40+ Traditional Japanese Tattoo Style Designs with Meaning (2023)

Japanese tattoos are undoubtedly the most tattoo styles. The Japanese tattoo tradition has been around for thousands of years, but it is still shrouded in mystery and unknown to many of us.

Because Japanese tattoos are expressive and bold, they’ve become a popular style all around the world. These inkings are eye-catching and fascinating because of the brilliant colors and interesting shading. Common patterns include legendary figures, such as dragons and phoenixes, nature, animals, and the supernatural, and are typically used to respect folklore or tradition.

This approach, as remarkable as it is, is also fraught with criticism. The Yakuza gang is known for their tattoos, which cover their entire bodies to signify their dedication and strength. As a result, tattoos are frowned upon in Japan.

Traditional vs Modern Japanese Tattoo

Traditional Japanese tattoos involve the insertion of ink. To really appreciate irezumi, or traditional Japanese tattooing, one must first learn about its historical practices, such as tebori and themes. The classic Japanese style is Japanese. The present link between traditional Japanese tattoos and the criminal element. Modern designs can have a lighter appearance. The Japanese word for tattoo is irezumi, and Japanese tattooing has its own specific style.

The main difference is how the tattoo is applied to the flesh. Traditional Japanese tattooing is performed without the use of electricity and in the most traditional manner possible. On the other hand, modern Japanese tattooing employs the usage of a modern tattoo machine.

The majority of Japanese tattoos are a combination of black-and-gray and colors, while there are a few that are entirely black-and-gray. When it comes to Japanese tattoos, one thing remains constant: the subject matter is steeped in Japanese culture. Koi fish tattoos, geishas, dragons, and other traditional Japanese tattoo patterns are among the most popular.

Traditional Japanese Tattoos and their meanings

1. Koi Fish Tattoo

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The koi fish is a symbol of masculinity in Japanese art. Every year on May 5, when a new boy is born into the family, fish flags are raised in the hopes that he will grow strong.

Every koi that swims up the Chinese Yellow River and passes through the “Dragon’s Gate” waterfalls is said to be turned from a fish to a mythological dragon in Japanese folklore. Many Irezumi depict Koi and dragons navigating stormy seas to represent toughness and endurance.

2. Japanese Dragon Tattoos

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Dragons have long been associated with power, fury, and prosperity in Western cultures. They are a devastating force, but they are also seen as protectors. The Japanese, and the East in general, have a unique perspective on dragons.

Dragons in Japan represent a variety of attributes. The images are seen by some as symbols of strength, power, masculinity, or sexual passion. Others see the dragon as a symbol of longevity, good fortune, and wisdom.

3. Cat Tattoo

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Cats are generally connected with prosperity and good fortune, making them ideal candidates for tattoos. There are many different methods to create your ink, and while some individuals prefer the more conventional approach, others may choose to highlight aspects of Japanese culture that they admire.

This might include everything from the food and clothing to the tattoo design. It’s critical not to offend anyone with your design, and holy and religious imagery should always be avoided.

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4. Samurai Tattoos

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Samurai warriors practiced Bushido and swore allegiance to moral concepts such as honor, courage, and respect. These were the guiding beliefs that kept them strong in times of upheaval, which is why samurai warriors remain a source of fascination that rivals the appeal and majesty of medieval knights.

5. Phoenix Tattoos

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Like many other Japanese tattoos, this one has a common history with various cultures. The fable of the Phoenix, a bird that is destroyed by fire and then rises from its ashes, is well-known to most of us.

Many people are unaware that the story may be found in a variety of cultures and periods of history, including Greek and Roman mythology, Middle Eastern folklore, and even the Americas.

The origins of the Japanese phoenix narrative can be traced back to a Chinese folktale. Phoenix tattoos, regardless of their origin, are meant to represent rebirth and triumph, as well as rejuvenation and rebuilding of one’s self.

6. Cherry Blossom Tattoo

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Cherry blossoms are one of the most beautiful flowers, and their soft pink hue makes them a welcome addition to any garden. However, they do not live for very long, making the bloom a metaphor for life and its transience.

Because of its beauty and meaning, the blossom is also associated with power and endurance, and it is a common picture used in Irezumi. The cherry blossom season in Japan is when the blossoms bloom and is a time of celebration, therefore it is also associated with joy.

7. Geisha Tattoo

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Geishas were frequently well-educated women. Many had had formal training in calligraphy, painting, tea service, and Ikebana, as well as musical instrument proficiency. The painted face of the courtesan has come to represent grace, beauty, and femininity in the realm of modern geisha tattoos, all while providing the tattooist with a motif that can be used in a broad range of unique styles, ideas, and concepts.

