TATTOO MEANINGS & TERMS. WESTERN TERMS ~ -Suit: Tattoo from neck down to the thighs or ankles. May have full sleeves, three quarter sleeves half sleeves or no sleeve. -Backpiece: Tattoo on the back, from mid thigh up to the collar line at the neck, classically called a turtle back. -Pants: Tattoo on the legs, Short pants or long pants or a pant leg are the right terms- this is wrongly called "leg-sleeves" as if it were a shirt. Tattoos are worn as clothing. Different lengths are ended above the knee (depending on body shape) but once extended below the knee it traditionally MUST be continued until the ankles. -Jacket: Tattoo on the back, ribs and arms. -Sleeve: Tattoo on the arms. There are full sleeves, three quarter sleeves and half sleeves just like on a shirt. These tattoos are worn from the top down - from the collar bone down to just above the wrist, mid fore-arm or just above the ditch (inside elbow bend). -Socks: Tattoo below the knee to the ankle, it is also traditional to put a tattoo on the top of the foot. -Bracelet, Anklet, Necklace: Tattoo at the parameter or edging of a suit as a "hem-line". JAPANESE TERMS ~ -Ukiyo e: "Ukiyo e" is the woodblock artwork print, in standard size ("ew key yo ee", it is approximately 5 fists high by 3 & 1/2 fists wide (the most used, most common size is called - Oban size). -Horimono: Specifically describes the classic Japanese style of tattoo, imagery on each person all within one thought - decoratively tattooed like clothing. Hori means, master carver, mono means one, one idea, one picture. -Wabori: Means "in the old style" or in the "classic" style. Wabori is a word that represents the opposite of modern (this word is used to describe skills done in the old style. It could be cooking, it could be drawing, sculpting, decorating etc...). -Irezumi: Means tattoo, it is not-specific to any one style - it does not mean horimono. Irezumi is the term for any style of tattooing. Any permanent mark in the skin with ink is irezumi. it simply means tattoo, "any" tattoo. -Nukibori: Floating the tattoo imagery on the body yet not connecting them with background. Yes It is traditional to do “no backgrounding”. Nukibori also refers to the area of skin that is untattooed, untattooed areas can serve to contrast and truly bring a suit together if used masterfully. -Kame no kou gakubori: “Also called the "turtle-shell". if no backgrounding is done then it is a “Nukibori back”. Kamenokogakubori is where the subject and background all occupy only the back (including the buttocks and the thighs). Traditionally only the tattooer that applied the Kamenokogakubori is allowed to sign the tattoo (the signature is called a "chop"), traditionally he is the tattooer to do the other parts of the body as well but only the back is signed. -Munewari: A suit having a short-sleeved jacket and short pants yet with un-tattooed skin in the front torso - called the river. The river is generally sized by using the measurement of the clients own fist. A side fist width measured for mid chest (over the heart) and a flat fist width at belly button continued to the thighs (this is not absolute, just a general rule). -Soushinbori: is the full body suit with no opening on the front torso, and it is from collar to ankles, the arms may be short, mid length or long. -Kantobori & Kansabori: Chest plates are done in two types... The "Kantobori" is the usual, it does not reach the bottom of the pectoral muscle and does not cover the nipple area, it is done from approximately one half inch above the nipple up. The collar is approximately the same above the collarbone as a normal t-shirt height. And has a flat fist width space between. The second kind of chest plate is called "Kansabori", it does include the nipple area and covers the entire chest muscle. The Kansabori should only be done by experienced tattooers - as it can look a bit like a colorful female bra if not done just right. It depends on the body wearing it as to how much un-tattooed skin is left between each chest plate, a side fist or a flat fist. -Shichibu: (most common sleeve length) Traditionaly the arm is scaled by tenths. the halway point is called 5/10 (five tenths) center - at the elbow / ditch area. but the standard is the 7/10 (seven tenths) sleeves; it is called "Shichibu".
