Japanese tattoo meanings

The most frequent symbols in Irezumi


Japanese tattoos, or Irezumi (the name given to the various forms of traditional Japanese tattooing), have become very popular symbols thanks to the admiration we in the West feel for this art. Although the earliest examples of Japanese tattoos date back to the Palaeolithic period (14500 BC), it is from the Edo period onwards that they began to evolve into the tattoos we know today.

From the 1600s onwards, in Japan, they had always been associated with criminals and gangsters as a form of punishment, as they were marks that could not be erased. In 1896 Japan tried to give a good image to the outside world and even banned them until 1948. Even today there are still public places where tattoos are not allowed.

Here is a brief explanation of Japanese tattoo meanings or in other words Japanese irezumi meanings of some of the most frequent symbols in the oriental style of tattooing.


Source: Horifuku; @horifuku

Dragons traditionally symbolise ferocity, wealth and strength, especially with the power to manipulate the forces of the universe for the benefit of people. In the West they are considered a destructive force, the meaning in the East is very different.

In traditional tattoo art, the dragon is not a symbol of fire or power, but rather of generosity and wisdom. All these connotations have made the dragon the most widespread, most popular symbol in the irezumi.

The dragon can take on the characteristics of various animals and may have the ears of a cow, the horns of a deer or the eyes of a monkey.

Dragons with colour on their scales usually represent the oldest dragons, before 500 years of age they do not develop the colours. The dragon may be found to carry a ball, pearl or jewel in its claws, it is known as "the closed-lotus form" essentially symbolising the essence of the universe in order to control the winds, rains, fire and planets.


Source: Caio Piñeiro; @caiopineiro

Japanese fish (Koi) tattoos are another popular Japanese tattoo design. The carp is a farmed fish, native to China. The Koi symbolises masculine qualities within traditional oriental folklore such as strength and bravery, courage, determination, desire for success and like water.

Carp were known in China to attempt to swim upstream in the river but very few could pass beyond a point known as the "Dragon Gate/Longmen Falls". Those who succeeded would be rewarded in becoming dragons, for this reason, they symbolise a strong desire to succeed and to become "something more" or to achieve a dream.

Although its origin is Chinese, its great colour and history have made this symbol a reference in Japan.

The carp's ability to climb the waterfalls was compared to the bravery of a warrior in the face of an enemy sword.

Another popular story about this Japanese symbol is how a giant carp killed a fisherman from a small village, only a young boy was able to avenge his death by killing the Koi and becoming a hero, thus was born what in Japanese folklore is known as "Golden Boy" or "Kintaro".


Source: Jun Chihara; @junchihara

The Japanese tiger is attributed with the same attributes as the animal, strength, bravery, courage and long life. It is considered a supreme animal on earth and is believed to control the winds and is chosen to protect against bad luck, evil spirits and disease. The symbol for the north and autumn.

In many representations, especially the older ones, the tiger is seen fighting with "Shoki (Chn. = Zhongkui)" (a character known in Chinese mythology as the ghost hunter).

Lion/ Fu Dog

Source: jensschnettler; @jensschnettler

The Japanese Foo Dog or Lion is halfway between a lion and a dog because of its pointed ears. It symbolises protection, strength and courage. Its statues were placed at the entrances of houses to keep evil out. These tattoos often represent a brave person with heroic aspirations.

The Asian Foo Dog is also known as the "Lion of Buddha" although it has nothing to do with Buddhism.

In Japan, some religions use the Lion to ward off evil spirits and attract health and wealth. Regardless of the origin, its meaning does not vary much. The story goes that when lions are cubs, their mothers throw them off cliffs so that only the strongest survive.

Very often lion tattoos have a paw up or down in attack position as protection for the wearer.

The local Shinto religion of Japan, which predates Buddhism, also has a Lion as a protective figure with a redhead, which drives away evil spirits and attracts health and wealth.

The Foo dog on the right is typically considered to be male, with an open mouth (for evil), one front paw on a sphere, which is often carved as an open lattice and represents heaven and the whole of Buddhist law.

The left is the female, mouth closed (to prevent evil out), paw rests on a small cub, usually shown upside down on its back, representing the earth. Often in tattoo Lion Foo tattoo menacingly, drags up or down an arm or leg in the protection of the wearer and aspiration of heroic ability and mind.

With its pointed ears and mane of curly but wispy hair, it is certainly a resemblance to dogs. More likely, it is that resemblance that has caused widespread confusion about these animals, also known as Chinese lions and even Lion dogs.

But the resemblance is accidental and because virtually all knowledge of the real lions was second-hand to the Asian artists who initially created them. Their knowledge was second-hand because, although dogs abound the world over, lions have never been native to the Orient.

Japanese Lion design has a pointed triangular shape and looks both Lion or komainu, the guardian dogs of shrines. This is a symbol of strength and power. Also, it's used for protection. Those who have the desire to be a hero tend to choose this design.


Source: Matthew Mooney; @matty_d_mooney

In traditional Japanese tattoos, the snake has a wide range of meanings. Its main characteristic is the guardian protecting those who wear it on their skin from disasters, misfortune and disease.

In the background, it can also signify wisdom and protection against the outcome of a bad decision. The moult of the snake is related to healing and rebirth, it is a symbol of power in men and holiness in women, a female divinity. A bit sexist in ancient Japan.

Undoubtedly the snake is one of the most symbolic animals that exist, together with the Dragon, to which powers to influence nature are attributed.

Snakes can represent the ability to transform themselves into human forms, not always positive, such as jealous or scorned women. But generally, their attributes are positive, many shop owners have an image of a snake, coiled around a gavel hanging near the entrance, believed to attract prosperity and good fortune.

