Japanese Cat Tattoo Meaning

Japanese cat tattoo

Tattoo by Som Nakburin | Source Tattoodo 

The most famous cat character, almost as famous as Hello Kitty, is Maneki Neki, the cat that brings happiness and prosperity. His name means the cat who invokes, and indeed his paw in the air calls for abundance, opulence and good luck.

We often see him, golden or silver, waving his paw to attract luck!

He sometimes holds money. But Maneki Neko is not the only Japanese cat you can choose for a tattoo. Other cats are frequently represented, such as Bakeneko, Nekomata or Monmon.

It is assumed that the Japanese love their cats and enjoy representing them in their tattoos!

Japanese Dragon Tattoo Meaning

Japanese dragon tattoo

Tattoo by JinQ | Source Tattoodo 

The first character that comes to mind when we think of Japanese tattoos is of course the dragon.

Typical Japanese dragon tattoos are called Ryu. They have a power of protection, power and serenity. Far from being an evil creature, the dragon in the eyes of the Japanese brings only benefits.

The representation of dragons differs from place to place, Chinese or Japanese dragons incorporate elements of the animals they encounter on their journey.

Traditionally, the dragon tattoo is given a camel's head, the neck and bust of a reptile, it is often covered with fish scales, and has the claws of a bird of prey and the majestic antlers of a deer.

Tengu Tattoo Meaning

tengu tattoo

Tattoo by Regino Gonzales | Source Tattoodo 

Among the fantastic creatures and ghosts, named Yōkai, the Tengu are often chosen as tattoos. They are pictorial symbols of annihilation and armed struggle.

In current representations, they have a quasi human form. However, in the past, these superior beings often had the body of raptors, of which they still have long, disturbing noses today.

The Tengu mostly have a furious expression in the manga where they appear. Red is often chosen to represent their anger! We also find these features in most of the tattoos where they appear.

Kappa Tattoo Meaning

 kappa tattoo

Tattoo by Dan Sharples | Source Tattoodo 

The Kappas do not have a very shining image among the Japanese mythical characters! They are turbulent and dishonest creatures who spy on people's privacy, kidnap small children and rape young girls!

The origin of this character in the shape of a terrifying two-legged turtle comes from legends about salamanders who hid in the dark waters of rivers and seized with their monstrous mouths people who dared to cross.

However, the Kappas also have the reputation of allowing abundant harvests. According to the legend, they sneakily come to mix with men to create fights. Given the mafia origins of the Irezumi tattoos, this character had its place among the chosen images!

These terrible deities have a notable weakness: their head is surmounted by a small hole filled with water. It is from this water that their strength comes; if it empties, they become weak and vulnerable.

japanese kappa tattoo

Kappa Tattoos - Rory Pickersgill | Source Tattoodo

Since the Kappa are very attached to conventions, if you bow to them, they will not resist bowing back. When they bend over, the water will flow out of its cavity, putting the monster at your mercy.

Raijin and Fujin Tattoo Meaning

raijin and fujin tattoo

Tattoo by JinQ | Source Tattoodo 

Historically, the meaning of the tattoos representing the evil deity Fujin symbolized the wind god.

Fujin is a blue or green "Oni" demon with magical powers. His enemy brother is the god of thunder, called Raijin in the Shinto tradition. He has red skin and is shown crossing the skies with his noisy percussions and vociferating.

In their fraternal struggle, the two demons are constantly fighting each other and from their excessive and incessant quarrels are born violent storms.

Kirin and Baku Tattoo Meaning

Kirin tattoo

Tattoo by Kayle LeoGrande | Source Tattoodo 

The Kirin is a mythical supernatural character from Japan, often chosen for Irezumi tattoos.

The representation of a Kirin is a harbinger of the good times that are bound to return after the loss of a loved one.

Its physical characteristics are a set of elements from different animals. Its head is that of a dragon, its body resembles a deer, it is covered with fish scales, it has hooves, a lion's mane, a cattle tail and horns. It is this heterogeneous aspect that gives it its name of chimera.

