Inked In Japan

So it’s obvious… since coming to Japan, Kyle and I have acquired a great many tattoo. Thanks to Hayakawa Taketoshi and Taku Yoshikawa at Eternal Crest in Hirosaki, Aomori, we have been permanently painting our bodies with some of the most meaningful and beautiful art this city will ever see:) I’ve had a few requests for tattoo pictures, meanings, and feelings of Japanese people about our tattoos.  I HEAR THE PEOPLE!! So, let’s get started:


Before coming here, Kyle had a half sleeve and I had a small tattoo on my wrist. We knew that we wanted to get some ink done in the Land of the Rising Sun, but everything we had heard before coming here was, “They hate tattoos. you will get fired. People will be afraid of you. You can’t go into onsens (public baths). People will think you’re trouble makers. You can’t walk around town showing them. You’ll scare your coworkers away.” What I have actually come to realize is there is some small truth behind some of these comments, but definitely not all of them.

Yes, as a whole tattoos are generally still not accepted as the norm in many places. Some of our good friends have actually been fired from their jobs when their bosses found out they had small tattoos. Some of our friends can show their ink whenever they want and be fine. It all depends on the profession a person has. There are still signs up in onsens that specifically say they don’t allow tattoos, people will sometimes complain causing them to kick you out. Some gyms also don’t allow people with tattoos to be a member. As for me, my coworkers and student parents know I have ink, and they are completely fine with it. Being a foreigner in Japan definitely has its perks, and this is just one of them.

My coworkers have accepted me as one of the active staff members at this school. For that, I am eternally grateful. They treat me as an equal among other teachers. They look to me for advice, ask for my opinion, and listen to my concerns. I know that there are a few that have strong opinions against my tattoos, but as long as I cover my ink while at any work related event, life is just peachy keen. I think that this can be true for a lot of places in America too though.

But, WHY Japan?

There is a long history of tattoos in Japan. The Yakuza (Japanese mafia) are known for having full body artwork done to represent that they are a member of the gang. Many of these people would hide their ink by wearing a penguin suit just like the rest of the salary men in the world, so no one could ever be sure who was Yakuza unless they took off their business attire. The Yakuza have caused many people to suffer with the things they’ve done, just like any gang could, and because of this, tattoos have long been regarded as a sign that you were a part of the Yakuza.

Yakuza lady

Yakuza dudes

Of course, with the explosion of tattoos as a form of self-expression, the trend has been changing. Japan, deeply driven by tradition, is having a bit of a hard time adapting to the change. So, that’s why I still can’t go into some onsens, or am required to wear 1/2 sleeve shirts in the hot humid summer while doing any activity involving work. Sometimes, while riding my bike, or walking around the mall, I get stared at a lot, and I can hear whispers behind me. In onsens, I catch dirty looks from the Obas, probably wondering if I am a Yakuza chick (even though my work is NOT Japanese style). Generally though, people are just curious about them, so as often as I can, I like to engage people who I know are staring at me. Usually, they just have questions they wanted to ask, but were 1)Too shy to speak English 2)Afraid to be rude.


I’m sure Kyle has his own theology and reasons behind getting tattoos. We’ll share about all his in another post. But, as for me… I have long thought about tattoos before I ever got my first one. Especially, because I knew that every decision I made in life needed to be for a reason, not ‘just because I felt like it’. I worked in Christian ministry for a good chunk of my professional life as well, and I needed to know that I had a good solid theological belief in what I was doing. Especially, because I would be explaining it to hundreds of kids in the future. So, in a nutshell, I love tattoos. I always have. For me, they tell a story about my life. They are a beautiful reminder of how far I have grown as a person, and how I have triumphed over life’s obstacles. They whisper how to love people, and how I am loved exactly how I am. They are my key to unlocking conversation with others about all of these things. So, here they are…


This is my first tattoo. It is the only one I did not get in Japan. Mine is the the one on top. It says “Em Gai”. It’s Vietnamese and means second born sister. My older sister has “Chi Ca” and my younger sister has “Em Ut”. I titled it ‘clay’ because my sisters have put meaning into my shapeless life, they have molded me into the woman I am today. We have seen and experienced more things in our childhood together then most will in their entire lifetime. We have  supported and loved each other since the day our mother explained what the word ‘love’ really meant. They have always been my only true friends in life, and I know that no matter what happens, that they WILL always be there to pick me up. It has not been an easy journey with them, but it has been one that has shaped my heart. One that I will never want to change.