-HANNYA Often mistakenly thought of only as a mask, Hannya is "not" always represented in mask form as this is specific to actors and stage plays. In ukiyo e and other forms of classic Japanese art Hannya is done incarnate (real and alive), as the woman that has lost her graceful self and became an angry, jealous demon, an oni. Noh are performances that are very stylized formal Japanese plays of traditional and well known stories, Kabuki is more the working class and less formal plays, in these plays actors use the masks to dress up like a variety of specific beings.... one being Hannya. Hannya is specifically used to represent her anger and envy and having been so consumed her that she has turned (possibly permanent, possibly temporary) into a specific type of Oni (demon), there are many stories that contain Hannya and there can be many hannya not just one. In it's design it is very important that she be portrayed properly or it will not be Hannya, there should be some traces of humanity left. The pointed horns, gleaming eyes, fang-like teeth are combined with a look of resentment and hate, tempered by the expression of suffering around the eyes and disarrayed hair, which indicate passionate emotion thrown into disorder. It is also important to show regret in the face for allowing herself to be consumed by these emotions as well, if all of these are not seen or felt when viewing Hannya then it has not been portrayed properly. if only anger, hate and rage are portrayed then the oni portrayed is not necessarily or easily identified as a Hannya oni. Also... traditionally the deeper and more extreme the coloring of a face, the deeper run the emotions.
Even to this day, in Japan, a hand gesture of two index fingers sticking up as horns from ones forehead is an indication that a woman is mad or jealous. A more reddish color indicates stronger resentment and anger, whereas a paler color would be more appropriate for Dodoji, the story of unrequited love between a woman and a priest of Dodoji (temple). She turns into a demonic serpent who wraps her body around a temple bell consuming it and the priest hiding under it in the process.
There is often double meaning to all the Japanese myths. Let’s remember the role of anger! It can often be caused by despair, misunderstanding and a lack of receiving compassion.
-TENGU To wear Tengu as part of a tattoo is usually to "want knowledge and protection", to aspire to have the abilities and knowledge of Tengu, and to have the supernatural protection of them, yet also to understand ones need to beware of those you learn from... it's a balanced yin & yan.
In classic Japanese style tattoo when the Tengu is occasionally worn, it is usually used to help frame the back piece and is NOT normally put in the back piece itself, they are found on wearers limbs and ribs rather than the back.
Imagery of a clan of Tangu could be depicted with the leader i.e. the Tengu king (sometimes nicknamed the librarian or the teacher) being much more human looking than the rest of the Tengu clan -as they are quite "bird" looking... The Tengu king is usually red skinned with a long nose and black scraggly thin beard and hair, he wears the hat and robe of a "Shugendo disciple". The rest of the clansmen Tengu are usually smaller, depicted with a bird of prey beak, they have human arms and legs with talons, large feathered wings, and they are great martial arts masters, including sword, spear and archery and they can are very stealthy, they are masters of killing.
They are magical and dangerous, beware of them, yet.... it is known that to study under them or to learn from them would be great knowledge obtained indeed.
in Japanese tattooing, what is worn as tattoo is usually to aspire to the imagery, to want the strength of what is worn and or to be balanced with an overall understanding of life.... the imagery is balanced with opposites, a universal knowledge of all aspects of life, i.e. power balanced with humility, strength balanced with knowing weak moments, might with humor, rise and decent etc etc... Understanding knowledge obtained is still knowledge, no matter where we get it and the path of learning is a good path no matter the possible trickery we may have used or had used on us to obtain it, this is usually when Tengu are used in irezumi.
Tengu are thought of as protective yet dangerous, mountain dwelling supernatural beings.... In literature and folk tales they can be good or bad, they can be devious or trusted, they can be tricky or tricked.
Here is a popular example of Tengu in story or myth ...Tengu taught Kintaro for the first 9 years of his life... (aka Kintoshi, the japanese equivalent of the western hero Hercules) ... Kintaro was raised from toddler age by Tengu and he learned his great stealth and great fighting skills from them..... he was left in the forest to be found by a Tengu clan as an infant by his mother.
• Phoenix/Hou ou/Fire Bird
-PHOENIX In classic Japanese art the phoenix is mostly called Hou ou, also Hou o (names representing "fire bird"), it brings good omens and fortune, it's "not" often depicted as rising from fire or ashes as in western art, this would be redundant because it is the Fire Bird and represents fire in itself... it is also called the "Holy Bird" or "god of all Birds" and is one of the "Four Gods".
