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.
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).