It was some years ago that tattooist Mim first encountered an important piece of her own heritage.
“I actually learned about hajichi before I began my work in body art,” the Okinawa native told Unseen Japan in a recent interview. “It was around 2012, and I was working as an occupational therapist at a hospital. I had an older patient, near 100 years old, and a small portion of a tattoo was still visible on her arm. That’s when I first became aware of hajichi.”
Faded ink on the arm of an elder; this is how Mim, born and raised in Okinawa, first met with a traditional Okinawan practice once widespread across the islands of the long-vanished kingdom that now make up her prefecture – Ryukyu. Just more than a century previous, these tattoos – small crosses, dots, sauvastikas, and other minimalistic designs – graced the hands of women from Yaeyama in the south to Amami in the north.
In 1899, the modernizing Meiji government of Japan had recently incorporated Okinawa into its polity. As part of this process, they banned hajichi tattoos as part of an overall attempt to quash “backwards” Okinawan culture.
The hand markings, once ubiquitous, slowly disappeared. Now, even someone like Mim, only some generations separated from her ancestors on Miyakojima, was able to reach adulthood without ever learning of the old tradition.
However, things are starting to change.
Reconnecting with the Past
Fast forward to 2021. Mim is now a temporary tattooist based out of Chatan, on the main island of Okinawa. In mainland Japan, tattoos are still a major taboo. Many people still associate them with criminality (and with the yakuza in particular). Hot springs and gyms can (and do) still ban people who sport them.
Things are slowly changing on the naichi (what Okinawans call the other four main islands of the country). But different attitudes on Okinawa helped Mim find her passion.
“Okinawa hosts US military bases where many Americans live. I’d see them walking down the road with their tattoos, and think about how cool they were. Okinawa has a lot of tattoo shops, and I think that we have a bit less prejudice towards them than on the mainland. Lately, more and more young people are starting to enjoy tattoos as a fashion statement.”"I think it's important that those of us who know of our Ryukyuan culture carry it on … This is because that culture allows me to feel connected to my roots; it allows me to express my gratitude to my ancestors." Click To Tweet
Mim uses her studio, Mim Drawing, to provide Okinawans with the tattoo experience they crave – without the permanence that can still interfere with job hunting. She specializes in temporary body art from a variety of cultures; Jagua from the Caribbean and Amazon basin, Henna/Mehndi from the Indian Subcontinent.
And now hajichi is part of her repertoire.
Signs from the Soil
On a recent video on YouTube, Mim demonstrated the hajichi styling native to Miyakojima, where she herself hails from, some 175 miles south of Okinawa Island. Her right hand covered in distinctive symbols, she spoke of the forgotten history of the tattoos and their disappearance from her island.
Mim explained to us what has drawn her to this now largely unknown cultural artifact. “As a Uchinanchu (a native Okinawan), hajichi seemed interesting, fascinating; cool. After the Ryukyu Kingdom became part of Japan, distinctive aspects like our languages and hajichi were restricted. While I find that all terribly sad, I think it’s important that those of us who know of our Ryukyuan culture carry it on, even if not in the form of fully tattooing our hands. This is because that culture allows me to feel connected to my roots; it allows me to express my gratitude to my ancestors.”
In this way, Mim is playing her part in what has become a general revival of Ryukyuan culture. Across the islands, Okinawans are reconnecting with their languages. (These represent a separate branch of the Japonic family, having split off from Japanese perhaps a thousand or more years ago). Traditional dance, theater, and music are blossoming. And now, as knowledge of the separate history of Ryukyu spreads, so too does the story of the hajichi tattoos.
Coming of Age
The exact origin of hajichi tattoos remains a mystery; records show the practice of marking women’s hands having existed since at least the 16th century. By this time, the Ryukyu Kingdom had spread its dominion across the islands of the archipelago.
Ryukyu was a major regional trading power. Its location so close to Southeast Asia points to a potential influence. Tattooing cultures from neighboring Taiwan may have influenced its nobility. Further afield, islands of the Pacific, like Samoa or Palau, may have rubbed off on the Ryukuans as well.
(Interestingly, Japan’s other indigenous group, the Ainu, also had a female-centric tattooing tradition quashed by their colonizers. Ainu women would usually tattoo the areas around their lips a dark color following marriage.)
Although perhaps first popularized amongst the Ryukyuan upper crust, over the centuries hajichi became widespread in every social level across the five main island groups. Styles differed in each region; Yaeyama, Miyako, Okinawa, Amami, and more all had their own versions of the tattoos. The peoples of the various islands used different names to refer to the tattoos; “Hajichi” was used in Okinawa and Amami, but in Miyakojima, for example, they were often called “pizukki” (ピ ヅ ッ キ) (among other names). Moreover, the styling of similar symbols could differ between classes. Highborn Ryukyuan women often bore refined lines on the back of their hands and fingers. Women of the lower classes, however, might have thicker, darker tattoos.