The Japanese Phoenix is so highly detailed and elaborately complex that it should not be tattooed small, it can easily take up an entire arm or a full third of the back. Alone the Hou-ou is generally thought of as a woman's tattoo in Japan, as it is a strong representation and symbol of Female, so when a man wears it, it is done with a dragon, male representation is the Hou, female representation is the Ou / bird. Weather it is depicted as the lone bird, or as the bird and dragon, it is the same deity, same strength, same intent..... yet it is important to know the intentions. Probably the most important of mythological birds as its splendor and the immortality it derived by the power and strength of fire has mad it a very well known and handed down image.
In western iconography the name phoenix comes from the Greek word for “red”, the color of fire and it came originally from Ethiopia were it was thought to appear only once every 500 years. In ancient China, the feng-huang bird was able to unite both yin and yang and was used as a symbol of marriage. In ancient Rome, it was stamped onto coins to symbolize the endurance of the empire.
In some versions of its story, it flew to distant lands gathering fragrant herbs which it returned to its altar, setting them afire and burning itself - rising three days later. In other versions, when the time of its death would draw near, it built a nest of aromatic twigs in which it would burn, simply from the heat of its own body. Tattooing the phoenix is done from different times of its existence, thus not always after fire! However, no matter the details of its origin, life, or death, it has become a symbol not only of the undying soul, resurrection, and immortal life but also one of new beginnings, strength, triumph and a rebirth in ones life.
Updated September 4, 2013 -KOI / CARP A large amount of art and myths surround these "bred by man" carp fish. The koi is more than just a collected pond fish, it is also one of the most popular images in folk-lore story, myth and tattoo themes. The koi is widely celebrated in Japan for its masculine qualities, in many of the most popular stories including or about koi it is said to be able to climb waterfalls and will face a knife (face death) without a quiver, not unlike the warrior facing the sword.
In tattoo it is considered un-balenced to only have koi swimming upstream, this would show arrogance on behalf of the wearer as if the wearer thought he was above life's challenges, in proper balanced traditional tattooing there are koi traveling down as well as up, and in the traditional wearing of the koi on the upper arms (today popularly known as half sleeves) it is traditionally balanced to have one koi on each arm, one arms koi swimming up and one arms koi swimming down, neither is better nor more righteous than the other, simply understanding that the facts of life are not with-out different directions through out life's journey, generally to wear the koi tattoo is to understand and aspire shisei (attitude), strength, courage, self-control, and the ability to achieve goals with an understanding of the balance of life’s paths and trials.
A most popular story tells- "if" a Koi succeed in swimming upstream through the many falls, cascades and rapids on "Yellow River", then to finally climb the very difficult point atop called “The Dragons Gate”, they can be transformed into a dragon (metaphorically meaning if a man achieves his life's goals by life's end he can achieve bliss). Based on that legend it has become a symbol of worldly aspiration and advancement as well as the reason that in Japanese dragon (Ryu) so many animal features are used in its design, the animals and ventures of each koi during the path of traveling up yellow river can be depicted in the dragon that it becomes.
Not all koi are headed for dragons gate and not all koi are stoic, there are many other stories. One of the most known and popular stories is of a giant monster koi that is killing villagers and fishermen of a small village, then after many great men have boasted and bragged and then in turn were killed by the giant koi, the braggers all fail mortally. The giant monster koi is finally killed by a youth, an adopted orphan of the village, thus killing this koi this boy becomes a hero, this story translated is about Kintaro (Golden Boy) and this being moment in his life when he first aloud the people of the village see his actual powers, powers that he has kept secret ever since he was found and allowed to stay in the village. This is a great and well known folk hero from Japanese folklore. Known as "Kintaro"... he was given his un-earthly knowledge, skills, and powers from the forest Tangu -whom found him as an abandoned infant in they're forest, directed by the "tangu king" (who wanted him to raised as one of their own "instead of killed immediately" as is the tengu's way... they normally kill all mortals that that they find entering their forest)- they adopt him as one of they're own and he is taught all that they know for somewhere between 8 and 11 years... this story tells of the part of his life when he decides to leave them and live with the mortals, in some other stories of Kintaro he does return to the tengu forest to obtain their weapons which are said to have special powers built into them as well...
The koi came to be associated with so many masculine and positive qualities that it was appropriated for the annual “Boys day festival” in Japan where colorful streaming koi flags are displayed for each son in the family.
