Nowadays just about everybody has a tattoo. Guys have tribal symbols around their biceps or cartoon characters on their forearms. Girls have butterflies on their shoulders or roses on their ankles. While some people get one or two tattoos for the fun of it, some decide to turn their body into walking canvases for all kinds of art. Inspiration for this full body inking can partially be traced back to the Yakuza, otherwise known as the Japanese mafia.
Another more modern tattoo trend also has roots in Japan!
Tattoos in Japan began to appear around the seventeenth century during the time of the Shoguns. Shoguns were military strong men who basically ruled Japan during this time and were second only to the Emperor in the social hierarchy.
The story goes that during the time of Shoguns some samurais became Robin Hood style freelance criminals who would steal from the rich to give to the poor. These Samurais were mostly Ronin, or Samurais without a master who had fallen out of favor with their leader and had become mercenaries roaming the countryside. Long on sword skills but short on leadership, the Ronin turned to robbing and mischief as a way to survive while enriching themselves. When these criminals would get caught committing a crime as punishment they would receive a permanent marking on their body. This marking was a tattoo.
The purpose of this tattoo was to shame these criminals into behaving. The belief was that having a visible mark for everybody to see would get these guys to stop stealing. This was like permanent scarlett letter. If they didn’t stop but kept up a life of crime, each time they got caught another mark would be added. Eventually their bodies would be covered with markings announcing to everybody that a particular samurai was a hardened crook. This also gave ample warning to villagers of who they should stay away from.
For the Yakuza, they turned these tattoos from a mark of shame in to one of pride. From the ranks of these samurai criminals the origins of the Yakuza began to form. Because many of them had received tattoos as punishment for previous crimes, having more tattoos demonstrated a samurai’s prowess over other members of the gang. In the Japanese mafia, loyalty is valued above everything else. Being covered with tattoos showed these samurais were committed to a life of crime and devoted to the Yakuza.
Although the ranks of the Yakuza have been declining in recent years, full body tattooing remains a part of their culture.