8. Tiger Tattoos

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The Japanese tiger tattoo embodies the same qualities that we associate with the natural animal–strength, courage, and longevity. The tiger tattoo is also thought to protect against evil spirits, bad luck, and disease. The tiger is a symbol of both the north and autumn and one of the four sacred animals. They are thought to regulate the wind and are one of the four sacred animals.

9. Cloud Tattoo

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If you want a lovely, ornamental tattoo, the Japanese cloud motif can be for you. Kumo is a set of bold wisps that can be inked alone or with other graphics. The clouds signify important ideas such as masculinity, impermanence, and change, as well as a reverence for the natural world. They create a strong impression and look best when kept dark.

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10. Japanese Snake Tattoo

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The snake has a variety of meanings in traditional Japanese tattoos and has a variety of roles. Protection from illness, tragedy, and bad luck is one of its numerous benefits.

Snake tattoos also symbolize knowledge and protection, especially against the consequences of poor choices. As it was respected in Japanese culture concerning medicinal rites and remedies, the snake can also represent regeneration, healing, and medicine. It was also supposed to promote good health as a symbol of good luck.

11. Godzilla Tattoos

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The concept of the city-wrecking monster is inherently filled with Eastern sensibilities. Of course, this scaly monster isn’t the only bloodthirsty creature in the series. There are dozens of different “kaiju” tattoos that can be used in this type of tattoo. If you enjoy cinematic Japanese art or throwback action, a Godzilla tattoo will be just up your alley.

12. Crane Tattoo

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In Japan, the crane is revered and seen as a symbol of peace and optimism. It is also thought to be an extraterrestrial species that is revered and admired, as well as the topic of intriguing folklore. The bird can bring good fortune and prosperity, but it also symbolizes longevity and wisdom. The design is usually intricate, and it may include other elements such as the sun or flowers.

13. Japanese Wave Tattoos

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Japanese wave tattoos are often associated with strength, fluidity, and movement, and can represent life’s ever-changing nature. Like water and the ocean, life can be peaceful and breezy when things are going well and chaotic when things are going badly. Some Japanese artworks, such as Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave,” have been transformed into tattoos.

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14. Oni/ Oni Mask/ Demon Mask Tattoo

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The Oni Mask tattoo is quite frequent in Japanese tattoos, and it refers to the belief in a spirit world where demons punish the unjust and evil and transmit sickness. While some Oni is known for being bad, others are viewed as protectors.

15. Foo Dog Tattoo

If you want a tattoo that symbolizes protection and good fortune, a foo dog is a way to go. The fabled monster, which resembles a lion, is revered in Japan. It’s a type of architectural adornment used to protect major structures and shrines. They are an excellent choice for a tattoo since they represent prosperity, good fortune, and protection.

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FAQs

What do Japanese tattoos symbolize? ›

Traditionally, Japanese tattoos began as a means of conveying societal status as well as serving as spiritual symbols that were often used as a sort of charm for protection as well as symbolizing devotion, not unlike modern religious tattoos.

What is the Japanese tattoo style called? ›

Broadly speaking, tattooing in Japan is generally referred to as Irezumi. But more specifically, the traditional Japanese tattoo style is referred to as Wabori. Traditionally this was done by hand using needles fastened to bamboo sticks, and is referred to as Tebori which means hand carved or engraved.

What is Irezumi style? ›

What is irezumi? Irezumi, also called Horimono and Wabori, refers to a traditional Japanese style of tattooing that is created using large scale motifs based on Japanese mythology and religious icons, historical characters and scenes from nature, the elements, and well known Japanese fables.

What are some traditional Japanese tattoos? ›

The most popular motifs featured in Japanese tattoos are Koi fish tattoos, geishas, dragons, samurai tattoos, and tiger tattoos.

What is the most popular Japanese tattoo? ›

Ryu Tattoo – Japanese Dragon Tattoo

This is the most popular Japanese tattoo design. The Japanese dragon symbolizes strength, wisdom, blessing, and the force of good.

What are the rules of Japanese tattoo? ›

If you are having the traditional Japanese tattoo then do not be under the dilemma that it will be small and with simple colors. Japanese tattoos either cover the whole arm; all of the chest portion or the back portion. Rule 2 – Japanese tattoo needs to have symbols and themes to represent their culture.

Is Tebori more painful? ›

Despite looking like a more painful process, the Tebori tattoo technique hurts less and is far less intense. Overall, there is less mental and physical strain involved in this method of tattooing. Often, one feels relaxed after a Tebori tattoo, even a long one.

What does an Oni symbolize? ›

Symbolism of the Oni

The oni's symbolism is quite simple – they are evil demons. Made to torture others as well as to punish the wicked souls from which they are born, the oni are the worst fate that can befall a sinner.