Specially bred koi are “not” the koi of the traditional tattoo, the "strongest" koi in tattoo are the solid orange, solid red and solid black koi, these koi represent strength, but not necessarily the strength that comes from having big muscles lol. Generally known in the west as brightly colored fish that are common in ponds and fountains, koi can be found in many colors including red, white, gold, yellow, orange, off-white and even indigo and purple hues have been bred in some, their are also calico-colored versions. The collectively most prized is the white koi having a perfect red circle on its head. Also in Chinese the gold koi represents luck in prosperity.
... fun fact- it is not widely known but if colorfully bred koi were set into the wild with no select breeding, they're future ancestors will revert back to black in 3 generations.
- BOTAN / PEONY Botan aka Peony is considered the greatest of flowers and is known as the “king of flowers”.
Literally the name given to growing flowers- “botany” (and the botanical gardens) is given the name after this flower. With it’s large and spreading petals, which are delicately curled at the edges, the peony is sometimes called “the rose without thorns”. Mostly depicted in tattoo imagery in red.
In the ornate, complex, and extensive body coverage that is typically involved in Japanese tattoos, it may seem as though entire gardens appear, but the floral repertoire of traditional Japanese tattoo is not as extensive as it might first appear, select flowers are used and quite often it is the peony as it is regarded as a symbol of strength, elegance, wealth, good fortune and prosperity. The boldest of botan colors is red, shows a dignified strength in the person wearing it as tattoo. In addition though, it also suggests a sort of gambling, daring and even a masculine devil-may-care attitude, quite unlike its character in the west... Botan can be depicted in all seasonal depictions.
-KIKU / CHRYSANTHEMUM / MUM Autumn and winter are the seasons of this flower. Autumn -the time of tranquility, completeness and abundance following the harvest. Since it blooms right into winter (life's end), it may also symbolize the ability to mediate between life and death, between Heaven and Earth. From its identification with autumn, when it blooms, to its association with other fall qualities such as rest after the harvest season, and eventually into periods of quiet contemplation.
The chrysanthemum has moved naturally into symbolizing a time of withdrawal and retreat. In Chinese even the word itself “chu” or “ju”, sounds like the word for “wait” or “linger.” Other sound-alikes made the chrysanthemum ideal for messages of congratulations or good will and wishes for long life.
However, its symbolic link to longevity and happiness in Japanese culture may be drawn more from its actual appearance. Circular and symmetric with numberless rays that flow from its center, the chrysanthemum fits into the class of symbols that we recognize as solar. As a sun symbol, it immediately links to representations of life and longevity. While the cherry blossom of spring references the brevity and bright beauty of our transient lives, the chrysanthemum plays the opposite role in tattoo artwork. It is the flower of fall and of fullness, symbolizing not only a long life but a complete and happy one as well. This blossom is often portrayed as a symbol of perfection. The Japanese regard the chrysanthemum as their ‘solar flower’- the Japanese Imperial Family adopting it as their emblem and the Seal of the Emperor himself. The Emperor’s position is referred to as "The Chrysanthemum Throne". The flower is depicted with petals radiating like flames from the sun, the center of which symbolizes the Emperor’s status in the scheme of things. Longevity and joy are the attributes of both flower and worthy ruler. In Japan, the Imperial Order of the Chrysanthemum is the highest Order of Chivalry. Japan also has a National Chrysanthemum Day, which is called the Festival of Happiness.
• Namakubi/Severed Heads
Updated September 4, 2013 Namakubi in tattoo can be used to show many things, courage, a warning, respect for foe, or just as an image of no fear. Willingness to accept your fate with honor is one of the messages namakubi is worn for. A brutal image none the less, it is applied not as shock factor only, but as an element to the circle of life, for example-when taking a head it is done with respect for the adversary, the person and that persons cause, possibly the person who the namakubi came from would surly have killed you if you had not been skilled enough to kill him first, both fighting for what you each truly believe in... namakubi can also be worn to show the punishment if we are not living a truly righteous life, an understanding of this is very important for balance metaphor and moral.