Over time they have become symbols of some of humanity's greatest hopes and fears. In ancient Asian folklore, snakes sometimes rewarded humans with gifts of pearls; in general, snakes often appeared as guardians of shrines and treasure and their saliva was thought to create precious underground jewellery.

Snakes found in a house are even welcomed as good luck and the embodiment of ancestor spirits as protectors, thus they are called snakes of protection.

In the Chinese zodiac, people born in the year of the snake are generally enigmatic but they are also the wisest. Characterised by thinkers and philosophers, they are considered to be fond of conversation and intelligent discussion. They do, however, tire quickly of repetitiveness and are not particularly inclined to take advice, although they do listen to it. Although Snake people examine a situation from many angles, they can also act with speed and determination.


Source: Deneka Horiden; @deneka_

Probably the most important of the mythological birds, its incomparable splendour and immortality derive by rising from its ashes.

Its name comes from the Greek word for "red", the colour of fire and it originally came from Ethiopia and is believed to appear only once every 500 years. In ancient China, the Feng-Huang was able to unite yin and yang and was used as a symbol of marriage. In ancient Rome, it was stamped on coins to symbolise the endurance of the Empire.

In some versions of his story, he flew to distant lands gathering aromatic herbs which he returned to his altar, propping them up and burning them to ashes-lifting them three days later.

In other versions, when approaching the time of his death, he builds a nest of aromatic twigs in which he would burn, simply by the heat of his own body.

Phoenix tattoo is made from different epochs of his existence, therefore not always fire! However, no matter the details of its origin, life or death, it has become a symbol not only of an immortal soul, resurrection and immortal life but one of triumph and a rebirth in this life.


Source: Raphael Tiraf; @raphael_tiraf

The oni, or horned demon, is a popular image in Japanese tattoo art today. They are probably the most common ghostly beings in Japanese cosmology and are typically depicted as overwhelming, violent and cruel. They are almost always shown with horns, their faces can be very varied, similar to noh masks and are usually pink, red or blue-grey.

In general, oni are fearsome supernatural creatures, they have been variously described as guardians of Buddhist hell, demons who act as executioners, carrying out the punishment given by the queen of hell to damned souls who find themselves being judged for wrongdoing in life. Also as jokers, devourers of human victims, hunters of sinners and carriers of diseases and epidemics.

The gods of wind (fujin) and thunder who hover ominously on top of a cloud peak are usually described as oni, showing that oni are not evil, but carry out tasks and actions given by powerful forces and divinities. Although fujin and raijin may be depicted using more typical oni forms.

In many stories, Onijin is an all-powerful oni who is regarded as a king of the oni and may be depicted as powerful and self-absorbed, but may still be overpowered by righteous forces or deities if necessary to rebalance an out of balance society or clan.

There is also a tradition, however, in ancient tales, that they can become benevolent protectors, such as monks who become an oni after death to protect temples.


Source: Armando Montero; @armandoirezumi

It has a deeper meaning to skull tattoo designs than just anger, fear, danger or death it was not originally intended as a symbol to represent any of these things. Instead, it was originally used to represent the symbol of "great change" and "celebration of a great life".

In analysing what the skull traditionally meant in ancient society we discover that it was related to the occurrence of great change and an acceptance and embracing of our mortality by "embracing the new".

The skull is a symbol used to celebrate and show respect for people who have passed on. Its association with death likely grew because death is the greatest change we will ever experience.

Today it is extremely unfortunate that most of the general public does not understand the true meaning of the skull, and when they see it they automatically relate it to the symbol of negativity. Many conservatives detest the design because of its perceived meaning; however, if they were aware of the true meaning behind the design their views may be different.


Source: Piers Lee; @pierslee

The hannya mask is just one example of the many different types of masks used by traditional Japanese Noh theatre performers. Noh is a highly stylised representation of traditional and well-known stories, developed in Japan during the 14th century.

The masks are used to convey the identity and mood of the various characters, which number almost eighty years in the different tales. The hannya mask is specifically used to represent a vengeful and jealous woman. Her anger and envy so she has become a demon, but with some important vestiges of humanity left have consumed her.

The pointed horns, glowing eyes, fanged teeth, combined with a look of pure resentment and hatred are tempered by the expression of suffering around the eyes and the artfully disarranged locks of hair, which indicate passionate emotion thrown into disarray.

The deeper and more extreme the colouring of the face, the deeper and more extreme the character's emotions run. Tattooing takes advantage of these whimsical and attractive images, often using them in large pieces of Japon work or sometimes juxtaposing masks of good and bad characters.

Often a Noh mask will also appear in isolation, as a work of art in its own right, not unlike the actual masks which are highly prized and highly collectable. Even today, in Japan, a hand gesture of two index fingers sticking out of a man's forehead is an indication that his wife is jealous or angry with him.

A more reddish colour indicates anger and strong resentment and is used in such games as Dodoji and Kurozuka, while a lighter colour would be more appropriate for Aoi-no-ue.

Dodoji is the story of unrequited love between a woman and a priest of Dodoji (temple). She turns into a demonic snake that wraps her body around the temple bell and consumes the priest in the process. If a hannya's teeth are blackened in, it is to show that she wants "not" to look beautiful to someone but her deepest love, absolute specific emotions of meaning.

It is often double meaning to all Japanese myths. Let's remember the role of anger! Often it can be caused by despair! Long live understanding and compassion.

Other motifs

Floral motifs from nature, such as cherry blossoms, peonies or orchids, also have a multifaceted world of meaning that irezumi enthusiasts need to explore, especially before making the final decision to get a tattoo.

Above all, however, with each new combination of each motif, individual meanings emerge that not only characterise the wearer's personality, aspirations or spiritual needs but also tell his or her life story.