And kanji with manga
Thursday, April 4, 2019

"Tattoo" in Japanese

There are various ways to say "tattoo" in Japanese: tatwuu タトゥー, irezumi 刺青 (or 入れ墨), and horimono 彫り物. This post will talk about the differences between them.


The word tatwuu タトゥー, a katakanization of the English word "tattoo," is the western fashion kind of tattoo.

Anime: Black Lagoon (Episode 2)
  • Revy has a "tribal," toraibaru トライバル, tattoo.

Note: for the "womb tattoo" adult meme, see: inmon 淫紋.


The word irezumi 入れ墨, literally "inserting ink," is a native way of saying the word "tattoo" in Japanese.

It comes from the words ireru 入れる, "to put in," and sumi 墨, "ink." The s turns into z because of rendaku. This is not to be confused with the semordnilap sumiire 墨入れ, which means "ink bottle" or "inking [something]."

The verb "to tattoo" is in fact the verb "to put in:"
  • ireru
    To put in [the ink].
    • To ink in. To tattoo.
  • tatwuu wo ireru
    To put in a tattoo. To ink in a tattoo. To tattoo a tattoo.
  • tatwuu wo kesu
    To erase a tattoo. To remove a tattoo.

Historically, during the Edo period (1603–1868), irezumi 入れ墨, also spelled irezumi 入墨, without okurigana, referred to the tattoos tattooed to criminals' faces or arms, which marked that they had been found guilty of their crimes.

Further in the past, the term gei 黥 used to refer to a tattoo on someone's face, while bunshin 文身 referred to a tattoo on their body.


The word irezumi 刺青 is a common ateji for irezumi 入れ墨 that started being used in the Meiji period.

It comes from the short story Shisei 刺青, by novelist Tanizaki Jun'ichirō 谷崎潤一郎, published in 1910. The English title is "The Tattooer," so you can guess what were the contents of the story.

Today, shiseishi 刺青師 means a "tattooer," by the way. Just like renkinjutsushi 錬金術師 means an "alchemist."

In Japan, tattoos used to be associated with gangs and criminal activity. Besides the historical origin of the word irezumi, many yakuza movies had characters in gangs that featured tattoos, causing the audience associate one thing to the other.

Given this, to some people a tatwuu タトゥー refers to a fashionable western tattoo, the small kind you can show to anyone without prejudice, while irezumi 刺青 refers to the larger, more traditional ones.

A lot of people don't make this distinction, however, and use both terms interchangeably.

Manga: Horimiya ホリミヤ (Chapter 3)
  • nanda yo kore... irezumi?
    What is this... a tattoo?
  • e'? honmono ka!?
    Eh? It's real!?
  • un


The term horimono 彫り物 is another way to say "tattoo" in Japanese.

Literally, it means "carving/engraving thing," in the same sense tabemono 食べ物, "food," is literally "eating thing."

The term was in use at the same time as irezumi 入れ墨, but, unlike irezumi, it wasn't branded on criminals.

The horimono was usually tattooed on fishermen, firemen, and so on. People who worked jobs were they wouldn't be wearing many clothes, so their skin, and the tattoo, would be visible most of the time.

Unlike tatwuu タトゥ and irezumi 刺青, the term horimono 彫り物 generally doesn't refer to small tattoos. It refers to large ones, which covers a person's whole back, or arms, or chest, or full-body tattoos, done in a traditional Japanese style.

Anime: Inuyashiki いぬやしき (Episode 4)

Since horimono only means something that's engraved, it can also refer to engravings done on other things, like the engraving on the blade of a katana.


The term wa-hori 和彫り, "Japanese engraving," is a modern synonym for the horimono 彫り物 tattoo.

Further Reading

See Also:


No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave your komento コメント in this posuto ポスト of this burogu ブログ with your questions about Japanese, doubts or whatever!

All comments are moderated and won't show up until approved. Spam, links to illegal websites, and inappropriate content won't be published.