Most people don't know that the one flower NOT normally used in horimono backgrounding is the Lotus… Lotus are RELIGIOUS symbols, they have strong iconic ties to many Asian religions and throughout India, thing is- not so much in Japanese tattooing. Usually the only time the Lotus is used in Japanese tattooing is when depicting such deity as Fudo-myo and his connection to Buddha, or Benten* and her Buddhist connections as well as other similar situations like with heavenly goddesses... The lotus is a symbol for awakening to the meaning of life, the meaning varies slightly between myth-to-myth of course, but essentially southeastern religions place “great importance” on the lotus flower and it is not taken lightly. In foreground or background it really has STRONG iconic meaning, it is applied in tattoo ONLY when direct religious implication is wanted.
In western ideology it is different, the lotus represents growing through and past the filth of hard moments in a life and then it blossoming by the end of life, but since this is a thought of “achievement of the past” rather than a “view of the future” it is not classic wabori style to apply it in this manner, simply know this is how it is understood and viewed before applying it.
*(aka Benton / Benzaiten / Benzaton etc ((when written in English -the English letters are used phonetically to sound out the Japanese word, this is why you will see so many variations of the same word… example Hannya / Hanya, Fu / Foo etc, Mio / Myo.))
• Maple Leaf
One of the most popular backgrounds is the Japanese maple, a symbol of time passing, and a symbol of the wind. The design often conveys the leaves as floating, carried on the wind or in the water. In Japan, it’s also the symbol of lovers. In some Japanese tattoo designs, canopies of maple leaves float over shoulders and drift over the torso. A single leaf or a multitude of leaves are also potent symbols of regeneration and resurrection as they cycle through the seasons. Changing seasons are marked by the transformation of the leaves from trees. As the circle of life, leaves are vivid reminders to us all of the life-and-death cycle of all living things. A tree losing the last of its leaves in the cold winds of autumn, to be stripped bare for the onset of winter has a poignancy that has long stirred the souls of poets, philosophers and men alike. The parallels of our own human lifetime are all too obvious. We could do worse than to meditate upon a rotting leaf on a damp forest path, often just a ghost of its former self. ‘This too will pass,” said the Buddha. Maple leaves are usually depicting autumn and so they are most often tattooed in browns, reds and oranges, but defiantly don’t forget the sad and early fallen green leaf for sure!!
• Cherry Blossom/Sakura
More often than not, when cherry blossoms appear in tattoo artwork, they do not appear alone and are mostly used as background, this is sometimes a shame because the delicate and subtle beauty of these small blossoms is easily overwhelmed by other imagery. Even so, the centuries old Japanese tattoo tradition from which they spring has essentially formalized their use in that way. Their powerful symbolism has taken on a life of its own for Japanese imagery, the beautiful period of its flowering and then the all too soon fading and subsequent scattering of petals on the wind, thus symbolize life itself. The fragility of the cherry blossom is the fragility of human existence, its brief period of life, its movement toward death, indifferent to the good things of this world is the ideal death for a warrior; and finally, its individual and perfect beauty is also shared with us -Poignant for some but hopeful for others. Sakura is the exact opposite symbol from the chrysanthemum; the cherry blossom of spring references the bright beauty of short and yet traveled lives.
updated August 29, 2013. Today it is extremely unfortunate that the majority of the general public does not understand the traditional meaning of the skull and when they see it they automatically relate the symbol to negativity. A lot of conservative people loathe the design because of its perceived meaning; however, if they were aware of the true traditional meaning behind the design their views might be totally different.
There is actually a more in-depth meaning to wearing skull tattoo designs in traditional Japanese tattoo than anger, fear, danger or death - in fact it was not originally conceived as a symbol to represent any of these things. It was instead originally used to represent the symbol of great change and celebration of a great life and fallen ancestors. The skull is a symbol used to celebrate and show respect for people who have passed / come before us. It's highly probable that it's association with fear, danger and death grew because of the fact that death is the greatest change that we will experience. In analyzing what the skull traditionally meant in ancient society we discover that it was related to the happening of great changes and an acceptance and embrace of our mortality “embracing the new”.
• Fu Dog / Fu Lion / Lion Dog / Foo Dog / Foo Lion / Kara Jishi / Kara shishi / Magic Lion / Magic Dog etc...
Updated September 5, 2013 The Fu Lion of traditional Japan is also called the “Lion of Buddha” and that name is much more accurate than dog, since in older myth it is a lion and not a dog that is represented. Known by many names though, they are used quite extensively in traditional art, sculpture, and of course, tattoos, the Lion of Buddha pre-dates Buddhism in origin, the Shinto religion of Japan, which predates Buddhism as well, has a lion protector with a red head who drives away evil spirits and brings health and prosperity.
