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Japanese Tattoos: A misunderstood body motif

Japanese tattoos or irezumi, literally translating to ‘inserting ink’, have developed their own distinct style created over centuries. The history of body modification in Japan is long and vibrant, dating right back to the Jomon Period but is one of the most misunderstood forms of art in Japan. Let’s take a look at the history of Japanese tattoos and why they have become so misunderstood in Japanese culture.

Method of tattooing

Traditional Japanese tattoos are often created by hand using wooden handles and metal needles attached with silk and thread. This traditional method of tattooing also requires a special ink called Nara ink. The process is often painful and time-consuming and has only been mastered by a limited number of specialists. Traditional Japanese tattoos do not use stencils or outlines for the design, instead it is all done freehand by the artist. In Japan, tattoo artists are referred to as Horishi and usually have one or more apprentices working for them for a long period of time. Although there is a stigma when it comes to Japanese tattoos, Japanese tattoo artists are amongst the most sought-after in the world because of their precision and aesthetics.

Becoming an artist

Just like in many fields across the world, Japanese tattoo artists start off as apprentices. Each apprentice will have to complete several years of formation with a tattoo artist master. During that time they traditionally live in the master’s house, clean and prepare the equipment and observe and practice Japanese tattoos on their own skin. Only when their teacher has judged that they have mastered all the right skills will the apprentice become a tattoo artist and begin to work with clients. Sometimes, the apprentice will also take the name of the master that trained him or will be given a tattoo name by their master upon learning the methods of Japanese tattoos.

An ancient past

The tradition of Japanese tattoos can be traced back 10,000 years. The indigenous people of the northernmost island of Hokkaido, the Ainu, have been using tattoos as a part of religious and social traditions for years. Women of the Ainu people would receive their first tattoo as early as 12 years old with more Japanese tattoos to follow through the years. By the age of 16, women’s tattoos were usually completed, signifying that they were ready for marriage. While Ainu long remained outside of Japan’s main society, Japanese people would also traditionally get tattoos. As part of Japanese religion and traditions, fishermen, hunters and craftsmen would get tattooed to be protected against evil spirits.
Historians think that Japanese tattoos began to be used as a punishment as early as 500 AD, roughly coinciding with the organisation of the Shinto religion and the arrival of Buddhism. From then on, Japanese tattoos would become a taboo and a sign of society’s outcasts.

Most common motifs

In terms of tattoo subject matter, Japanese tattoos often showcase the culture’s reverence for nature – namely, animals and flowers. Additionally, much like the ukiyo-e prints, a type of Japanese art movement that inspired Japanese tattoos, figures and portraits are also frequently featured in traditional tattoos.
Many Japanese tattoos feature animals associated with strength, courage and protection, like lions, tigers and dragons. Koi fish are historically popular subjects too as they represent luck, success and good fortune. Unsurprisingly, Sakura or cherry blossom remains the most popular floral motif found in Japanese tattoos. Lotus, peonies and chrysanthemums are also favoured for their beauty and prevalence in Japan and are often depicted in Japanese tattoos. Both realistic and mythological figures are often featured in Japanese tattoos. Portraits of people rooted in realism portrayed in the designs include warriors and geishas while folkloric figures include tengu, ghosts, and oni, demon or troll-like creatures.
At Atelier Japan, we understand the importance of preserving and sharing traditional Japanese craft and culture. Our makers have stood the test of time, prevailing amongst huge global disturbances and remaining unwilling to go backwards. We champion this and aim to bring traditional Japanese craft collections directly to you from our makers. Explore the Atelier Japan collections to browse our intricate and traditional Japanese fans, tea, pottery, jewellery and silverware and add something special to your home.

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Japanese Fashion: How fashion history has adapted

A lot has changed in Japanese fashion over the years with Western influences and societal changes continually affecting the way that fashion is perceived in Japan. Traditional Japanese fashion represents the culture’s visible artistic and traditional values through styles and materials that are recognisable across the globe. Nowadays, traditional Japanese garments are mainly worn for ceremonies and special events due to the Westernisation and complexity of traditional Japanese fashion. Let’s take a look at just how fashion has changed in Japan and adapted to suit the needs and demands of the modern fashion world.

The History of Japanese Fashion

Exploring the development of Japanese fashion takes us right back to the Nara Period of Japan. Social segregation through clothing was primarily noticeable between the lower and upper classes. Upper classes dressed in Japanese fashion that covered the majority of their body to nod to their higher social status. As the Heian Period arrived, the concept of covering the body moved more towards the idea that clothes served as protection from evil spirits and acted as a signal of social rank. As time continued to pass and ideas surrounding society changed in Japan, so did the approach to fashion. The once daily dress code soon became something of a festive trend that was saved only for the most special occasions.

Traditional Styles and Garments

The popularity of traditional Japanese fashion has slowly seen a decline over the last few years following the influence from other fashion cultures across the world that have come to both change and replace traditional Japanese fashion. However, as we look back in time we can instantly see where many modern collections and styles started from; traditional Japanese fashion itself.
The most common and well-known item of Japanese fashion is the kimono, also known as the ‘national costume of Japan’. The kimono is a dress-like wrap-over that consists of many layers that are secured in place by sashes and an obi. The process of wearing a kimono requires a lot of knowledge to carry out the multiple steps and layers that form this piece of Japanese fashion. Traditionally, the kimono was handcrafted using hemp and linen materials that were crafted from multiple layers, today more luxurious materials like silk and satin are used to craft these traditional pieces of Japanese fashion. Kimonos come in a variety of materials depending on their traditionality and even depict specific seasons and events. Different fabrics, colours, patterns and styles are used to represent the different seasons and events throughout Japan in the intricate designs of these fashion garments. Today, many versions of the kimono can be found in the modern fashion world, with multiple fashion designers using the kimono as a foundation for their current designs, influenced by its cultural and aesthetic aspects. Although the kimono is a traditional piece of Japanese fashion, it’s influences have had a significant impact on Western clothing styles.
Other types of traditional Japanese fashion items include the ‘Yukata’, a kimono-like robe that is worn specifically in the spring and summer, the ‘Hakama’, a long, wide pleated skirt generally worn over the kimono, and ‘Zori’, a wooden sandal similar to that of a flipflop. These traditional Japanese fashion garments that are still seen in Japan have all influenced the modern fashion industry.

Western Influence

Japanese fashion has seen plenty of Western influences that the country now embraces as part of a changing society and the modern world. After Japan opened up to trading, the first adoptions of Western clothing began to evolve. It became apparent that public colleges and schools were to wear Western uniforms and businessmen, teachers and other societal leaders were to adopt new, smarter Western fashion choices, with them being seen as a symbol of dignity and progression. Although Western styles and garments vastly altered fashion, many styles were adopted with the Japanese making them their own. Despite it being evident that Western culture has greatly impacted Japanese fashion, it is clear that traditional clothing is still a large part of Japanese life for now and in the future.
Japan has been influenced by Western culture for many decades but a lot of its tradition and culture still remains. From Japanese fashion and food to sake and silverware, Japan is driven by detail, culture and its artistic nature. At Atelier Japan, our collection of traditional Japanese products is just waiting to be discovered, browse our makers to explore our range of luxury handcrafted Japanese goods.