There are many different motifs that you will see recurring in Japanese tattoos and for many people this symbolism becomes important when planning your first Japanese tattoo.  Many of these have roots in traditional Japanese religion, folklore, literature, and art (ukiyo-e).  Therefore Japanese tattoo animal motifs can be full of symbolism.  Consequently these meanings can be difficult to interpret or understand without a grasp of the language or history.

Learn about these motifs for inspiration and discussions with your tattoo artist.

A list of flower motifs can be found here.  Below are brief descriptions for some of the recurring Japanese tattoo animal motifs.

Lion

fu-dog, foo-dog, shishi, komainu, dog, lion-dog

Often seen in pairs guarding the entrances to shrines or temples, these animals traditionally represent power, strength, and protection. They are often depicted with peonies or with a round jewel under their paw or in their mouth. Sometimes a sutra prayer roll is shown in the mouth.

The confusion with various naming originates from the shared history with China and Korea. Because they are often found at the entrances to temples in these countries as well. Of the pair, the komainu (meaning Korean dog) is on the right with an open mouth indicating the syllable あ (‘ah’) the first sound of the Japanese alphabet. As well, the komainu is sometimes depicted sporting a single horn. The female shishi (lion) is on the left with a closed mouth indicating the syllable ん (‘n’, also vocalized as ‘un’ or ‘um’) the final sound of the Japanese alphabet. Together these two syllables make ‘aun’, a variation on the sacred sound, syllable, mantra ‘Om’ (‘Aum’) – the beginning and ending of everything.

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Shishi by Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). One the most popular Japanese tattoo animal motifs. These creatures can be shown as aggressive or passive as guardians. There mouths will be shown as either open or closed.

Tiger

Much as you’d imagine, tigers in Japanese tattoos generally represent strength, power, and courage. They are associated with the wind element. Tigers evoke the image of solitary and brave warriors. Outside of the Chinese zodiac the tiger is not associated with either Buddhism or Shintoism in Japan.

Like much East Asian art with tigers as subjects, traditional Japanese tattoos most often depict the tiger in an aggressive posture with its mouth open, displaying its sharp teeth. Bamboo stalks and wind as clouds can also be found with tigers in many tattoos. Dragon and tiger or snake and tiger pairings are also not uncommon.

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Tiger by Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).

Dragon

Perhaps the single most iconic motif in Japanese tattoos, the dragon has been found in Buddhist, Shinto, and East Asian art and folklore for centuries. Zen temples in Japan often have large murals of dragons on the ceiling of their large meeting hall.

Dragons can represent strength, good fortune, courage and wisdom. Dragons are strongly linked to wind but mostly water and are often illustrated with waves in traditional Japanese tattoos. Hence why Japanese firefighters in the Edo period were often shown sporting dragon tattoos. Other distinctions include the three toes on Japanese dragons, as opposed to five toes on Chinese dragons, sometimes seen clutching a round jewel.

Dragons and tigers can be paired together in tattoos – usually in conflict due to their opposing nature. Dragons can be tattooed in different colours: black, red, green, white, blue, or yellow. Each color represents a dragon from a different area or sea with subsequently different qualities.

Yoshitsuya_The_Red_Dragon Japanese Tattoo Animal Motifs and Meaning

Red Dragon ukiyo-e print by Yoshitsuya Ichiesai (1822-1866). A red bellied dragon with green scales twists and curls around a figure dressed in robes. The dragon is maybe the most popular of Japanese tattoo animal motifs.

Koi

Koi fish are a mainstay of traditional Japanese tattoos. This is most likely because they symbolize luck, success, hard work, and determination. The koi was so popularized as a symbol of struggling to overcome obstacles that it became common to fly koi shaped windsock kites on Boys’ Day, now Children’s Day, every year in Japan. This was to inspire the children to work hard in order to succeed.

Like many of the creatures found in traditional Japanese tattoos, koi may be inked in a number of different colors to emphasize different traits or character. Plus the koi is linked to the water element and they are often depicted swimming upstream against the current.  Which would be towards your head. Koi swimming in the downstream direction can have different implications regarding struggle and obstacles not yet overcome. It is common for koi to be tattooed with sakura and sometimes lotus flowers.

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Koi-dragon

Most folklore depicts the carp as having both fortunate and noble traits. This is generally considered to originate from a tale of koi that would struggle upstream in the Yellow River in China. If they were brave, strong, and determined enough to succeed in passing a series of rapids and falls called the Dragon’s Gate they would transform into a dragon and ascend to heaven. 

In Japanese tattoos the Koi-dragon is depicted with the head of a dragon and the body of a koi. They are most often shown leaping out of the water at the moment of transformation rising into the air and subsequently heaven. As such the koi-dragon is often symbolic of success, ambition, fortune, and transformation. Like the dragon they are creatures of both the water and air.

 

Phoenix

The phoenix (hou-ou in Japanese) in Japanese mythology shares similar characteristics with the rest of the world. They are seen as symbols of transformation, triumph over obstacles, loyalty, rebirth, and renewal. Similar to the chrysanthemum flower, the phoenix is a symbol of the Japanese emperor.

The Phoenix bird is usually tattooed with a long flowing tail and many-coloured bright, vivid, plumage, in which red is always visible. The phoenix is associated with the fire element and can often be paired in opposition with the dragon due to their opposing elemental natures (fire and water).

Matsuri_Yatai_Phoenix_Hokusaikan_Obuse Japanese Tattoo Animal Motifs and Meaning

Snake

The snake (hebi) in traditional Japanese tattoos is a symbol of protection against misfortune and illness.  As well as representing prosperity and wisdom. Like the other scaled creatures in Japanese imagery they are water creatures and can be different colors to emphasize different traits or character

Snakes in Japanese tattoos are shown gracefully flowing, sometimes holding or encircling a round jewel. Because the snake can sometimes be set in opposition to the tiger, they are both solitary characters with opposing natures. Snakes in combat with a samurai or warrior are also not uncommon as tattoos.

Kuniyoshi_108_Suikoden_Ju-unryu_Kosonsho Japanese Tattoo Animal Motifs and Meaning

Turtle

The turtle is a symbol for wisdom, protection, luck, and longevity. In traditional Japanese artwork, including tattoos, turtles are often depicted with a long train of seaweed or algae that takes on the appearance of a tail. And these turtles are called minogame. Because they are lucky and wise enough to be so long lived they have grown this tail of seaweed.

Turtles, or minogame, are less common in traditional tattoos. They are usually depicted in water, sometimes with other water-related creatures.

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Matt Trudeau

Author Matt Trudeau

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