Photo/IllutrationMorika Yoshiyama sports “hajichi” tattoos on her hands and fingers. (Kazuyuki Ito)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAHA--Tattoos, although much maligned in modern Japan because of their association with the yakuza, were in vogue among women in and around Okinawa Prefecture more than a century ago.

It was customary for women to sport “hajichi” tattoos on their hands and fingers, but the practice died out after it was outlawed in 1899 by the Meiji Era (1868-1912) government.

Now, efforts are under way to revive the centuries-old technique on grounds the custom peculiar to Okinawa and the Amami islands in Kagoshima Prefecture is culturally and historically important.

Morika Yoshiyama, a 30-year-old artist based in Okinawa city, sports spear-like tattoos on her fingers and black circles on her hands. She got her left hand tattooed two years ago and her right hand inked this past June.

“Hajichi symbolized the pride of women in the old days,” Yoshiyama said. “I feel proud when I imagine the feelings of my ancestors, and it is my joy to have been born as an Okinawan.”

Yoshiyama first heard about hajichi when she was 20 and working at a museum in Onna, Okinawa Prefecture.

She learned that Japan's former criminal law, which penalized tattooing, was applied in 1899, just 20 years after the Ryukyu Kingdom, the old name for Okinawa Prefecture, was annexed by Japan.

“It was shocking for me that such a significant custom was abandoned because the government weighed in,” said Yoshiyama. “I want to make more people aware of the existence of hajichi.”

Hajichi are said to have been introduced for rites of passage, such as coming of age and marriage ceremonies. They were also believed to help people reach the next stage after death and protect wearers from foreign enemies.

Taku Oshima, 49, a tattooist in Tokyo working to revive tattoos of indigenous Ainu in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, as well as New Zealand's indigenous Maori and other tribes, was first approached several years ago about inking a hajichi. Since then, he has applied his ink needles to 20 individuals from Okinawa and Amami.

“Non-conforming elements were rejected in the process of modernization, and minor cultures were obliterated,” Oshima said. “But people increasingly are keen to trace their roots as diversity is celebrated today.”

Lee Tonouchi, 47, a fourth-generation Japanese-American writer of Okinawan origin who lives in Hawaii, published a children's picture book titled “Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos” in June to share the history of hajichi with younger readers.

The story revolves around a girl who dreams of looking like a Western woman. Her grandmother then steps in to teach her about the history of hajichi.

“The underlying message is that standards of beauty can be different, depending on regions and cultures,” said Masashi Sakihara, 38, a lecturer at the National Institute of Technology, Okinawa College, who translated the book.

Lensman Hiroaki Yamashiro, 70, who published a photo collection titled “Hajichi” in 2012, said he photographed women with hajichi for the last time during the first half of the 1990s. All the subjects had lived to be 100 years old or more and proudly showed off their tattoos, he said.

“I hope the practice can be preserved, not as a social trend but as an example of valuable ethnic culture,” Yamashiro said.

A special exhibition themed on hajichi and Taiwanese tattoos will be held at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum here between Oct. 5 and Nov. 4. Among the displays will be 10 silicone-made hand replicas with hajichi created by tattooist Sumie Kuramoto, 39, who hails from Yomitan, Okinawa Prefecture.

“I want people to consider how society should perceive tattooing, given that people from around the world come to Japan for the Rugby World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” said Yoshimi Yamamoto, a professor of cultural anthropology at Tsuru University, who organized the exhibit.

Kuramoto shares that sentiment.

“There was an era when it was common for women to sport tattoos,” Kuramoto noted. “Tattoos evoke a scary image in Japan, but the practice is very popular outside the country. I will be happy if the display provides an opportunity for tattoos to be re-evaluated as a tradition and people's personalities.”