A Guide to The Mythological Creatures of Japanese Irezumi

By Ross Howerton - 
A Guide to The Mythological Creatures of Japanese Irezumi

Ever wonder what all those creatures symbolize? You're in luck.

For all of you who love traditional Japanese tattoos but don't know what to call all of the wonderful creatures that you see, here's a comprehensive guide. We hope you find it enjoyable and informative.

Dragon sleeve by Chris Garver. (IG - chrisgarver) #dragon #symbology #sleeve #ChrisGarver

1. Ryu (Dragon)

Arguably the most recognizable creature in Japanese iconography is the Dragon. Ryu are seen as a symbol of profound blessing, wisdom, and strength — due to their ability to manipulate the elements for the benefit of the people. Dragon by Regino Gonzales. (IG- rg74) #dragon #japanese #backpiece #rg #ReginoGonzales  

Dragon by Regino Gonzales. (IG- rg74) #dragon #japanese #backpiece #rg #ReginoGonzales

Dragons tend to differ from one another as they are said to take on the characteristics of many creatures — typically depending on the animals it will encounter on its journey. His head is usually that of a camel, with the neck and belly of a snake, the scales of a koi fish, the talons of a hawk, chicken, or eagle, and the horns of a stag.

Tengu by Henning Jorgensen (IG - henning_royaltattoo) #tengu #japanese #irezumi #mythological #HenningJorgensen

2. Tengu

Tengu are a form of yōkai (supernatural creatures or ghosts).  They are generally associated with themes of destruction and war. Though they are humanoid nowadays, at one point, they were thought to take the form of birds of prey, hence the demonic creatures' long noses that evolved from their predecessors' beaks. Tengu are often illustrated looking wrathful, and are frequently colored red to draw out their militant symbolism.

Kappa front tattoo done by Matty D. Mooney. #mattydmooney #kappa #japanese #fronttattoo

3. Kappa

The myth of this monstrous bipedal turtle derives from stories of giant salamanders who would reach out of shallow river beds to grab the unsuspecting with their powerful jaws. Kappa are notorious troublemakers and tricksters — who like peek up Kimonos, kidnap children, and assault young females when they're least expecting it (what the hell?).

The Kappa's defining characteristic is a small cavity (or plate) of water located in its skull. When this cavity is dry he is powerless, so the answer to defeating a Kappa is to bow before him. Kappa apparently have a certain penchant for politeness — and will be compelled to bow back, thus spilling the water plate.

Henning Jorgensen (IG—henning_royaltattoo) is a master at depicting Shinto gods like Fujin. #creatures #Fujin #HenningJorgensen #Irezumi #symbolism

4. Fujin

Fujin is commonly recognized as the Japanese deity of wind. He is most often depicted as an oni (demon-like) figure with skin of glowing green or blue and is believed to have powers similar to that of a wizard. The tapestry behind him is the enchanted object with which he controls air currents.

This Raijin by Damien Rodriguez is utterly thunderous. (Via IG— damienrodriguez) #creatures #DamienRodriguez #Irezumi Raijin #symbolism

5. Raijin

While Fujin is the god of wind, Raijin — his rival brother — is the Shinto deity of lightning and thunder. He is often depicted beating on drums to roar throughout the skies as thunderbolts fly off of his extremities.  According to legend, the two brothers are combative in nature and stormy weather is a result of their endless squabbling.

An incredible illustration of a Kirin by Luca Ortis (IG—lucaortis). #creatures #Irezumi #kirin #LucaOrtis #symbolism

6. Kirin

The Kirin is another chimeral creature of Japanese folklore, and his rare appearance marks the passing of a sagely leader or ruler. Though its connotations of death seem like they would be sorrowful, this is not the case. The Kirin is seen as a good omen, signifying a better tomorrow achievable through the reflective process of mourning.

Kirin are traditionally rendered with the body of a deer, head of a dragon, the scales of a fish, hooves of a horse, mane of a lion, the tail of an ox, and a set of - or single horn.

Baku by Marius Meyer (IG- mariusmey) #japanesetattoo #symbology #baku #MariusMeyer

7. Baku

According to legend, Baku are mythical creatures who aid in devouring nightmares. In Japan it is still common-place to see a Baku talisman near the bed, especially in the child's room. They are typically depicted with the head of an elephant, the claws of a tiger, the body of a bear, and the tail of an ox.

A beautifully colored Foo Dog by Johan Svahn (IG—johansvahntattooing). #colorful #detailed #foodog #Irezumi #JohanSvahn #traditional

8. Karajishi (Foo Dog)

Often referred to as the "King of Beasts,"  Karajishi or "guardian lions" are another popular image from traditional Japanese folklore. Statues of these lion-like mythological creatures have traditionally been placed at the entrances of palaces and temples to chase away evil spirits, hence them being well-known symbols of courage as well as guardianship.  