Another similar chimera is the Baku, which combines an elephant's head, cat's claws, a bear's body and also an oxtail.

The Baku feeds on nightmares, which is why it is often depicted as a good-luck charm in bedrooms, especially near children's beds.

Geisha Tattoo Meaning

japanese geisha tattoo

Tattoo by Hannah Flowers | Source Tattoodo 

Anyone walking around the city of Tokyo secretly hopes to meet a beautiful and discreet Geisha, or an apprentice Geisha named Maiko... But the easiest way is to contemplate their features on the tattoos that represent them.

Geishas are allegories of artistic life. Their entire existence is dedicated to art and the maintenance of traditions and they are the object of the greatest respect. If you decide to wear a geisha tattoo, you will be wearing the most refined symbol of Japanese culture!

Geishas are not mere courtesans, they take their place after a long apprenticeship, becoming inspirers through their beauty and artistic qualities.

In our European representations, we do not distinguish them from the Oiran, yet for the Japanese these two figures have little in common. In the past, their destinies were intertwined, but this tradition has evolved through the ages.

Today the image of the Geisha represents this mixture of tradition and current refinement.

Foo Dog Tattoo Meaning

japanese foo dog tattoo

Tattoo by JinQ | Source Tattoodo 

The Foo Dog is the ruler of all animals. It is also called Komainu or Karajishi, which means "guardian lion".

We dedicated an article to this king animal to better know the Komainu the guardian of the temples! We reveal the origin and the meanings of this traditional Japanese tattoo!

The Komainu is often represented around the doors of temples and palaces. It preserves the inside of the evil spirits.

Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning 

Japanese Koi Fish Tattoo

Tattoo by Chris Garver | Source Tattoodo 

Koi fish are a traditional figure often seen in Japanese images. They have a very rich and varied symbolism, but their main characteristic is their extremely long life: they provide perseverance, a long life and the ability to overcome difficult events.

Fish are often represented as tattoos on the bust, arms or legs. Among the Japanese criminals who historically wore these tattoos, this fish tattoo also represents courage.

Indeed the strength of the Koi fish is legendary. It does not shy away from obstacles. It can swim against the current. Sometimes she can even metamorphose into a dragon.

The Japanese mafia called Yakusa sometimes get tattoos all over their bodies to prove their worth. This is indeed a brave act because the Irezumi tattoo technique uses bamboo and not the usual instruments such as needles and inks. It is a very painful technique!

Japanese Phoenix Tattoo Meaning

japanese phoenix tattoo

Tattoo by Lango Oliveira | Source Tattoodo 

The Phoenix is a very prestigious creature since it is the emblem of the emperor and his family. It is also called Hou-ou. It has many meanings but the most well known symbols are fairness, respect and the sun. It can express cohesion or conflict, inhabiting the earth in serene moments and joining the sky to escape discord.

The Phoenix is associated with the idea of renewal. We recognize it in the Irezumi tattoos with its elongated neck and scaly reptile body, as well as its shimmering plumage.

In the age-old Japanese tradition, phoenixes do not look like what we usually imagine: they are not creatures of fire and are far from the myth of the creature rising from its ashes. This vision of the phoenix Irezumi is much earlier than the one that appears in western legends.

Oni Tattoo Meaning

japanese oni tattoo

Tattoo by JinQ | Source Tattoodo 

The Oni are demons in Japanese mythology. Japanese Oni demon tattoos were often used by the Yakuza of the Japanese mafia, and represent well their bad reputation.

These figures look like humans but have claws, sharp teeth and horns on their heads. They are often of a strong color.

In most of the illustrations, the Oni are dressed in short clothes and threaten us with their imposing, nail-spattered clubs. These weapons called katanas or kanabō were the prerogative of bloodthirsty mercenaries during the Edo period.

