The Japanese Tattoo
text by Donald Richie, photos by Ian Buruma

Donald Richie has lived in Japan for most of his adult life and, as a Westerner, has studied many facets of their culture. He is considered an expert authority on Japanese cinema. This book on Japanese tattoos, written by Richie, was produced in 1980 and contains a lot of pertinent historical information along with excellent photo documentation of Japanese tattooing from recent decades.

The foreword of the book is written by a Japanese tattooist named Horibun. He states that he provided information to the authors as part of their research for the book. He also says he hopes that the techniques and history of his trade are not lost due to dwindling practitioners of the old hand tattooing arts.

Richie organizes the book in four main sections. He first provides a short historical background for tattooing in Japan. As an art form, it has enjoyed moments as a high art and as an underground practice. The development of the tattoo art form owed much to the Edo period woodblock arts, and Richie's bibliography notes many sources for those who wish to read further.

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Next, the reader is provided with a chapter that details the iconography of the Japanese tattoo. This is an excellent section. Peonies, chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms are all found in Japanese tattooing, but each is quite different in symbolism. Tigers and lions are considered more decorative in Japanese art, whereas carp and dragons carry connotations of bravery and strength. Dragons also tend to be viewed as wise in the East versus the Western perception of malevolence. Richie also details some of the more commonly depicted deities such as Kintaro (a popular folk hero), Kannon (Goddess of Mercy), Fudo (God of Wrath) and Benten (Goddess of Compassion).

Richie next discusses the social psychology of tattooing in Japan. This is definitely different from the psychological perceptions and reactions that tattooing draws in the West. Richie makes arguments supporting the major reasons he feels are behind Japanese tattoos: initiation, membership, definition, talisman, beautification and individuality. For those looking for more info as to the whys of tattooing, this chapter provides many angles.

Lastly, the book addresses the actual methods of traditional Japanese tattooing. This is an excellent reference for anyone trying to find out more about hand tattooing techniques. Pictures show the actual tools, the particular way of holding them when working, and actual hand work in progress. It can be noted that all the images were taken in a world that was still pre-AIDS, as there are no gloves being used by the tattooists while working on clients.

There are a good number of both full-color and black and white photos in this book. Traditional artwork is shown, along with many tattooed persons. There are public shots from festivals as well as privately-posed portraits. Many of the tattoos appear in visual style and coloring to be older than many other images found in modern books on Japanese tattoos, making this a particularly good visual reference.

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