Japanese Yakuza Tattoos With Meanings and History (2023): Irezumi Designs

Japanese Yakuza tattoos, known as Irezumi, have a long and storied history deeply rooted in Japanese culture and the criminal underworld. These intricate tattoos are not just a form of body art but also serve as symbols of identity, loyalty, and honor within the Yakuza, Japan’s notorious organized crime syndicate.

In this article, we will delve into the meanings, history, and designs of Japanese Yakuza tattoos, shedding light on this fascinating and controversial art form.

The Origins of Yakuza Tattoos

Irezumi, or traditional Japanese tattooing, dates back centuries and has evolved into a complex and highly skilled art form. The term “Irezumi” literally translates to “inserting ink,” highlighting the manual and painstaking process involved in creating these tattoos.

The origins of Irezumi can be traced back to Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), where it was primarily used as a form of punishment and branding for criminals. Over time, it transitioned into a form of self-expression and pride among the Yakuza.

Symbolism and Meanings

Yakuza tattoos are more than just body decorations; they are laden with symbolism and meanings. Each element of an Irezumi design carries specific significance. Here are some common motifs and their meanings:

Koi Fish: The koi fish represents determination and perseverance. It is often used to symbolize a Yakuza’s ability to overcome adversity.

Dragons: Dragons signify strength, power, and protection. They are often depicted in vibrant colors and complex designs, showcasing the tattoo artist’s skill.

Chrysanthemums: Chrysanthemums represent the Japanese imperial family and symbolize longevity and rebirth.

Peonies: Peonies are associated with wealth and good fortune. They are often used to represent a Yakuza’s prosperity and success.

Serpents: Serpents can symbolize danger and cunning, emphasizing the Yakuza’s reputation for being both cunning and ruthless.

Sakura (Cherry Blossoms): Sakura represents the transient nature of life. In Yakuza tattoos, it can symbolize a willingness to live in the present moment, fully aware of the risks associated with the criminal lifestyle.

Tigers: Tigers are a symbol of courage and bravery. They are often used to represent a Yakuza’s fearlessness in the face of danger.

Carp: Similar to koi fish, carp tattoos symbolize determination and the ability to overcome obstacles. They are often depicted swimming upstream, signifying perseverance.

The Process of Getting an Irezumi Tattoo

Creating a Yakuza tattoo is a time-consuming and painful process. Traditional Irezumi tattoos are typically hand-poked using a method known as “tebori.” Skilled tattoo artists use a set of needles attached to a wooden or bamboo handle to painstakingly insert ink into the skin. This method allows for greater control and precision, resulting in intricate and detailed designs.

The Yakuza Connection

Yakuza tattoos are synonymous with the criminal underworld in Japan. These tattoos are worn as badges of honor, indicating a member’s allegiance to a specific Yakuza clan. They serve as a form of identity within the organization and demonstrate a member’s unwavering commitment.

However, it’s essential to note that the Yakuza is an illegal organization, and involvement with them carries serious legal consequences in Japan. Tattoo artists who provide services to Yakuza members can also face legal repercussions.

Modern Perception and Legal Restrictions

In recent years, there has been a shift in the perception of Yakuza tattoos in Japan. The government has imposed strict regulations on tattooing, making it illegal for anyone without a medical license to practice tattoo art. This has led to the decline of traditional Irezumi and the rise of contemporary tattooing styles.


Japanese Yakuza tattoos, with their intricate designs and deep symbolism, are a captivating aspect of Japanese culture and history. While they were once associated exclusively with the criminal underworld, today, they are appreciated for their artistic value and cultural significance. Understanding the meanings and history behind Yakuza tattoos provides insight into the complex world of Japan’s organized crime syndicates and the enduring art form of Irezumi.


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