Do Japanese style tattoos age well? ›

Japanese tattoos do fade over time, but they fade significantly slower and much less than other tattoo styles. Traditional Tabori tattoos are said to last for a lifetime and retain their vibrancy. Japanese-style tattoos last well, as they are bold and must be well applied by an experienced artist.

What is a Hikae tattoo? ›

Next step are arms and chest tattoos. For males the chest plate or 'hikae' covers most of the pectoral area, 2-4 centimetres from the middle of the chest to 2cm above the nipple and following along the collarbone up top. A strong chest plate really makes a sleeve look great!

What is Mikiri tattoo? ›

Mikiri is the Japanese background that spreads across the body like water or wind: it is a beautiful background pattern that is also an essential part of traditional Japanese tattoo design.

What do kaeru tattoos mean? ›

Kaeru drawing by Marco. Meaning: Protector, Abundance, Money, Success, Wealth, Safety, Fertility, Harvest, Luck, Purity, Travel. The word “Kaeru” or frog in Japanese means return, which is why the frog is considered a lucky animal in Japan. There is good fortune in things returning.

What is the old way of tattooing Japan? ›

What is tebori tattoo? The traditional Japanese method of hand tattooing using a slender bamboo or metal tool with a needle grouping attached to the tip. The tattoo is made by rhythmically working the ink into the skin by using a gentle poking technique depending on whether lines, color or shading is being performed.

What is Yokai tattoo? ›

Monta Morino, Uprise Tattoo, Tokyo, Japan. The yōkai are traditionally associated with fire and summer, a season in which the spirit world is close to the human one. The Yōkai, are able to change shape and are often represented with traits between the grotesque and the terrifying.

What is a tattoo that means strength? ›

Animal Tattoo Design (Eagle, Wolf, Lion Design)

Animal tattoos are generally known to depict strength, power, dominance, leadership, independence, etc. These tattoos often have strong, very bold design, and are large in size. All of this makes them stay in the line of the symbolism they're trying to portray.

What does a dragon mean in Irezumi? ›

Ryu (Dragon)

Usually embodying wisdom, strength and manipulating the forces of the universe for the benefit of people.

What does a butterfly tattoo symbolism? ›

Therefore, butterflies' tattoos often connote a romantic meaning because they can also represent young love; as butterflies fly among flowers, so do young people with their social lives. In Chinese culture, butterflies are also emblematic of immortality, joy, grace, and summer.

What do waves symbolize in Japanese tattoos? ›

The wave in Japanese art is typically representative of power, fluidity, and movement. Such tattoos are often blended with animal motifs like koi fish, oni, or dragons, or represent the ever-changing nature of life.

Can foreigners have tattoos in Japan? ›

Actually, tattoos are fine in Japan. They're not illegal in any way. You may even see some people walking around with fashion tattoos, especially in Tokyo. Although some people in Japan have tattoos, they are usually hidden underneath clothing.

Why are tattoos not allowed in Japan? ›

Are Tattoos Illegal in Japan? While some view tattoos as an art form, the Japanese government, on the other hand, does not. Although they may not be illegal, tattoos are often associated with the Yakuza, a Japanese gang that covers their entire body with tattoos.

What is a Namakubi? ›

Namakubi or severed head tattoo is one of the classic motives in Japanese tattooing tradition, stemming from the warrior class of feudal Japan. They can have different meanings, like respect for your enemy, courage, and fearlessness, but one of the most common would be accepting one's fate with honor and dignity.

What is a Yakuza tattoo? ›

Yakuza tattoos can be colorful or complicated black outlines. They typically cover the entire body from the shoulders down to the legs, called a Yakuza bodysuit. Focused on Japanese mythology and the history of the Yakuza, these Japanese tattoos show the person's identity to the world.

How long do Tebori tattoos take? ›

Each sitting for a tebori tattoo can take between 2 and 6 hours. The duration will be determined beforehand. It's important that you sit as still as possible during this process. Tebori is a delicate art, and movements on your part could result in a permanent mistake to the tattoo.

What does a Tengu tattoo mean? ›

In tattoos, however, the Tengu reminds its wearer to adhere to the samurai's code of Bushido and the virtues of courage, honor, duty, and loyalty, and to also be vigilant against vices and personal weaknesses.

What does Akouma mean? ›

Akoma comes from the Asante of present day Ghana, and it symbolizes endurance and understanding, and can be recognized as the modern day standard heart. It's literal meaning is "the heart" and represents love, unity, endurance, patience, tolerance, goodwill, and faithfulness.

What is a Kijin? ›

Kijin or Kishin are Oni that are so powerful and so violent that they are considered both demon (鬼 ki) and god (神 jin). Kijin are also fierce deities in Shinto and Buddhism, there are a variety of types, such as Yasha and Asura. They are both worshiped as benevolent gods and feared as wrathful demons.

