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).

32 thoughts to “The Secret History of Okinawan Tattoos”

    1. Hi Mr. Yoshida,

      I’m investigating about Okinawa and I would like to read the pdf that you enclosed in this message (the link seems broken).

      Do you know where I can read it?


      David Olmeda

    2. I am sansei born in Hawaii. Half Okinawan. I recall seeing my grandmother’s hands with these tattoos and they Always fascinated me. I felt them interesting. I could not speak the language so I would just sit and trace them with my fingers as she and my mom talked. I know I have relatives I’ve never met in Motobu…one day. I recall when I was young all the Okinawan townships had a banner and would gather at Ala Moana park for a day of games. My grandparents family name is Nakachi. Not much information on these tattoos. Sad but happy to hear Uchinanchu pride is alive, well and being protected. I wonder about my karma; Hawaiian, Okinawan and Haole…..This old post is helpful when I was curious about the subject. Thank you.

  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.

    1. This is what my great mother told my mother. Aside from cultural significance, they Kept the foreigners from abducting Uchinaanchu women.

  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

  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 – 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

    2. Hi I’m an Okinawa woman, 23 and I’m interested in getting hajichi on my hands. Unfortunately most of my okinawan family has passed. I wish I could go to Okinawa to do it but I recant afford to. Do you know how I can find out what symbols I’m meant to get and the placement of it? I would love to learn about it, I’d probably have to get my tattoo artist to do it, instead of the traditional way. But shed very respectful, I think it could work. I’ll leave my email for you so hopefully you see this and can contact me. Thank you!!

    3. Thank you so much! I am from Hawaii and have always wondered about the significance of and the meaning behind these tattoos! I use to work in a Care home back in the ‘80’s where some Japanese women had these tattoos and they were in their nineties!! I find this very interesting!! Finally got my answer!!
      I am born and raised in Hawaii!! Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese my Ancestors come from Japan our family name “Ishibashi”

    4. Hi
      Do you live on Oahu? Will you be coming to the Okinawan Festival this weekend. I am looking for an individual that speaks the Miyako language. On the 3rd floor of the Hawai’i Convention Center – Mura aka Village in room 316a is our cultural village aka Bunkwa nu shima-please drop by the Shimakutuba booth (Island Languages- I have made contact with Miyako resident S singer Isamu Shimoji who wrote 2 songs in his native language. 6 languages of the Ryukyu Islands are endangered of dying out. Our booth is to bring awareness and try to promote learning the Uchinaaguchi – classes held at Jikoen and Hawai’i Okinawa Center. Would love to meet you. Janice Kimie Toma Shiira my email is

    5. This may be a LONG shot, but I recently found out my family was from Ishigaki, is there anyway I could ask you a few questions?

  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. Thanks for the tattoo lesson! Appreciate the post, I’m writing a eattoo essay Okinawan tattoos and this is the best info and background i’ve found on them so far!

  6. 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?

  7. This is super cool. Are there any cultural tattoo significance for men? I’m of Okinawan descent and stumbled upon this in my search.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this information! My great, great grandmother moved from Okinawa to Hawai’i for work. My grandfather said his grandma had these tattoos, but unfortunately doesnʻt remember any of the patterns. This blog gives me some insight on the meaning behind them. Very interesting!

  9. I’m third generation Japanese American. My father’s family originally immigrated from Okinawa around 1915 but there are still some relatives on Okinawa. The story in our family was my great grandmother had sleeve tattoos and that this was somehow related to shipwrecked Portuguese sailors (roughly mid 1500’s when Portugal was a world naval power). They said wives of Portuguese sailors (in Portugal) had hand/forearm tattoos and the Portuguese who married local Okinawan women carried on this tradition.

  10. I am a descendant of Kyuzo Toyama (the father of Okinawan immigration) and am trying to learn more about hajichi and also the work Uncle Kyuzo helped folks find on the pineapple and sugar plantations. Is there anywhere we can view your research?

  11. I remember well seeing many old women in rural areas on Okinawa with heavily tattooed arms, when I was there with the U.S. Air Force from 1957 to 1959. I never saw a young woman with a tattoo. I had been informed that they got the tattoos when they were young in order to discourage advances from Japanese soldiers, who found them distasteful, which sounded like a reasonable explanation. Recently I have been thinking a lot about Okinawa as it was then, and today I decided to research this and found your interesting essay, which does not mention the explanation that I heard. What do you know about this? Thank you.
    Edward F. Thiery
    Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

    1. Indigenous cultures around the world often used tattoos so that is the connection. My grandmother was from Hokkaido and descended from the Ainu and married an Okinawan from Ishigaki. My mother has told us about the tattoos she remembers seeing on the hands of her maternal grandmother as well as on the lips but her mother (my grandmother) did not have any, nor did her paternal grandmother.

  12. My mother was born and raised in Okinawa. She told me her grandmother wore tattoos on the tops of her hands that signified her husband was a Samurai.

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