Kabuki Mask Tattoo Meaning

kabuki mask tattoo

Tattoo by Eilo Martin | Source Tattoodo 

The links between the different artistic forms are very strong in Japan, we saw that the same themes could inspire statues or prints like tattoos. Here it is the Japanese theater that directly inspires the characters represented in the tattoos.

Kabuki is one of the most famous genres of Japanese theater, as well as Noh theater. In Noh theater, the actors hide their features behind masks.

These masks are also an inspiration for tattoo artists. However, in Kabuki theater, they are not masks but makeup on the skin which is used to grim the actors. The confusion between these masks and make-up is frequent.

The Kabuki style is characterized by overkill and exaggeration. The costumes, kimonos, gestures and the make-up itself are exuberant elements used by the actors.

It is a priestess who is at the origin of the Kabuki theater, in the 17th century during the Edo period. Kabuki refers to the singing and dancing talents that are part of her expressiveness. Originally, this style was reserved for women, consecrated or prostitutes.

The actors' outrageous make-up is called kumadori. Each character is defined by a palette of colors and typical shapes. The favorite color is red, which is reserved for fighters, winners and lovers.

Kabuki theater makeup

Kaho Gekijou Kabuki Theater - Photo by GanMed64 | Source travel.gaijinpot.com

Kabuki makeup illustrations are full of mystery, even for a Japanese eye. But their aesthetics and refinement are prized by many tattoo artists. If you love Japan, you will surely be inspired by the mysterious beauty of Kabuki makeup.

Fudo Myoo Tattoo Meaning

Fudo Myoo Tattoo

Tattoo by Rubendall | Source Tattoodo

Buddhism was introduced and propagated in Japan, bringing with it new characters: Fudo Myoo, otherwise known as the wise king Acala, is a Buddhist god who therefore appears in the Irezumi tattoos.

Fudo Myoo is a spiritual guide for humans, whom he brings to Awakening. But although benevolent, he always appears with an angry look, folds on the forehead, sharp teeth and a frowning look.

He is depicted surrounded by emblematic accessories, including a three-pointed vajra sword. The Yakuza mafia used this character a lot in their tattoos, and the sword itself has become famous in Japanese culture in general.

It is a sign of strength and support. The furious and fierce aspect of the divinity as of his weapon creates strong and aesthetic images to wear in tattoos, all the more impressive as they will be big!

Japanese Crab Tattoo Meaning

japanese crab tattoo

Tattoo by Henning Jorgensen | Source Tattoodo

Unlike other chimeras, such as kirins, kappas or yokai, fantastic characters mixing elements of several animals, the "samurai crab" or heikegani is a real small crustacean living on the Japanese coasts.

It is known for the astonishing aspect of its shell, which visually evokes an angry face. These crabs are most often found in the Shimonoseki Strait area. Their image was used to symbolize the souls of the war dead.

Legend has it that Heike samurai who survived the massacre at the Battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185 drowned for not surrendering. Their spirits were frozen in the grimacing faces on the backs of the crabs.

This crucial event in Japanese history is now well known to most Japanese people and is found in many Irezumi tattoos.

Japanese Tattoo Wave Meaning

japanese wave tattoo

Tattoo by Galen Bryce Tattoo | Source Tattoodo

Prints, another widespread medium of illustration in ancient Japan, stimulated the imagination of traditional tattoo artists. Hokusai is one of the best known creators of prints depicting natural landscapes, including a series around Mount Fuji.

One of his most famous works is undoubtedly the great wave in front of Mount Fuji.

Although Mount Fuji itself is a source of pride for the Japanese, the great wave itself has become an emblem of Japan. It symbolizes the power of nature. Most of the tattoos that represent it today omit Mount Fuji in the background.

The Hokusai artist was recognized not only in Japan but also in the West, and had admirers as famous as the painter Claude Monet!

Hokusai artist

Katsushika Hokusai. Portrait by Keisai Eisan. | Source Wikipédia

His father, a craftsman who designed mirrors and frames, surely inspired his son and left him a talent for painting. However, Hokusai started his career in a book printing shop and a library.

