The Secret History of Okinawan Tattoos

Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010. Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.
Laura Kina, Hajichi #2 (Okinawan Tattoo), 2010.
Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist.
When Okinawa was under the rule of the Ryukyu monarchy, Uchinanchu (Okinawan) women wore indigo tattoos known as hajichi on the backs of their hands. These tattoos functioned as symbols of the transition from adolescence to womanhood and also as indicators of social status.

In tattoos of the lower classes, commonly used icons included arrowheads, circles, and squares. According to historians, the arrowhead represented daughters never coming back to their families once they married into another house, just as arrowheads never return to their origin. The circle represented winding thread and the square represented a sewing box; these two items were important because back then, a girl could not marry if she didn’t know how to sew.

Uchinanchu women who came from higher-class families had more intricate, ornate tattoos that sometimes went all the way up their arms. Little is known about these upper-class tattoos, as documentation in English is scant. No matter their status, all Uchinanchu women were said to value their hajichi over their wealth, their husbands, and life itself, as the tattoos were thought to ward off evil, ensure safety, and bring happiness.

When Japan took control of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the late 19th century, the practice of tattooing was banned. The reasons were multifold. Tattoos were looked down upon by Japanese society; at the same time, Japanese authorities wished to strengthen their own influence by reducing the influence held by village head priestesses. According to ancient Ryukyuan beliefs, women ruled the spiritual domain and were believed to possess innate spiritual powers; they were called onarigami while men were called umiki—the rulers of the secular domain. Hajichi functioned as signifiers and transmitters of female power.

Drawing of hajichi by Alexis Miyake.
Drawing of hajichi by Alexis Miyake.
Some Uchinanchu women continued to practice hajichi even after the ban, but the practice slowly dwindled over the years. During the period when many Okinawans emigrated to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations, Uchinanchu women who bore hajichi were ridiculed and ostracized by their fellow Japanese field workers. Eventually, the hajichi became a symbol of shame; in some photos of Uchinanchu women, their hands are held palms up or tucked into their sleeves in order to hide the hajichi on the backs of their hands.

Today, attitudes have changed. The contemporary generation in Okinawa is becoming more aware of ancient indigenous traditions, and a resurgence in the lost art of Uchinanchu tattoos can be seen among some younger Okinawan women. As a Yonsei Japanese-Okinawan American, I consider it my responsibility to share my culture with the world, just as the mission of the Japanese American National Museum is “to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity.”

JANM’s current exhibition Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai‘i, on view through September 6, honors ethnic and cultural diversity from Uchinanchu points of view.

This post was written by Alexis Miyake, JANM’s 2015 media arts intern. Alexis is a fourth-generation Okinawan born and raised in Hawai‘i. She is currently an undergraduate at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

10 thoughts to “The Secret History of Okinawan Tattoos”

  1. I also heard that tattooing of women prevented them from being abducted by non-Okinawan men who thought the women had some kind of skin disease.

  2. Hi I’m third generation Okinawan and an undergrad history major at UC Santa Cruz. I work on a research initiative called the Gail Project and am writing a piece on hajichi and other cultural practices in Okinawa, I was just wondering if I could get your references for this article and if you could email me back that would be awesome.

    1. Hi Alexyss,

      hope this message finds you well. My name is Froso and I am a practicing artist currently based in London.

      The reason I am contacting you is because I am currently researching the art of hajichi tattooing in Okinawa as part of my studio residency at Arcade gallery in Okinawa this May. My aim it to engage with the art of hajichi, its meaning and its use in the Okinawan culture, research the use of the patterns in modern art of Okinawa and produce a body for artwork for a solo show at the end of my residency. In addition I am planning to collaborate with local artist in order to create work inspired by the art of Hajichi and organise a show in London.

      I was wondering if your work on the subject is available for reading and if you could forward me any links or information that could help me to engage further.

      Thank you in advance.

      Kind regards
      Froso

  3. Aloha. I am a hapa Miyakoan in Hawai’i. I was born in Tokyo but my mother is Ryukyuan and my family still resides on the islands of Okinawa and Ishigaki, where I visit on holidays. Thank you very much for sharing this. My great-grandmother was a Ryukyuan priestess and had hajichi on her hands, which my mother remembers and talks about. My grandmother is alive and well today and still works as a revered medium on Ishigaki island. To fight for our culture to stay alive, I am in the process of getting hajichi on my hands, as the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter, etc.To this day, we are fighting for our culture to stay alive and our rights be honored. Here is an article from the NY Times written just yesterday on the turmoil caused by oppression in Okinawa – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/opinion/denying-the-will-of-okinawans.html?_r=0 Please spread the word.

    1. Dear Andrea,

      hope this message find you well. As you can see from my comment to Alexyss post, I am working on an arts project related to the art of Hajichi tattooing. I was wondering if you would like to share and discuss further about yours and your families relationship to the subject and any other information or people that you might like to suggest contacting in order to be able to gather some testimonies on this tradition.

      I will be visiting Okinawa this May and I would love to meet people that have a relations to the tradition.

      Thank you in advance for your time.

      Kind regards
      Froso

  4. Natural forces (typhoon and tsunami) have always conquered the men of Okinawa. In time, it was only logical for women to do their part, hence spiritual powers or hope against natural forces. I was raised in this Okinawan religions since a young boy and remember weekly worship and consultation to the female shaman. Our Bon Dance or Eisa was serious, in the graveyard at times, and not for entertainment. My grandmother on my Father’s side was tattooed Sometimes one has to look at the obvious to understand customs. Tattooing is a visual expression of that empowerment, like a fashion statement. In time, the fashion probably spread and became trite. I remember my father spitefully mocking my mother’s devotion to that religion because predictions and warnings fell through and weren’t true. So, the empowerment psychology may have had something to do with faith, especially for the men. By giving the women a permanent status, a physical sign, faith was ensured in spite of uncertainty. It was never a religion for its own sake, it was a religion of survival. So to conclude, it has nothing to do with a matriarchal society, or the western forms feminism or women’s liberation.

  5. I would be interested in finding out about tattoos used by men in Okinawa. Is it similar to Japan, or are there different connotations, designs, etc? I have a friend who wants to have the name his martial arts teacher gave him tattooed on his shoulder, to honor his teacher. Is this appropriate?

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