A stunning koi fish for the arm by Matt Beckerich #MattBeckerich #japanese #japanesetattoo #koi #koifish #koitattoo

9. Koi

These fish are native to Japan and have been a part of Japanese artistic culture for a very long time.  They are symbolic of numerous things, but given their extraordinary lifespans, they are most commonly associated with longevity, persistence, and overcoming the trails of life. 

An immaculate sleeve of a phoenix by by Henning Jorgensen (IG—henning_royaltattoo). #creatures #HenningJorgensen #Irezumi #phoenix #symbolism

10. Hou-ou (Phoenix)

In Japan, hou-ou or the phoenix is symbolic of the imperial household. This mythical bird represents a number of other things, including fidelity, fire, justice, obedience, and the sun. Interestingly, this fiery bird is both a figure of harmony and disharmony, descending from heaven at times of peace and fleeing back to its astral abode when strife inhabits the land. Because of this, it is seen as an emblem of new eras, whether they be better times or worse. In Irezumi, they are generally depicted as having avian physiology with particularly long necks and scales like snakes along with peacock tail-feathers. 

A green Oni in full-on creep mode. Tattoo made by Chris Garver. #oni #onidemon #chrisgarver #japanese

11. Oni

Oni are the the demons and devils of Japanese art. They are typically depicted as being largely humanoid minus their claws, fangs, horns, and often vibrantly colored skin. Oni are frequently illustrated as wearing loin cloths and wielding weapons such as katanas and kanabō — massive, studded clubs. These little demons are the harbingers of disaster, disease, and other things that plague humanity.

The exaggerated face of this Irezumi fox by Johan Svahn (IG—johansvahntattooing) is wonderful. #colorful #detailed #fox #Irezumi #JohanSvahn #traditional

12. Kitsune (Fox)

Kitsune are revered as extremely intelligent creatures, rumored to be immortal as well as magical. According to some accounts they continue aging until they grow old enough to become Tenko — celestial foxes — and ascend into the heavens. They purportedly can shoot lightning and fire from their mouths, fly, and psychically will dreams into the minds of others. In other legends, they even have been reported as being shapeshifters that turn into humans to either find love or drain the life-force from unsuspecting mates.

Vibrant snake by Johan Svahn (IG- johansvahntattooing) #snake #japanesetattoo #irezumi #symbolism #JohanSvahn

13.  Hebi (Snake)

The hebi or snake have a wide range of symbolism in Japanese culture, but are often depicted as sharp-toothed guardian creatures that protect coveted riches and treasures. The snake can also symbolize rebirth, transformation, and the continual renewal of life.

Fudo Myoo with glaring evil eyes by Rubendall. #backpiece #color #detail #FudoMyoo #MikeRubendall

14. Fudo Myoo

Fudo Myoo, which in Japanese means "Wise King Acala," is a Buddhist deity that was imported into Irezumi's canon as the religion spread into the country. Though he has many interpretations, Fudo Myoo is generally seen as a wrathful protector, one who vanquishes spiritual impediments in order to help the faithful attain enlightenment. He is generally depicted as having an angry face with a wrinkled brow, pointy fangs, and squinted eyes. Traditionally, he holds numerous symbolic items, such as the three-pronged vajra sword and nooses.

A very crabby looking heikegani by Johan Svahn's (IG—johansvahntattooing) baku sleeve. #colorful #detailed #heikegani #Irezumi #JohanSvahn #traditional

15. Heikegani

These disgruntled-looking crustaceans actually populate the beaches of Japan, and their backs really do look like scrunched-up angry faces. Though the Heikegani or "samurai crab" exists literally, their natural appearance has been borrowed into to Irezumi to figuratively represent the spirits of fallen warriors.

One of the best back-pieces by Rubendall. The beast depicted is a Nue. #backpiece #color #detail #MikeRubendall #Nue

16. Nue

This chimeric creature is straight out of The Tale of the Heike — the nearly a millennium-old Japanese epic poem. It is most commonly depicted as having an ape's face, the body of a tiger, and a snake for a tail. In the text, it describes a mysterious cloud of black smoke and a haunting voice. After the arrival of this ominous figure, the emperor at the time, Nijō, becomes seriously ill. Since no medicinal or spiritual remedies have any effect on him, he and his advisers deem it a curse brought on by the supernatural figure of the Nue. Nijō commands his best archer, Minamoto no Yorimasa, to go slay the beast. The archer's apprentice, Ino Haya, then takes one of his master's arrows, hunts down the Nue, and kills it, saving the emperor in the process. 

If you're a tattoo nerd — and you read this far so we're guessing that you are — there is something really thrilling about understanding the meaning and mythology behind the beautiful artistry. We hope that this guide of to the mythological creatures of Japanese Irezumi has helped you gain a deeper understanding of the tattoos that you adore.

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