But the woodworking from his father surely had an important influence. It is by there that Hokusai arrived at the engraving, art which requires a know-how of precision to prepare wood. Apart from the great wave, Hokusai left another famous print, the dream of the fisherman's wife.

Before you decide to tattoo this magnificent wave on your own body, you can now choose one of our objects representing the great Japanese wave!

Japanese wave painting

see Japanese wave painting

Kintaro Tattoo Meaning 

kintaro tattoo

Tattoo by Ichi Hatano | Source Tattoodo

Kintaro is a legendary young man with a reputation for having lived countless adventures and finally defeated evil.

There are many stories about his life, but the most telling anecdote is surely the one where he was conceived by his mother and a lightning bolt from a powerful blood-colored dragon, from which he would draw his inexhaustible power, ardor and exaltation.

Kintaro's adventures have inspired many creators of tattoos and other arts. It is possible that this imaginary warrior was inspired by a real samurai named Sakara Kintoki, who was the valet of the great samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu during the Heian era.

kintaro japanese story
An 1835 painting of Kintaro by Utagawa Kuniyoshi | Source Tattodo
Among the thousand stories of his life, we often remember the episode where he dives into a deep river to catch an ill-intentioned Koi fish. In some versions, he catches the carp to prevent it from harming him, in others, he fights with it underwater until it drowns.

It is thus often represented with this carp. A very impressive scene is that of the underwater battle, which makes an excellent subject for a large tattoo covering the whole body.

Demon Yokai Tattoo Meaning

Yokai Tattoo

Tattoo by Bang Ganji | Source Tattoodo

Yokai are fantastic little devils or ghosts, which can have many different characters. We have already mentioned some of them.

They are sometimes very evil, sometimes touching and funny. We can choose the one we like the most! You can like the ones that are creepy or on the contrary the ones that are very humorous!

We have a little weakness for Yokai tattoos. In the iconographic research of tattoo artists, a great place is given to the traditional myths and legends of Japan. The Yokai are emblematic characters of these mythical tales. They are a multitude and can take very different forms, but always linked to their traditional history.

japanese yokai tattoo

Yokai tattoo by Ganji Bang | Source Tattoodo 

That's why the art of tattooing is so rich and innovative, while being rooted in the traditions and symbols dear to the Japanese.

The works of the famous tattoo artist Bang Ganji from Three Tides Tattoo in Tokyo, are a real inspiration if you like Yokai: his are particularly successful and terrifying! His style is reminiscent of the stroke of a brush spreading ink. He is at the junction between dark art and Irezumi, it is a must.

There is some exciting reading about these Yokai, and we especially recommend "Dream Spectres: Extreme Ukiyo-E: Sex, Blood, Demons, Monsters, Ghosts, Tattoo".

It is the bible of Japanese tattoo artists, who consult it for new ideas. But in front of the multitude of facets of these Yokai, we are far from having made the turn of the subject!

To explore the mysteries and the innumerable characters and powers of the Yokai, as well as their origins and adventures, don't hesitate to visit our page especially dedicated to the yokai demon.

Namakubi Tattoo Meaning

namakubi tattoo

Tattoo by Kikupunk | Source Tattoodo

The Namakubi image is most often a severed head, in honor of the proud Japanese fighters and famous samurai. Their representations often include blood marks and instruments used by warriors such as knives, arrows and ropes.

The symbolic power of the Namakubi comes from the ancient history of Japan, in which rites of honor were omnipresent, such as Seppuku or Hara-Kiri.

This rite of male suicide by eventration has been in use since the twelfth century among samurai. It was officially abandoned by the Japanese in 1868. A Namakubi tattoo is chosen to represent bravery, honor and the ability to overcome fear.

Japanese Cherry Blossom Tattoo Meaning

japanese cherry blossom tattoo

Tattoo by Sam Scott | Source Tattoodo

In Japanese culture, great attention is paid to nature, the seasons and especially to the rebirth symbolized by spring. Delicate cherry blossoms worn in tattoo are a beautiful evocation of it. Japanese cherry trees are called Sakura.

