Japan has had a complicated relationship with tattoos over its history. Unlike in most western countries where it’s simply considered a form of expression or drunkenly poor decisions, currently body art is generally looked down upon in Japanese society despite having some of the best artists and techniques in the world.

And yet most people in Japan are unaware that not too long ago, for a time during the Edo Period (1603-1868) the go-to form of punishment for non-violent crimes was a tattoo right in the center of your forehead.

Called a “tattoo penalty” (irezumi kei) it was handed down to perpetrators of relatively minor crimes like theft and burglary. It was classified as a type of “corporal punishment” along with caning.

Oftentimes the penalty was accompanied by expulsion from the area. It served as a deterrent both due to the pain of getting your face tattooed and being publicly displayed as a criminal for the rest of your life.

It also had a record keeping purpose. As you can see in the photos above and below, the style of tattoo was chosen by each region individually. This way people could also know what area the convict was sentenced.

Also in the bottom row of images we can see a sort of three-strikes policy in Hiroshima where each crime gets one stroke of the Chinese character for “large” (大). In most regions, if a tattooed person repeat-offends then the penalty is death.

Tattooing in Japan can be traced back to the Jomon and Yayoi periods (14,000 B.C. – 300 A.D.) when they were believed to hold a mystical significance. Afterwards the culture moved away from tattoos well until the Edo Period when it came back in a very different way.

No prisons existed in the Edo period until the development of large cities like Osaka and Edo (Tokyo) which lead to an increase in crime. Before then, amputation of the nose or ear was the punishment of the day.

In 1745, tattooing replaced amputation as society became gentler and less blood-thirsty. This continued over the years with the face tattoos changing to the less embarrassing – and quite fashionable by today’s standards – arm tattoo.


In 1872, the newly-established government of Japan abolished the tattoo penalty once and for all.

Oddly enough, right in the middle of all this around the early 1800s, body-art suddenly became all the rage with the common people of Japan. And with the number of people seen sports tats in the streets of Japan these days, we might be due for another come-back.

Original Story: Mami