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16 Yakuza Tattoos and Their Symbolic Meaning

Traditional Japanese tattooing, or irezumi, has been intertwined with the yakuza since their inception. In the Edo period (1603 to 1868), criminals were tattooed by authorities in a practice known as bokkei, making it hard for them to reenter society and find work. The tattoo culture of the yakuza evolved in protest to this branding.

The meaning of yakuza tattoos are usually related to imagery and symbolism in Japanese art, culture, and religion. The full body suit tattoo, in particular, is a product of yakuza culture. In the past, it was obligatory in many yakuza clans for members to get tattoos. In modern times, the practice is not as common; many yakuza in the 21st century maintain clean skin to better blend in with society. Conversely, more and more non-yakuza in Japan are getting tattoos. Despite these changes, being tattooed is considered a rite of passage for the yakuza.

This list includes some of the most common motifs and images featured in yakuza tattoos, as well as their meanings. Some of them are totems of protection, others tell stories of the individual's life. Yakuza tattoo designs have a fascinating history rich with symbolism and tradition.

  • The Samurai

    Photo: Daz Smith / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Samurai tattoos represent the code of Bushido, literally the way (do) of the warrior (bushi). The code stresses honor, courage, loyalty, and proper action, and is rooted in Buddhist and Confucian ideas. Yakuza have adopted many tenets from Bushido, and consider themselves protectors of ancient Japanese tradition. A close reading of yakuza history shows this is untrue; early yakuza were enemies of samurai, or at least had very uneasy relationships with them.

    However, when samurai absorbed into mainstream society in the Edo and Meiji periods, some joined the yakuza, and got samurai tattoos as a mark of identity and heritage. 

  • Cherry Blossoms

    Photo: 4lfie / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Cherry blossoms ("sakura") are deeply significant in the Japanese culture. Their ephemeral nature and very short lifespan symbolize life itself, which in traditional Japanese belief is little more than grass floating in a rapidly flowing stream. Once sakura fall from the tree, they're scattered by wind and rain, and vanish from the earth. 

    Every year, the Japanese hold hanami (flower viewing), celebrations of life during which friends and family have a little party and get drunk while admiring the beauty of the spring sakura. Put one way, sakura tattoos represent that life is fleeting but full of color and beauty.

  • Oni Mask

    Photo: micsalac / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Oni are ogres or demons that dole out gruesome punishment to the wicked. They are tall and terrifying, usually depicted with red or blue skin, wild white hair, and tusks. They wield massive, spiked clubs, can change form at will, inflict disease, insanity, and death as they see fit, and are intelligent and extremely nasty. Their favorite food is human flesh. 

    Thus, the oni mask tattoo represents the enforcement of behavior codes or the doling out of punishment. Oni are known to terrorize villages, cause social deterioration, and are considered reincarnations of particularly wicked people, which matches nicely with the yakuza lifestyle.

  • The Tiger

    Photo: AdolfGalland / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The tiger ("tora") is employed in Japanese tattoo culture as protection against demons, disease, and bad luck. In Japanese folklore, the tiger represents autumn, and can control the wind as one of four sacred, elemental animals. It also represents courage and strength.