The small white flowers of the cherry tree bloom for a short period of time, about two weeks. The cherry blossoms are immortalized at the height of their beauty, and are drawn in tattoos.

Sakura's flower tattoo represents charm, passion and time passing without return. It is a poetic image of life and the evanescence of time. The image of this brief moment of blossoming reminds us that everything is ephemeral. The contemplation of cherry blossoms is a Japanese ritual called hanami.

In the Buddhist and Shinto traditions, honoring nature, glorifying life and striving to live in the moment are essential principles. Cherry blossoms are the embodiment of these humble postures and wonder before the life and strength of nature that is perpetually reborn.

The cherry blossom tattoos will help you maintain a serene and contemplative state of mind, and this humility before the passing of time and the power of nature.

Hannya Mask Tattoo Meaning

hannya mask tattoo

Tattoo by Matthew Mooney | Source Tattoodo

One of the most striking masks of Noh theater is that of the character of the Hannya, women who are damned because of their jealousy, anger and anger.

These Hannya tattoos are very appreciated for the traditional and artistic aspect of this character, but also because their representation is fascinating.

The skin color of the woman on a Hannya tattoo depends on her rank in society. The white color is intended for women from aristocratic families, and the red color is reserved for women of low extraction such as peasant or provincial women.

When they have dark red or black hues, it is because they have become damned souls, a thousand leagues away from the human person they once were.

Visually, the black Hannya masks are very deep and striking, sometimes even more so than those in color. The black monochrome gives a very strong evocative power to the character.

Most often, the chosen tattoo represents only the mask of Hannya. But sometimes tattoos represent entire stories all over the tattooed person's body.

Japanese tattoo hanya

Hanya backpiece by Christopher Henriksen | Source Tattoodo 

The Yakuza, a notorious mafia, were notably covered with tattoos from head to toe. It can happen to come across people who are fully tattooed and who look at you with an evil eye, as for example in the public baths known as Onsen.

If you find yourself in such a situation, move away immediately!

Namazu Tattoo Meaning

namazu tattoo

Tattoo by Brooke Steele | Source Tattoodo

Ancient myths dating back to at least the 15th century show us Namazu, a deity lurking deep in the Japanese oceans and rivers. He wants to travel the world but massacres everything in his path.

It is Kashima, the god of thunder, who is responsible for keeping him in place. But as soon as the vigilance of his guardian diminishes, Namazu takes advantage of it to escape and destroy everything he comes across. He is therefore a harbinger of disaster.

But beyond this negative image, he also has a hero's face in the hearts of the Japanese. Indeed, he appears to them as a kind of Robin Hood, who steals from the rich to give to the poor.

namazu fish

Namazu ridden by Takemikazuchi | Source wul.waseda.ac.jp

This vision appeared later, after an earthquake that hit Japan. The most underprivileged social strata had benefited from the work required to put the structures back in place and had been able to make a fortune, to the detriment of the noble Samurai.

This popular image has become a frequently chosen design for Japanese-inspired tattoos. According to tattoo artists, the emphasis is either on his help in defending the poor or on the coarseness of his destructive features: often his smiling mouth becomes huge or he is ridiculously wrapped up like in sushi.

Ebook Japanese vocabulary

Ebook Japanese grammar

Japanese Peony Tattoo Meaning

Japanese Peony Tattoo

Tattoo by Henning Jorgensen | Source Tattoodo

Among the flowers chosen in Japanese tattoos, peonies are the most popular. It's because they have a special place among the flowers!

Next to the solemnity of chrysanthemums and the delicacy of Japanese cherry blossoms, peonies have a certain prestige and are nicknamed "queens of flowers".

Coming from China, peonies have settled in Japan in gardens and in art, especially in Irezumi tattoos. They are rather large flowers, with rounded petals and a wide variety of colors.

Japanese peonies

Peonies in Jingshan Park - Wang Quan | Source news.cgtn.com

They are also called: Botan. They were chosen to highlight the countless gardens of the Emperor of China throughout the country and thus earned their title of Queen of Flowers.

