Picture yourself coming to your senses after being knocked unconscious during a skirmish between two warring samurai clans and stumbling through the blood-soaked field, looking for help, only to find a heaping pile of your comrades disembodied heads and your commander, with a contorted expression of pain his face, strung up on a nearby branch. Namakubi — or “severed heads” — are one of the most gruesome motifs in Irezumi (traditional Japanese tattoos), but the history behind them is even more grisly. Decapitation used to be a full-fledged cultural institution in Japan, and this skeleton, or should we say skull, from its past hangs like a foreboding ornament, in the country’s iconic blossom-covered cherry tree.
When most people think about decapitation and Japanese history, seppuku, or harakiri as it is also commonly known as in the West, is what probably comes to mind, but the severed heads seen in Irezumi typically do not relate to this ritualistic form of suicide. For those who are not familiar with seppuku, it consists of a person kneeling and disemboweling themselves using a short, single-sided blade called a tantō, at which point an assistant uses a sword to finish the job, beheading the individual. Unlike the detached heads seen in these tattoos, however, it was seen as uncouth to completely separate someone’s head from their body. When performed correctly, the executioner would leave the skin right above the collarbone intact, so the head dangled from its corpse as opposed to rolling across the ground and displeasing spectators.
The namakubi seen in Irezumi actually come from other traditions of decapitation from the country’s past, ones that were born on the battlefield. Headhunting used to be a customary aspect of Japanese warfare. Whenever an army was defeated, because it was was seen as the ultimate form of disrespect, the victors would execute their enemies and present the severed heads as offerings to their leader, stacking the morbid trophies in towering mounds and hanging them in trees. Sometimes, when the deceased was someone of importance, the head was presented in a more formal manner. Famously, the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, placed his brother’s head on display in an ornate box full of sake after charging him with treason.
There’s an unsettling beauty to the brutality that namakubi represent. Because of the evocative nature of wartime imagery and death scenes, they started appearing in ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) during the Edo period (1603-1868) in works by masters like Kunichika and Kuniyoshi. The tradition of depicting severed heads is carried on by tattooists today. One of the most famous Irezumi artist in the world, Horiyoshi III, has even done paintings of them using his own blood. Decapitation may no longer be a part of Japanese society, but, as illustrated by all of these tattoos, the ghost of this grim aspect of the country’s past still haunts its artistic lineage.
To see more impressive Irezumi, make sure to follow all of these artists on Instagram. If you’d like one of these ghastly figures on you body, have one of them design a severed head for you.
You’ve just experienced Indomitable, our series where we examine the meaning behind our favorite motifs from traditional Japanese tattoos. We hope you liked learning about about the grimmest archetypes in Irezumi — namakubi, aka severed heads. While you’re at it, check out our previous posts about cherry blossoms, dragons, hannya masks, kirins, kitsune, phoenixes, the Nue, samurai crabs, and tofu boys.