No matter the origin the Fu Lion is fundamentally protective, strong, and courageous. It is said that when they are cubs, their mothers will throw them from cliffs so that only the strongest will survive.
Many times Fu Lions occur in pairs placed at gated entrances usually seated and always ready to protect. The Fu Lion to the right is typically thought of as male, with the mouth open (to "let out" evil) one front paw resting on a sphere, which is often carved as open latticework and represents both heaven and the totality of righteous law, on the left is the female, mouth closed (to "keep out" evil), paw resting on a small cub, typically shown upside down on its back, which represents the earth.
Example in tattoo, often in 6/10 sleeve, the Foo Lion crawls menacingly up and down each arm as well as other body parts in protection of the wearer and aspiration of heroic ability and mind, not un-like warriors on the ready.
With their round nose, pointed ears, their curly but subdued manes of hair and the cowlicks covering their body there is certainly a resemblance to cute dogs, more than likely it's this resemblance which has caused the widespread different names of these animals. But the accidental resemblance is due to the fact that virtually all knowledge of actual lions was second hand to the Japanese artists who initially painted the traditional stylized imagery, dogs abound the world over and lions have never been native to Japan.
In the popular culture of the Edo period (1603-1868), much attention was devoted to Japan's rich pantheon of traditional monsters and apparitions, known as yokai. Sometimes frightening, sometimes humorous, these compelling Japanese folk creatures were the subject of numerous artistic and literary works. -More to come
Updated September 4, 2013 Japanese dragons are at home in the wind or in the water, and they have strength and powers over them as well as fire. Usually (yet not always) they embody wisdom, strength and manipulating the forces of the universe for the benefit of people as opposed to the western dragon which is a greedy fire-breathing, cave-dwelling, fear-inspiring winged lizard that jealously guards its hoard (Japanese dragons and western dragons are very different from one another, the only real similarity is the name "dragon").
The face of the Japanese dragon is usually not the face of only one creature, but many and features can be different from dragon to dragon, it can take on characteristics of the many animals that it encounters through a life's journey. The eyes can be of a demon, or rabbit, while the ears often are those of a cow or goat, the neck and belly is usually of a snake, the horns of a stag, scales of a koi, the overall head is usually of a camel and it usually has a hump on the top which can aid it's power to fly, these are not absolute rules but they are the average normal. A dragons hands or talons are from the hawk or eagle, it can have jeweled saliva with breath like perfume and a voice like the music of a copper bell or basin. The Japanese dragon is usually the bearer of profound blessings. Like other Japanese tattoo designs, the choice of a dragon is usually an aspiration to qualities of great goodness, wisdom, and power.
When a dragon is seen with color in its scales, it is thought of as being at least 500 years old, younger dragons have not lived enough, have not earned colored scales yet so it will be black or black and grey. If the dragon lives as long as 1,000 years it can also grow colorful feathered wings, similar looking to the wings of the Japanese Phoenix (Fire Bird / Hou-ou). Flames can sometimes be shown erupting from their limbs, they are not creatures of earth, but rather combine elements of wind, fire and water, equally at home in wind or clouds they have power over them. Although strength and power are represented, the dragon above all is a reconciliation of opposites, a great combination and representation of yin and yang.
Also the Japanese dragon is not very often a cunningly malevolent beast (tho it can be). Instead it is strength are usually combined with wisdom and usually it is benevolent. Dragons do differ from one another – although to the untrained eye, one large Japanese tattoo seems like another. A dragon with its mouth closed, in a less aggressive stance is shown to not let evil in, the mouth open is used to let evil out and if two dragons are shown together both uses of the mouth will generally be seen. Dragon can also often be depicted clutching in one of his claws an object that is variously shown as a ball, a pearl, or a jewel, also known as “the closed-lotus" form -essentially the essence of the universe in order to control the winds, rains, fire and even the planets, this item is essentially seen in various designs including temples and grave markers (which is related to buddhism and is not an absolute rule). When seen the "Dragons Pearl" represents the spiritual essence of the universe by which the dragon controls and protects it from those who might upset those powers.