This link with the imperial house gives him the power to give luck, poise and opulence. They then spread to the four corners of Asia at the time of Genroku (1688 to 1703) and particularly in Japan, where they are often represented in the woodcuts Ukiyo-e, then on the Irezumi tattoos.

Peonies often decorate scenes with fantastic animals such as foo dogs or maneki neko. They have become so well established in the art of tattooing that they are now an integral part of it and are found there on a recurring basis.

Kasa-obake Tattoo Meaning

kasa obake tattoo

Tattoo by Horikaka | Source Tattoodo

Kasa-obake's tattoos are extremely popular among Japanese who are fans of this character. It is found in all works of contemporary Japanese culture such as manga, movies, children's albums.

And indeed, given the strange aspect of this little demon, one can understand their infatuation! The Kasa-obake is a kind of ghost, he is part of the yokai, the malicious spirits. With its umbrella shape, it is sometimes given the identity of a tsukumogami, in other words something that consciousness has reached after a hundred years of existence.

This figure probably dates from the Edo period and is sometimes thought to have come from the illuminated scrolls Hyakki Yagyo Emaki, or "Night Procession of the Hundred Demons".

Kasa-obake is a closed umbrella with a human leg and two arms, as well as a single eye. Although it is a demon, its appearance is much more fun than terrifying!

Spider Tattoo Meaning

japanese spider tattoo

Tattoo by Oscar Hove | Source Tattoodo

These tattoos called Jorogumo represent a large spider that really exists in Japan and is called Joro. The legend gives this insect a canonical age of 400 years and lends it magical abilities.

But their story goes even further: it is said that these spiders attract their prey by metamorphosing into seductive young women. In this way, they bait young men lost in love. Once these men are trapped in their webs, they eat them end by end. That's why on tattoos, spiders often have a female figure!

Another origin of these Jorogumo tattoos could be the Kashikobuchi waterfall located in Sendai, Japan. In this version, the magic spider has the talent to stop disasters caused by water.

But be careful not to find yourself in its path: just like in the first story, this spider woman does not hesitate to assassinate the people she meets if she feels like it.

Japanese Toad Tattoo Meaning

japanese toad tattoo

Tattoo by Moroko Gon | Source Tattoodo

Here is another creature based on an animal, as found in many Japanese myths and legends.

In Irezumi tattoos, as in Japanese culture, we find this interest in natural life and animals. One more in this crowd of animals, the toad is often represented in the tattoos.

It symbolizes prosperity, success and good fortune. To accentuate this characteristic, it is often depicted with gold coins.

Toad characters have a prominent place in the famous manga Naruto. The hero invokes them for their wisdom and mastery of Senjutsu: toads are able to channel natural energy and go into "hermit mode", making them powerful allies.

Kitsune Tattoo Meaning

kitsune tattoo

Tattoo by Adam Kitamoto | Source Tattoodo

The Kitsune is a mythical creature in the shape of a fox. They are known for their sagacious spirit, supernatural knowledge and eternal soul.

They are of the Yokai family. They live on earth, but when they have acquired nine tails, they ascend into the heavens and can continue their existence as Tenko, celestial foxes.

nine-tailed fox

Nine-tailed fox, drawing by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, 19th century | Source Wikipédia 

Their quick-wittedness is not always well-intentioned: they are sneaky and dishonest and they like to metamorphose into humans to make fun of them and play tricks on them. They also have a mission as transmitters for the divine characters of Japanese mythology.

They can change their appearance and take on the traits of a human to meet their soulmate or appropriate the power of other naive beings. A rather well-known example of Kitsune is the character Kyubi in the cartoon Naruto.

Their multiple faces inspired artists and printmakers throughout the Edo period. This is of course also the case of the tattoo creators Irezumi, who represented them on people's skin to show their fascination.

