While the art of Japanese tattooing, or irezumi, is said have continued for a hundred centuries, the introduction of the Buddhist faith to Japan discouraged its widespread use. The Chinese, who brought Buddhism to Japan, abhorred the art of tattooing, and their influence made its way to the upper classes of Japan. From the early seventeenth to late nineteenth centuries, during Japan’s Edo Period, Japanese tattoos were most often seen on Japanese prostitutes, who used them to entice customers; Japanese firemen were known for their remarkable horimono, or full body tattoos which were quite unlike any other tattoos in the world. The firefighters regarded their tattoos as signs of brotherhood and masculinity.
The other class of Japanese regularly tattooed during this period were criminals who for one hundred and fifty years were marked either with a tattooed ring, or tattooed character on the forehead, on the arm for each crime They may have resented being permanently marked, but prior to the introduction of tattooing, the usually means of identifying criminals was to amputate their noses or ears.
Japanese tattoos regained their popularity when a woodblock printed Chinese novel, “Suikoden,” illustrated with warriors bearing horimono of tigers, dragons, and flowers. The book was wildly successful with Japan‘s lower classes, which began demanding similar tattoos.