When Woman Was One with the Gods
The most common explanation regarding the practice of hajichi is that the tattoos serve to signal the process of coming of age. At around 11, a young Uchinanchu girl would go to a tattooist (hajitiya), sometimes a paid professional, sometimes a close family friend. The painful process might begin with a single marking. Over the next years, as the girl aged, more symbols would be added; each finger would receive its trademark line. Once both hands were done, the girl would be a woman, and ready for marriage.
Some label this version of the hajichi as regressive, and a demonstration of patriarchal Ryukyu culture; however, this was far from the only way Uchinachu practiced the tradition. The Ryukyus have a long history of female-centric spiritualism, known as Onarigami (おなり神). Within this conception, women are the masters of the spiritual domain. Indeed, while Ryukyu was still independent, women held all the important spiritual positions of the state. While great priestesses enacted the royal court’s most important rites, local communities were serviced by white-robed priestesses called Noro; they were believed to be the incarnation of a certain kami, a god. Shamans and mediums called Yuta also services local villages.
These beliefs were not relegated to those women who held certain titles or positions, however. Within Ryukyuan religion, all women possess spiritual power. The brother-sister relationship is important in Okinawa because of the sister’s ability to bless the conduct of the brother; many rituals and even festivals revolve around this concept. In this framework, it’s easy to see the important symbolism inherent in hajichi, which were symbols born only by women. They were another symbol of the spirituality possessed by women; indeed, surveys conducted among the last generations of Okinawan women who still had hajichi often revealed spiritual reasons behind getting the tattoos.
Replete with Symbolism
For many Ryukyuan women, the hajichi tattoos were associated with being spiritually clean. They helped assure a pathway to heaven; 35.6% of Miyakojima women listed this as their main purpose. Each symbol also had its own meaning. For example, the “x” and “+” symbols so often seen in Miyakojima hajichi were for protection.
Many women also continued the tattooing process after marriage. Markings could cover the fingers, back of the hand, and down the forearm. Women with impressive hajichi were much admired; young girls dreamt of receiving decadent tattoos, and men were said to find them quite beautiful. Hajichi were so widespread and normalized that some Okinawan women said their main reason for going through the painful tattoo process was for “aesthetics” or simply that “everyone had them.”
The Coming of the Samurai
In 1609, the independence of the Ryukyu people came to an end. The samurai of Satsuma Domain in southern Kyushu invaded from the Japanese mainland; for the next 250 years, they would rule Ryukyu as their own colony (only partially under the jurisdiction of the Shogun much farther north in Edo). The Amami Islands, closest to Satsuma, were annexed directly to their domain. The samurai colonizers went about attempting to wrest the resources and trade of Ryukyu without alerting Ming (and, later, Qing) China to their conquering of land the Middle Kingdom considered a tributary state. To this aim, they induced the King of Ryukyu to make a number of changes from the shadows.Saigo found the tattoos repulsive and derided island customs in a letter to Saisho Atsushi. "… unlike the women of Kyoto and Osaka, they used a thick layer of filthy ash as makeup and painted the backs of their hands." Click To Tweet
For the samurai, the power women wielded in Ryukyu was especially unsightly. Ironically, despite long centuries where women had comparably high status, the rise of the samurai in the 11th century coincided with a slow decline in rights for women in mainland Japan; by the Satsuma invasion, Japan had become a remarkably patriarchal society. The Satsuma pressed the Ryukyu court to ban women from powerful positions in government. Eventually, the royal court became more invested in Confucianism and Buddhism, palatable to both the Chinese and Japanese officials they dealt with. Neither belief system looked favorably on women.
Despite the court’s attempt to de-nativize their secretly colonized kingdom, local religion and customs continued to exist away from the capital in Naha. Most commoners had no interest in Confucianism or Buddhism, and the Onarigami religion continued to thrive in localities across the far-flung island chains. Hajichi still flourished, even as the samurai viewed it as a sign of Ryukyuan backwardsness.
An End to Ryukyu, and to Hajichi
In 1859, towards the end of the age of Satsuma colonization on Ryukyu, the man who would become the domain’s most famous samurai – Saigo Takamori – found himself exiled to Amami Oshima. Although officially part of the Satsuma Domain, and not Ryukyu, Amami was still peopled by those who maintained Ryukyuan culture, beliefs, and language. Saigo took pity on the people he met on Amami – he considered their plight to be even worse than that of the Ainu on Hokkaido. As for the tattoos he saw on women’s hands, however, he held them in a sort of haughty disdain.
Mark Ravina writes on the subject that… “Saigo found the tattoos repulsive, and he derided island customs in a letter to Okubo and Saisho Atsushi. ‘The young women on the island are great beauties,’ he wrote sarcastically, but unlike the women of Kyoto and Osaka they used a thick layer of filthy ash as makeup and painted the backs of their hands.”
Saigo would eventually marry an Amami woman and have half-Amami children; however, upon return from his two exiles, he quickly attempted to forget about his experiences there. Instead, he helped lead the rebellion that brought about the end of samurai rule in Japan. The Meiji government that resulted – organized on Western lines – had as its main goal the centralizing of all Japan. Included in this was removing Ryukyu from the control of a single samurai dynasty. Instead, the once-separate kingdom became just another among the 47 (briefly 48) prefectures of Japan. The indigenous Ryukyuans of the new Okinawa Prefecture were now to be made Japanese – and Japanese of repute did not wear tattoos.