Japanese Monkey Tattoo Meaning

japanese monkey tattoo

Tattoo by Tebori | Source Tattoodo

An additional animal often has a great role in Japanese stories and myths, it is the monkey. The tattoos representing it are called Saru.

He is a familiar and friendly character, with a very clever mind. Monkeys are often represented by masks of the Noh theater in their image. One should not confuse the Saru with another known monkey which can appear on the tattoos: the Monkey King or Son-gyoja.

The Japanese way of looking at monkeys has evolved over time. In the 8th century, they were respected for their role as messengers between gods and humans. In more recent times, they have been reduced to a miserable rascal.

Japanese Tattoo Mask Meaning

japanese mask tattoo

Tattoo by Lupo Horiokami | Source Tattoodo

Masks have a very special place in Japanese culture. So there is a huge choice if this object inspires you to make a tattoo!

We have already talked about the Japanese mask Hannya which is the most famous and makes very beautiful tattoos. But masks are used in many different artistic expressions, so you can find your own style of mask.

In the various styles of theater, one should not confuse Kabuki theater, in which the actors wear makeup, and Noh theater, in which they wear masks. But Noh theater is not the only theater form that uses masks.

The Kyogen Theater, for example, rather in the register of comedy, also uses masks. This is also the case of some folk dances.

In any case, you can start by exploring the different kinds of masks in Noh theater to enrich your inspiration. It is an art that was born in the 14th century, and has developed a delicate and aesthetic language.

Each of the characters likely to appear in a Noh theater scene has his or her own mask, whether a heroic human or a fantastic creature. There are more than 450 of them.

A very well known type of character is the Onryo, a kind of disturbing imp with a bad smile and pointed horns. Hannya, a symbolic representation of female jealousy, is the most famous. The other Onryo are ghosts or malevolent creatures.

Onryo

Onryo | Source Matthew meyer - Yokai.com

Another category of masks very appreciated is the Onna masks. They represent legendary characters, and are named in various ways according to their age.

They often have a fair complexion, raised eyebrows and a strange look, which gives them a particular appeal to tattoo enthusiasts!

Most of these Onna masks do not show any state of mind. But some are sometimes found smiling.

Sometimes called Nou-men, they express little emotion. However, some of them are smiling. The Ko-omote masks represent round and candid young girls. Otoko, Elders or Jô masks are those representing young or old and wise men.

Tanuki Tattoo Meaning

tanuki tattoo

Tattoo by Moroko Gon | Source Tattoodo

Let's continue our discovery of the many Yokai with this little racoon dog named Tanuki. He is clever and cunning and can be found throughout the mythological tales alongside the Japanese gods and goddesses!

This little raccoon dog exists in reality. But it should not be confused with the animal called a badger! But the representation that is made of the tanuki in the tattoos looks less like a realistic little dog than a fantastic creature capable of spells.

japanese raccoon dog

Raccoon dogs wipe out native species - Christina Krutz | Source theguardian.com

They are not ill-intentioned but are full of life and mischievous. For example, they enjoy transforming and dressing up!

On the tattoos that represent them, we often find this light and joyful spirit that characterizes the tanuki. Of course with all this positive spirit, it's not surprising that tanuki tattoos are supposed to bring good luck.

But an even funnier and more striking detail is that they have a very large scrotum. In most of the performances for several centuries, tanuki have this strange anatomical feature, which adds to their comical aspect!

We see them smiling with a huge scrotum. This contrast still amuses a lot in our time. We wrote an article especially for tanuki: don't hesitate to read it to know more about this funny little dog!

Hyottoko Tattoo Meaning

hyottoko tattoo

Tattoo by Beau Brady | Source Tattoodo

The Hyottoko tattoos represent a character who spits fire. It is a classic of Japanese artistic representations, which is present in all types of arts and also in popular culture. It can be found as much on traditional masks as on contemporary street-wear. It is omnipresent.

Its main characteristic is its grimaceous figure and its spotted head. Most of the time he is represented by the mask with his effigy.