In Japanese classic tattooing the dragon is depicted with three toes. When Chinese descent is wanted four toes will be seen on the dragon (five toes on a dragon represents Chinese royalty and it would only be seen in art for the royal family, which is not allowed in any other form in China, "said to be punishable by death" if displayed improperly).
It is no overstatement to say that the snake (Hebi) is one of the most symbolic animals that exists. They are said to have supernatural abilities, such as protection against illness, disaster, bad fortune and like the dragon can bring rain, they can also know the consequences that may come from improper actions and will leave a place if things are "not quite right". Snakes sometimes are depicted to have the ability to transform themselves into human forms, such as jealous or wronged women, and hebi is very often shown holding a scroll in its mouth as the messenger for Benten (Benten is a heavenly goddess that can grant gifts of talent or prosperity from talent when it is deserved). Snake myths are not often bad, many shop owners have the image of a snake coiled around a mallet hanging near the entrance, this is to bring good fortune and prosperity and sometimes, in story, it is wittingly said that "the general is happy with us here, (referring to the snake as the "general").
Throughout time they have become symbols of some of humanity’s greatest hopes as well as fears. In ancient Asian folklore, snakes sometimes rewarded humans with gifts of pearls, in general, snakes often appeared as guardians of shrines and treasure and their saliva was thought to create precious jewels underground. The snake is linked with wisdom and prophecy, snakes found in a home are even welcomed as good luck and the embodiment of the spirits of the ancestors as protectors, thus these are called protection snakes.
In the Chinese zodiac, people who are born in the Year of the Snake are generally enigmatic but they are also the wisest. Characterized as thinkers and philosophers, they are seen as fond of conversation and intelligent discussion. They do, however, tire quickly of repetitiveness and are not particularly inclined to take advice, although they will listen to it. Although Snake people will examine a situation from many angles, they can also act with speed and determination.
The snake is used in many different types of tattoo … to withdraw into it for protection has also been associated with strength. One of the reasons is centered on change. The snake represents the earth and life-giving waters.
Wearing the tiger as a tattoo is to aspire strength, courage and long life in yourself. Considered to be the supreme of all land animals in Japanese traditional tattoo. Tigers are also said to be able to ward off bad luck, disease and Demons. In many Ukiyo-e prints you will see a tiger fighting demons [Oni] at the side of “SHOKI” The demon queller. Tigers are one of the 4 sacred animals, symbols of the North and represent the season of Autumn and control of the winds.
updated August 29, 2013. Oni (demon) are popular images in Japanese artwork. They are probably the most common of the heavenly and yokai beings in Japanese Edo period art and they are typically depicted as rampaging, fearsome supernatural creatures, though some can be depicted otherwise. Generally known as pranksters, devourers of human victims, hunters of sinners, and bringers of disease and epidemics. Oni can be violent, cruel, playful and or bothersome. Almost always shown with horns, their faces can be quite varied and are typically seen in red, green, brown or blue-grey. Many oni are the guardians of hell, demons who act as the torturers there, carrying out the punishment given by the queen of hell or by Enma the king of hell. The Japanese version of hell is a bit different than the western as the king and queen are not evil nor do they cause or talk people into doing bad things. They punish bad people, punishing the convicted souls that have been judged for their evil deeds done in life.
A couple of the most known Oni are the gods of wind and thunder (Fujin and Raijin) that loom ominously atop a summit of clouds, showing that oni are not evil from their own accord, but they carry out duties and deeds given them by powerful deities, quellers and forces. Although in Japanese art Fujin and Raijin can be depicted by other than typical oni forms.
In many stories Onijin is an all powerful oni (perhaps thought of as the leader of a clan of oni), Onijin is considered a king of oni and he can be depicted as very powerful and self absorbed, but he can still be over-powered by righteous forces, deities or Shoki (Shoki is a great demon Queller with many stories written about him). Overpowered if necessary in order to re-balance an out of balance society or clan.
Hannya are oni as well, woman that become out of control, jealous and angry can loose all notions of beauty and self respect, thus growing horns and becoming disheveled and demon-like, becoming an oni.
There is also a tradition, however, in older tales, that oni can become benevolent protectors such as becoming monks after death in order to protect a beloved temple, or be enslaved to do chores or farming.