Japanese Tattoo Designs & Their Meaning

Japanese tattoos, also known as Irezumi, serve as spiritual symbols and are often seen as charms for protection. They may symbolize devotion as well as convey societal status. With little alterations, you can use these styles to express several ideas and achieve great results.

Some of the most famous Japanese tattoo designs are:

  • Dragons
  • Phoenix
  • Koi fish
  • Temples
  • Water and waves
  • Tigers
  • Snakes
  • Skulls

The Meaning Behind Japanese Tattoos

Japanese tattoos come in two different forms: the modern and the traditional. Initially, the full-body inks were associated with samurai, while currently, the connotation indicates kinship with the Yakuza

The tattoos have now been integrated into the typical Tokyo styles and are no longer reserved for the underground subcultures.

The exceptionally complex Yakuza-style sleeves are famous for showcasing flamboyance from the Far East, while Kanji—Japanese writing but with Chinese characters—is generally requested in parlors around the globe. 

The Japanese language is renowned for having a striking pictorial arrangement that gives everything meaning. You can condense all the sentiments and phrases into a single elusive symbol and say so much within a little space.

The tattoos conveyed societal status and also served as spiritual symbols. They’re used as charms for protection and to also show devotion, which isn’t always the case with modern religious tattoos.

Popular Japanese Tattoo Designs

The glorious and long history of Japanese tattoo styles dates back to 10,000 BC, with far-reaching influences across the globe. Initially, the inking was linked to spirituality and status, distinguishing the slave from the master.

There are many masks used in Japanese tattoos to represent various ideas. The Oni mask tattoo is used as a symbol of protection in the spiritual world. Tattoos ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

The samurai were Japanese military nobility in medieval Japan, known to follow ‘the way of the warrior.’ They wore beautifully designed helmets (kabuto) and facial armor (mempo), and tattoos of such represent loyalty, valor, and honor.

Some more conventional designs are highlighted below.

The Dragon

Dragons have been a source of admiration and curiosity in the East and Western world for so many years. If you’re into TV shows like ‘Game of Thrones’—who isn’t?—you’ll know that these mythical beings somewhat steal the limelight and soar with popularity. 

They project strength and ferocity that humans aspire to emulate, and this is clearly seen in Japanese tattoos. The Japanese see dragons as generous, benevolent forces that use their powers to do good for humankind. 

Dragon tattoo wearers tend to identify with each other as reliable. They also belong to a particular class that doesn’t fear anything. They may feel that there’s some special force protecting them from harm. 

The Phoenix

Like the dragon, the phoenix holds a certain mythological intrigue with humans. They started as ordinary birds that were consumed by fire then rose from the ashes with

higher power than before. 

The phoenix is used in Japanese tattoos since its dramatic ascension inspires and motivates humans who feel they need to work harder and rise higher in the ladder of life.

Wearers of these Japanese tattoos tend to be proud and triumphant. They’re associated with resilience to adversities, and phoenix-tattoo carriers are proud to show that they worked hard to overcome challenges. It also shows that nothing can stand in your way if you’re determined to excel in anything.

Koi fish

The Koi fish is one of the most famous Japanese tattoo icons; it represents victory. Being native to Japan, the novelty of this fish shows its endeavor to swim upstream in the Yellow River. There’s a myth that any Koi fish that manages to swim the Yellow River upstream automatically turns into a dragon. This change is a reward for overcoming the challenge.

The predicament of koi fish serves as an inspiration and lesson. Anyone who may have a challenge or faces extreme struggles and adversity can relate to this situation. For example, they may have conquered a debilitating disease, such as cancer.

Water and Waves

Since Japan is an island, the Japanese depend significantly on the blessings of water for survival and food, which makes them worship waves and water. To them, water is life, and it has a bright connotation.

This is despite the dangers of the sea, primarily with the risk of freak waves. Even so, water-surrounded cultures continue to risk their lives and worship rivers, oceans, and seas, representing life and death.

Those bearing this inking have the aim of depicting the constant truth of life, in that it’s unpredictable. It changes as the waves do, but they accept this reality, that there’s a need for a person to remain calm when faced with dangers and adversities in life.

The Tiger

A tiger, just like a lion and a fu-dog, symbolizes courage and protection. Having this Japanese tattoo depicts that you’re ready to protect your dignity, rights, and property. It’s believed, in most Japanese cultures, that these creatures protect people from demonic spirits, and they ward off evil. A lone tiger tattoo is suitable for a person to show their strengths as an individual.

Those who bear this ink aim to show that they can fight for a worthy cause and tackle the battles of life. They also show that you don’t need to fear life’s challenges and that there’s a need to keep fighting until you overcome them.

The Snake

Snakes are believed to have medicinal values, and some cultures associate them with good luck and protection from bad fortune. In Japanese culture, snake tattoos represent wisdom and protection from bad omens, sickness, and evil.

Some who are adorned with snake-related tattoos aim to show that they’re wise. They also depict that one can change and become better since the creatures shed off their old skin, giving way to a new one.


In many cultures, the skull symbolizes death and danger. In Japanese tattoos, skulls represent an appreciation for life and its cycle, i.e., the yin and yang concept, which it adopted from Chinese culture. 

The inking reminds the bearer and onlookers about the value of life. It also tells you of full-life aspirations and the need to accept the inevitability of death. You may also bear the tattoo as a reminder of a loved one who passed on.

Popular Color Combinations of Japanese 

Adding color is a way of increasing the meaning of a tattoo as well as increasing its personalization.

A mixture of bright colors such as red and yellow are used to show strength and resilience. These shades show the spirit of wanting to fight and overcome issues. These paints may also be used to show forces that protect humans.

Cool dyes like blue, on the other hand, may be used to remind people to remain calm even in the face of adversity and the dangers of life.

A combination of several pigments such as green, blue, yellow-brown, and a bit of red can represent a fighting spirit that’s ready and willing to fight on and overcome life’s challenges. In the face of extreme struggle and adversity, these shades remind you always to remain focused.

Common Placements of Japanese Tattoos

Most Japanese emblems are elaborately designed and plentiful, so some employers might not appreciate them being on display. Consider these in areas such as the back and upper body.

A dragon or kabuto tattoo will be great as a back piece, and the large canvas will allow the tattoo artist to show off the intricate details of these stunning designs.

You could also consider tattoo sleeves to show dedication and commitment to the culture. It could be the symbol of the phoenix reborn in an explosion of fire or a collection of small designs such as Koi accompanied by water and waves. They may begin at the shoulder and go all the way down to the entire arm.

The leg is another significant part of the body. You might have a tiger or oni mask that can protect against evil spirits seeping out from the underworld. You can have the inking on the calf, thigh, shin, or even on the knee.

Best Japanese Tattoos