Japanese tattoo meanings

Based on stories and myths, Japanese tattoo meanings have always attracted the tattoo enthusiast. Japanese tattoos are one of the most popular and most recognized themes of tattoos in the world. They’re very distinct and have a unique style unlike any other – making them desirable pieces of images for anyone who’s into this permanent art form.

But the very thing that separates Japanese tattoos from all the other types of tattoos in the world are the meanings behind the creatures, the plants, the flowers, and the myths that are permanently inked onto human skin.

With the Western appreciation of Japanese tattoos comes with it its own country’s stigma – a very ironic fact still present in today’s modern times. Perhaps it is because of the fully-tattooed members of the famous Japanese mafia Yakuza that has caused Japan to associate the art with crime and gangsters in its homeland. Or maybe it could be the fact that it was banned and kept alive in secret for over a hundred years.

While Japan reveres tattoos as a social stigma, the Western world has embraced it in full force. From left to right, from whatever part of the body you look, you’ll definitely see a Japanese tattoo in every tattoo shop in all corners of the world.

Here are the meanings of the most popular Japanese tattoos in the world:

The Dragon or Ryu

Ryu tattoos

While the Western world sees dragons as ferocious beasts, the Japanese sees them as protectors and guardians. Coal miners during the Edo Period – when tattoos proliferated in Japan – bore dragon tattoos to protect them from the dangers of their work. Thus, Japanese dragon tattoos represent strength and protection.

The Koi Fish

koi fish tattoo

One of the most popular Japanese tattoos, the Koi fish is a special breed of carp that originates from China. According to legend, the Koi fish would swim upstream in the Yellow River and some of them would get past Dragon’s Gate – a difficult passage that when passed through, the fish would get rewarded by being turned into a dragon.

Bearing the Koi fish symbolizes perseverance, determination, strength, courage, and the passionate desire to succeed.

The Hannya Mask

Hannya Mask tattoo

The Hannya Mask is used in the famous Japanese plays called Kabuki. It is worn by a scorned woman who is full of rage and jealousy over her lover. As tattoos, it is said to give protection from evil spirits and ward off bad luck.

The Cherry Blossom

Back Cherry Blossom Tattoo

A fragile and delicate flower, the Cherry Blossom is one of the most iconic symbols of Japan and often injected into large Japanese tattoos. It represents strength and overcoming adversities as the flower still blooms under the harshest conditions. It also lives in full bloom for only 2 days – a Japanese representation of how life should be – since nothing is truly permanent in this world, one should live each day to their fullest.

Thus, bearing a Cherry Blossom tattoo depicts strength, impermanence, beauty, life, and the passion to live each day as if it were the last.

Other popular Japanese tattoos include the Lion or the Fu-Dog – a mix between a lion and a dog that symbolizes heroism and strength; the Tiger that protects you from bad luck and disease; the Snake that helps you heal from sickness and bad decisions; and the Phoenix that represents triumph and rebirth.

When considering to have a Japanese tattoo, think about what you want to represent in your body. You can choose a small cherry blossom or get a full-back with a complete story of a Japanese myth with all the creatures and images. Whatever you decide on, always remember and honor the very culture, tradition, and the meaning from which your soon-to-be tattoo represents.

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