Before the Bodysuits; Irebokuro:
Long before the famous Bodysuits of Japanese tattooing, their style was very different. Before then, the most popular and well known tattoo was the Irebokuro. The word means “Inserted Beauty Spot”, it was essentially tattoo beauty spot. The tattoos were mainly used by the legal prostitutes that were popular in Edo (today’s Tokyo), called Yujo. The tattoo symbolized a lovers undying fidelity.
It was not only prostitutes who got these tattoos done. Men and women alike, would use them to prove their love for one another. In order to show their loyalty and undying love for one another, they would get identical spots tattooed on their wrists. The patterns had to be the same between the partners, so that they would match and remind them of each others love.
However, it is well known and very probable, that a lot of clients of Prostitutes, would often get matching Irebokuro, that matched the one of the prostitute. So in this context, it was actually a clever ploy from the prostitutes, in order to ensure customer loyalty with their clients.
Indeed, many woodcarvings and paintings have been found, where Irebokuro can be seen on the characters depicted.
China’s Influence; Dragons and Tigers:
Indeed, many of the most famous tattoo designs from Japan, that we associate with the country today, come from China. Most of them are directly derived from Chinese folklore and culture. Everything from the Koi Carp, which might be the most famous of all, to the dragon and tiger. Are directly derived from the Chinese (tattoo)culture, and their folklore.
However, the Japanese attached their own meanings to the Chinese “tattoo designs”, even mixing up how they were mixed together.
Putting Peony flowers together with lions, to symbolize male courage and sensuality, which became a popular tattoo for Japanese gamblers. But the Japanese also put a lot of their own culture, religion and mythology into their tattoos.
Thus through the mix of Chinese and Japanese culture, folklore and mythology, the Japanese style and tattoo tradition we know today was born. With the ever popular tigers and dragons, who originated from the Chinese Zodiac signs and folklore, now having their own Japanese designs.
It seems that China and Japan’s Tattoo cultures, are so tightly knit, we can’t talk about one without mentioning the other. This is mainly because of China. China has influenced the entire tattoo culture (just about) of Asia (the far east at least). Though Japan has got their own distinct style of tattooing, which they have had for hundreds of years. It would never have become what it is, without the influence of China and their culture.