It has a long history in Japanese myths. Initially, he is considered to be the deity of fire. We sometimes see him on tattoos with a small bamboo flute between his lips, through which he blows fire!

But he is sometimes associated with another little boy with the same deformed face could make gold through his belly button. The Hyottoko mask is often placed next to a deceased person for good luck.

Daruma Doll Tattoo Meaning

daruma doll tattoo

Tattoo by Austen Minor | Source Tattoodo

The Daruma character is a declination of Bodhidharma, the man who established the Zen current of Buddhism in Japan.

He often takes the form of a small, round, empty doll, which is represented on tattoos but also as small objects to play with, bring luck or encourage.

They are a sign of good fortune and pugnacity, especially since Bodhidharma had devoted himself body and soul to Buddhist asceticism. One day, having fallen asleep while meditating, he punished himself by cutting off his eyelids so that he would never do it again.

Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887 | Source Wikipédia

Another story relates that he spent 9 years of his life looking at a wall. His legs became useless and shrunk so much that they eventually disappeared. This is why Daruma dolls and drawings never have legs.

These Daruma figurines have often written on them a little phrase that brings good fortune and prosperity, as well as many other blessings to the one who keeps them with him.

On the figurines, tradition dictates that one expresses a wish when drawing the lines of one's first eye, and that one draws the second eye only if the wish has been granted. But the tradition does not say if these gestures are as effective when making a tattoo!

Ushi-Oni and Chochin-obake Tattoo Meaning

Ushi-Oni Tattoo

Tattoo by Miyazo | Source Tattoodo

The Ushi-oni are a kind of ox-headed spider with an exhausted look. But under this harmless aspect, you must be careful! The Ushi-oni are malicious demons whose pleasure is to eat human body parts.

It is a Yokai with many faces, whose legend changes according to the places in Japan. But in any case, he is a mixture of ox and spider.

These Yokai hide in the dark waters and appear only to devour the bodies of the naive people who nap by the water's edge.

The Cochin-obake is another demon. It's an everyday thing that has lasted so long that it has finally gained consciousness. It has the appearance of paper lanterns that you see everywhere in Japan, in every house in Kyoto or Tokyo.

It is a popular element of tattoos and they are very often found in them.

Yurei Tattoo Meaning

yurei tattoo

Tattoo by Vincent Penning | Source Tattoodo

The Yurei are the equivalent of what we would call a ghost. They are ghosts who are trapped among humans, deprived of the rest of death.

They are people who could not die in good conditions, either because they suffered a violent death, suicide or murder, or because they were not buried according to the traditional ritual, or because they were inhabited by strong emotions of revenge or hatred.

Their spirit thus prowls around like a soul in pain, in fact their name means "weak spirit". Their frightening appearance is that of a body covered with a white veil, whose limbs cannot move, and on which a long black hair spreads out.

Their terrifying appearance can dissuade us from getting them tattooed because few of us have the desire to face this character permanently on our own body!

Torii Tattoo Meaning

torii gate tattoo

Tattoo by Studio Muscat | Source Tattoodo

Finally, we present you an image very present in illustrations of all styles in Japan, especially tattoos: these are the famous Japanese doors called Torii.

This architectural element is the symbol of access to a religious or sacred space. The red color that most frequently covers them is used to shelter from evil.

They are always at the entrance of Shinto temples. But they can be discovered anywhere in the Japanese landscape, whether at the bottom of a wood or near a river.

Perhaps the most famous image is that of the floating red door of Itsukushima Temple. But you've probably already seen Fushimi Inari, a place where more than 30,000 Torii are installed!

How to choose your Japanese Tattoo

You, who reached the end of this rich article, are obviously passionate about the creatures, ghosts and demons of Japanese legends!

Here, we have introduced you to 36 mythical characters of Japan with their multiple and evocative meanings.

Take the time to better discover Japanese traditions and the representations of these varied creatures. To begin, you can already get a dress or an object representing the figure that attracts you the most, and thus quietly confirm your decision.

Learn Nippon

Buy Ebook Learn Nippon