A long blade piercing a rose with a banner that reads 27:17.  Kyle has one almost identical to this on his shin. We got these together as a symbol of our promise to one another through our marriage. 27:17 is a verse from the book of Proverbs in the bible. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17. It is our promise, and our reminder, that every thing we do in life is done in order to make each other a better person. If the things we are saying and doing to each other aren’t being done to make the other a better man or woman, then we need to rethink what we’re doing. Our hope is to help each other be the best human being we can possibly be.


Meet Hanging Cloud. She is a Chippewa (or Ojibwa) woman in a traditional Chippewa porcupine head roach. She was the only woman in the Chippewa history who was regarded as having a full warrior status. She was a strong, independent, loyal, and courageous woman who overcame so many physical and emotional boundaries in her life. She represents my mother. A half Chippewa woman who overcame prejudice, gender boundaries, social economic hardships, and who gave everything in her life to her three daughters. She worked extremely hard to provide us with opportunities to succeed in life, and put a strong willed independent spirit into the heart of each one of us. Always promising us that we were worth the very best, that we should be proud of who we are and what we look like, and that no matter what anyone tells us, WE can accomplish anything.


This is a beautiful broken mirror. The frame is perfect, flawless, just as we are all created to be. But there is brokenness within it, which can eventually be repaired, but can always be broken again. It is a reminder to me that I cannot judge anyone. No matter their life, their choices, or their looks. That, when I look in the mirror, I will not see the face of someone who hasn’t made a mistake before, or who hasn’t done things that they wish they could take back. I cannot judge others, because what is inside the mirror is not perfect. Until I am perfect, I am the same as everyone else.


This is Vietnam with a red star on the city of Hue, where my father was born. He had to leave Vietnam during the war in the early 1970’s and take refuge in America. His 8 brothers and sisters, mother, father, and friends would soon follow him to create a new life for themselves. Coming from a rich farming family, to basically nothing in the state of Washington on the west coast. Stripped of all titles and history, to working hard from nothing. His family would take boats to the free land hoping for a new shot at a brand new life. Waving to their home country that they loved so much, in the distance, as they floated away. The other piece is a medicine wheel. My mother has the exact same wheel tattooed on her upper arm. She was born on a Chippewa reservation in Montana, and was put up for adoption when she was just a baby. She would never loose the strong hold she had with her heritage. Always teaching us as much as she could about the things of the Ojibwa tribe, showing us pow-wows and explaining the culture. The medicine wheel itself is separated into four quadrants. One represents the north and signifies the spiritual aspects of human behavior, the winter season and the life stage of the elderly. Another represents east and signifies spring, new life and physical aspects of self. The next represents south and correlates with adolescence, the summer and mental behaviors. The last represents the west and stands for adulthood, the fall season and emotional aspects. THIS is where I come from. THIS is who I am.

So… There you have it. Tori, revealed.


4 thoughts on “Inked In Japan

  1. Pingback: Inked in Japan Part 2 « Together Like Ham N Cheez

  2. Wow, I think thi sis by far the best explanation I’ve ever heard about someones tats. It is extremely inspiring and powerful. lovin it!! looking forward to hear more stories about your tats! 🙂

  3. A very excellent post Tori. You’re essentially writing creative non-fiction, and you have a great talent for it. Have you ever thought about writing a book when you’re done in Japan? I think it could turn out to be something beautiful, and I’d definitely buy it AT FULL PRICE from the bookstore if you managed to get it published (hahaha!). Miss you guys!!

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