Back when Okinawa was the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), tattooing the back of women’s hands was a common practice, with the tattoos admired by men and women alike for their elaborate designs.
But few people, especially overseas, know the dark side of this history.
The tattoos, known as hajichi, went from a source of admiration to a magnet for social exclusion following an 1899 ban of tattoos by the Japanese government.
Now, to keep the history alive, an exhibition dedicated to the vanished art form is set to open in the prefecture, marking 120 years since the ban.
During the period when the Ryukyu Kingdom prospered, the backs of women’s hands were adorned with hajichi of various patterns in dark blue ink. The tattoos were a way to ward off bad luck and protect them from being taken away to naichi — a term used to distinguish the main island of Japan from Okinawa and Hokkaido.
The designs were also a seen as an expression of hope that women would be able to get along with their mothers-in-law; they had endured the pain of getting a tattoo.
“Men had a yearning for women with hajichi, thinking that ‘because she has such beautiful hands, she must be able to cook a delicious dish,’ ” said Yoshimi Yamamoto, a professor of cultural anthropology at Tsuru University in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Yamamoto, who has been studying women with hajichi, said “women also admired (the tattoos), and they competed over whose design was more beautiful.”
But this changed in 1899 when the Meiji government prohibited the art of tattooing altogether, creating a view that tattoos were something to be ashamed of.
According to Yamamoto, the move was part of broader efforts to modernize and Westernize the country, which also banned chonmage (a top-knot hairstyle for men) and ohaguro (black-painted teeth for women).
“The government tried to restrict people’s behaviors out of concern tattoos might be noticed by Western people,” she said.
Offenders were punished. If women went to school with hajichi, they would be scolded by teachers and some had their skin burned with hydrochloric acid, Yamamoto said. In some cases, women were forced to divorce their husbands.
“During an interview, one interviewee said, ‘It looked beautiful before but now it looks very dirty,’ ” Yamamoto recalled.
“With the ban, people’s sense of values made an about-face,” she added.
hajichi was viewed as taboo and became associated with shame, at times triggering discrimination. Women with the tattoos would avoid having photos taken from the front, to hide their hands, Yamamoto said.
Yamamoto is concerned that when researchers from overseas speak about tattoos in Japan, they only discuss those worn by Ainu indigenous people or people in Tokyo.
“There are some research papers in English discussing tattoos worn by the Ainu or Tokyoites, but none about Okinawan tattoos,” she said.
But domestically, a vast amount of research has been done on women with hajichi. Yamamoto said the local governments kept detailed records of women with hajichi in the 1980s before the women died. The reports in 1982 alone covered 772 women in the village of Yomitan. Studies were also conducted.
To revisit the history of hajichi, Yamamoto has created an exhibition with a title loosely translated to “Hajichi in Okinawa and tattoos of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan” at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum from Oct. 5 to Nov. 4. The free exhibition will feature replicas of hands decorated with hajiki.
Okinawa and Taiwan have in common some aspects of social history in relation to such tattoos: Taiwanese indigenous people also had a tattooing culture that was later banned, similar to hajichi. Recently, Taiwan has seen a revival of tattoos.
“We want to consider modern Japan by looking at the history of Okinawa and Taiwan,” Yamamoto said.
The fact that all the women with hajichi have died, leaving nobody to share direct experiences, makes the exhibition all the more important, Yamamoto noted.
“The absence of such women and those who know them means a lack of a vivid sense of history,” she said.
“Some people might consider hajichi patterns as romantic. Others may ponder the stories of discrimination.”