From Pride to Shame
The Meiji government had numerous reasons to want to get rid of hajichi tradition. While the samurai colonizers may have found them “repulsive,” the new Japan was more worried about their impressions on others; namely, Westerners. They didn’t want Okinawans going out into the world and giving the impression that Japanese women wore such backwards tribal markings. They also hoped that by ridding Okinawa of the old religious symbols, they could break the Ryukyuan connection to the past and to “otherness.” Okinawa was the future, and it was part of Japan – Ryukyu needed to be forgotten.
In 1899, the official order came down: tattoos were now prohibited in Okinawa. There was resistance to this order, and for decades many women (especially from out-of-the-way islands) still continued to practice the art of hajichi. Some local polities, however, were more active in ridding themselves of tradition; as has been the case throughout Okinawan history, the pull to modernize and find ways to improve material life has often been strong. Some Okinawans did begin to see their own culture as outmoded, insular, and archaic.
This perception was only enhanced by the sad experiences of those who went overseas. During the early-to-mid 19th century, impoverished Okinawans comprised an outsized percentage of Japanese who migrated abroad to destinations like Brazil, Peru, and Hawaii. They often found themselves face-to-face with mainland Japanese for the first time; mainlanders, worried about how the majority in receiving countries would think of them, were often embarrassed and disgusted to find Okinawan women with tattoos. Okinawan women were sometimes forced to wait in storage holds during voyages or even sent home upon arrival to their hoped-for destination of immigration. Okinawan immigrants could face double alienation – both from their adoptive homes, and from other “Japanese.”
Guburii Sabira… and Haisai
Between cultural cringe, concerted efforts from the prefectural government, and the major cultural breakage that came with WWII (in which 100,000 Okinawans died), hajichi disappeared. The subsequent American occupation, lasting all the way to 1972, was likely the final nail in the traditional coffin. By the time Okinawa returned to Japan, only the very elderly still had the tattoos, which they would often hide when photographed.
By 1990, the majority of those bearing tattoos from their youths had passed on. Now, none remain of the centuries of unbroken lineages of Ryukyuan women with hajichi tattoos. Even knowledge of the tradition has faded like so much ink.
But this all brings us back to the beginning of our story. To a young Okinawan woman discovering an aspect of her own cultural heritage.
Mim is just one among many Uchinanchu. Whether living on the islands or in diaspora, many choose to reengage with their cultural pasts. Among so many aspects of Ryukyuan culture these revivalists are exploring is the hajichi.
Yoshiyama Morika, an Okinawa City-based artist, was among the first to permanently affix hajichi to her own hands. Of her tattoos, the artist told the Asahi Shimbun that… “Hajichi symbolized the pride of women in the old days. I feel proud when I imagine the feelings of my ancestors, and it is my joy to have been born as an Okinawan.” And she’s not the only one working to bring hajichi back into modern Okinawan consciousness.
Abroad, two Uchinanchu came together in 2019 to write and illustrate a multi-lingual storybook about the traditional Okinawan tattoos. Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos is by Lee A. Tonouchi, “a full Okinawan yonsei born and raised in Hawai’i.” It boasts beautiful illustrations by Laura Kina, self-styled “hapa, yonsei, Uchinanchu” artist and educator. Toniuchi’s work “addresses Asian American and mixed-race identities and histories with a focus on Okinawa and Hawai’i diasporas”. Toniuchi wrote the book in three languages – Hawai‘i Creole, Japanese, and Okinawan.
The same year, back in Okinawa, the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum played their own part in reintroducing hajichi to the public. The museum hosted a month-long exhibit entitled “Okinawan Hajichi, the Tattoos of the Indigenous People of Taiwan – History and Now.” The event focused on the shared tattoo cultures of the two nearby regions and was curated by Okinawan-native and Tsuru University professor Kuramoto Sumie, who spent six years studying the topic.
Hajichi are making their return; more and more, Uchinanchu are understanding what makes their history so unique and powerful. Essentially erased from existence for decades, the markings worn on the hands of the women of Ryuykyu are appearing again in the world – even if in more temporary form. They’re just one part of the cultural heritage of which so many young Okinawans are proud.
At the end of our interview, Mim said:
“Bountiful nature; the relaxed personalities of the people who live here; the remaining interesting, varied culture which includes that of the Ryukyu Kingdom period and which I love so much. All these are reasons why I feel so proud to have been born an Okinawan, and why I feel happy to be one.”
In Okinawa and around the world, she’s not alone in that feeling.
What to Read Next
Matsumoto, Karina Satomi. (2017). Hajichi – a tatuagem da mulher okinawana. Okinawando.
Hajichi: The Powerful Female Tattoo Tradition of the Ryukyus. Kanasa.co.uk.
(2019-06-13 ). 宮古島の入れ墨 – ハジチ –. 草の縁.
Ravina, M. (2011). The Last Samurai: the Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.