Body modifications are cosmetic alterations to the human body. They are fundamentally separate from other forms of fashion such as clothing or hairstyling in that body mods involve reshaping the body through incisions, extended pressure, and inserting objects.
Body mods have occurred across cultures and throughout history. Neck elongation in Burma, foot binding in China, and corsets in Europe show its extensive geographic reach. They are also not relics of the past, as body piercing and plastic surgery attest to today.
Japan is not without its own culture and history of body modification. In Japan’s prehistoric, Jomon period (14,000BCE-300BCE), there existed a practice of removing teeth at each stage of life. The most prominent Japanese body mod today is that of sumo wrestlers’.
However, the arguably most elaborate and exquisite body mod in Japanese culture is tattooing, the subject of one of our films, Shisei.
It was during the Edo period (1603-1868) that Japan’s tattoo culture blossomed. Originally, tattoos were a form of permanent punishment. The word “tattoo” in Japanese has thus been given many names in order to disassociate itself from its negative associations. Irezumi (入れ墨), the most common appellation literally means to insert ink. Irezumi, spelled with different characters, or shisei (刺青) comes from the Japanese process of piercing a blue-ish, green ink. Bunshin (分身) and horimono (彫り物) are also frequently used.
With the popularity of the Chinese novel, Suikoden, in the early 19th century, demand for irezumi took off. People wanted to have the same depictions of dragons, flowers, and religious images that the men in the woodblock prints of Suikoden wore.
In the mid-19th century, irezumi reached the height of their popularity. Amongst professionals that showed skin, such as gamblers, firefighters, construction workers, messengers, to not have irezumi was almost shameful. Prostitutes would engrave their feelings for their customers on their skin.
By the Meiji period (1868-1912), the Japanese government effectively banned irezumi. The intent was to improve Japan’s image abroad. While Westerners visited Japan to admire and receive Japanese tattoos – most prominently King George V, to Japanese, tattoos became deeply associated with crime.
Today, irezumi are shunned by Japanese society, though their legal status has been restored. A prominent irezumi will be just cause to deny entry into hot springs and spas. Irezumi can make ordinary employment difficult. Perhaps their historical criminality and its current association with the yakuza have led to their demise.
Yet, irezumi have a spell-like allure. They are magnificent in their scale, beautiful in their detail, and vivid in their movements. The act of engraving irezumi is painful and erotic. While body mods of past and present at first repulse us, some masochistic primal instinct continues to draw us back to them. What body mod will enchant us tomorrow?