What style of tattoo lasts the longest? ›

Simple, minimalist tattoos are enduringly popular, but bold tattoos tend to last the longest. You can count both the size and the thickness of the lines as two of the reasons why these tattoos age well. "Bold, black text and traditional American tattoos still look badass when they fade," Villani says.

Do irezumi tattoos fade? ›

As Irezumi Ages

Irezumi will spread and blur over the years. Irezumi will be faded with exposure to sun over time.

What does fan tattoo symbolize? ›

The fan symbol represents good luck and generosity.

Should I get an Oni tattoo? ›

Oni tattoos mainly represent a way of warding off bad omens– they are a source of luck. These tattoos have the power to bring you good fortune in almost any situation. Also, these interesting tattoos mean that no one should mess with you. They are meant to be scary demons that ward off your enemies.

What do Japanese waves symbolize? ›

The Seigaiha wave is an ancestral Japanese motif which first appeared in the 6th century. Seigaiha literally means 'blue sea and waves'. It was used to illustrate seas and oceans on maps. The water and waves also symbolise power and resistance, key elements of Japanese culture.

What do waves symbolize in Japanese tattoos? ›

The wave in Japanese art is typically representative of power, fluidity, and movement. Such tattoos are often blended with animal motifs like koi fish, oni, or dragons, or represent the ever-changing nature of life.

Are tattoos frowned upon in Japan? ›

Actually, tattoos are fine in Japan. They're not illegal in any way. You may even see some people walking around with fashion tattoos, especially in Tokyo. Although some people in Japan have tattoos, they are usually hidden underneath clothing.

What does a Tengu tattoo mean? ›

In tattoos, however, the Tengu reminds its wearer to adhere to the samurai's code of Bushido and the virtues of courage, honor, duty, and loyalty, and to also be vigilant against vices and personal weaknesses.

What does a Kitsune tattoo mean? ›

The word “kitsune” in Japanese tattoo culture means fox, and the animal itself is an integral part of the culture and mythology of Japan. Represented as intelligent and wise beings with a penchant for shapeshifting, the kitsune retains the Native American folklore of being a trickster or illusionist.

What does koi tattoo mean? ›

The Meaning of a Koi Fish Tattoo. The most common meaning of koi fish tattoos is perseverance. They are often used to symbolize the struggles one has overcome or is overcoming in their own life.

What does Oni tattoo mean? ›

Oni Tattoos means the devil's ability to punish any evil or unjust act. You can embrace that meaning and show that you're a tough guy with this sleeve idea. This tattoo will protect you from evil and it will represent your bold character as well as your journey or the life that is ahead or behind you.

What is Yukiwa? ›

Yukiwa is a Japanese-style pattern with the theme of snowflake crystals. It is considered a good sign because the melted snow nourishes the plants in the mountain.

What do Japanese clouds symbolize? ›

The Clouds: Kumo

It's a purely decorative pattern -linked with the admiration for nature – with the classical meaning of clouds: hope, impermanence, omen, proximity to Gods, change, …. It is also used as a signature / crest by the Japanese carpenters.

What tattoo symbolizes anxiety? ›

If you're looking for anxiety tattoos, you've probably seen a lot of options with semicolons. Semicolon tattoos were inspired by Project Semicolon – a nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention. Over time, the semicolon has been used to represent mental health awareness, including anxiety.

What do Namakubi tattoo mean? ›

Namakubi or severed head tattoo is one of the classic motives in Japanese tattooing tradition, stemming from the warrior class of feudal Japan. They can have different meanings, like respect for your enemy, courage, and fearlessness, but one of the most common would be accepting one's fate with honor and dignity.

What does moon and sun tattoo mean? ›

The sun and moon tattoo is a representation of two opposing powers - life & death, good & bad, femininity & masculinity.

What do Japanese think of foreigners with tattoos? ›

Rules are very important in Japan, and as there is a no tattoo rule in nearly all pools, onsens and gyms, a foreigner walking up to the desk with tattoos showing is bound to cause concern. Just cover up and keep those tattoos covered and that is acceptable. If you can't cover up, don't go to those environments.

Can you go to beaches in Japan with tattoos? ›

Not many beaches in Japan ban tattoos outright. Some do, though, so do research on where you're going if you're inked. Typically, if there is a ban, you can still enjoy the beach as long as your tattoos aren't visible, so cover up with a t-shirt or your swimming gear. Small tattoos are generally overlooked.

Can you get a job in Japan with tattoos? ›

People determined to have tattoos cannot be barred from working in Japan. The only stipulation related to tattoos can be placed on the body, mainly in visible areas like hands or forearms.

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