Manami Okazaki - Tattoo in Japan Book

Books & Publications - Issue 14

Having myself previously visited the magnificent land of Japan, I waited with great interest for the arrival of "Tattoo in Japan" book of Edition Reuss. Browsing and reading this impressive edition of 320 pages, I immediately wanted to talk to the author and acclaimed journalist Manami Okazaki. Here is the interview we did for HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine on traditional and modern Japanese tattoo, its presence in Japan and the West, and Manami’s specialized writing in the subject of tattoo.

Interview: Ino Mei.

As a journalist it appears that you’ve researched and written about Japanese subcultures for quite some time. What lead you to study those subcultures and the tattoo subculture in particular?

These are the lifestyles I was involved with when I was young, so it was somewhat natural. All my subculture work had the atmosphere of working with friends and their friends. It was enjoyable and something that is close to who I am as a person. I also do a lot of mainstream journalism work, but they are more like “work” as opposed to “personal projects.” I am also incredibly interested in artisans and things “hand made” – when people talk about the sophistication of Japanese culture, it is because there is a real artisan culture in Japan, similar to Vienna and Paris.


How did the idea of the “Tattoo in Japan” book come up?

I had about 100 tattoo articles published in various magazines and newspapers, and it was time to compile them into a book.

What is it that attracted you towards the art of tattoo as a writer and as a person?

I came across Horitoku’s work when I was nineteen; that was the start of any serious interest in tattoos. The density and atmosphere of the work does not compare to anything I had seen before that. From there, I started to meet a lot of incredible artists, was writing tattoo articles almost full time, going to conventions around the world, coordinating documentaries, working on tattoo art projects, running tattoo tours and so on. 


How did you manage to “balance” the existence and presence of the traditional and the contemporary Japanese tattoo world in your book? 

It is fairly natural, as these two worlds exist in parallel, not only in tattoos but for many other Japanese traditions. Tattoo in Japan is 50/50, so it was fairly easy to separate them. Realistically, many are fusion styles, which are stylistically similar to realism or American traditional tattoos but use Japanese motifs, and that is one of the most popular styles at the moment.


How much time and how much “effort” did it take for you to access the rather secretive world of traditional Japanese tebori artists?

It depends, if you just want to interview a famous artist, all it takes is an email, and a legitimate publication. If you just want to take pretty photos it isn’t that hard either.

If you want the real underground artists to give you real stories, it takes some time. My book “Wabori, Traditional Japanese Tattoo” is the result of about ten years of interviewing people and travelling around Japan. It takes time to even figure out who is worth interviewing, as they don't have websites. A lot of them don’t give out information verbally so easily so I had to interview them about ten times to get any decent stories out of them. If you know the world of Japanese tattoos, you will know how extremely difficult it was to get the range and depth of interviews I did for “Wabori, Traditional Japanese Tattoo”, as they don't give away information that easily. There is a lot of technical information in there as well, which is basically unprecedented.


How long did it take for all the photographs to be gathered? Were you present at the photoshoots?

Yes, of course. I would find the artists, do the interview and then hire the photographers to shoot for the publications. All the photographers I work with don't know the world of tattoos at all, they just take the photos and are not personally involved, nor have tattoos. John Harte and Geoff Johnson two of the photographers, shoot a lot of subculture material, like noise and punk so it wasn't that weird for them to be around subculture people and they knew some artists as well. The other guys are not familiar with tattoos at all, and are still clueless, but can take good photos - that was enough for me, as I could gather the information.

For “Tattoo in Japan”, that was done fairly early on, a few years. I made “Japanese Buddhism X Horiyoshi III” about five years in, and my latest book, “Wabori, Traditional Japanese Tattoo” took ten years.


Has tattoo in Japan changed since you compiled the material for your book? If so, in what way and towards which direction?

The tsunami really affected the modern street scene financially. People were not getting tattoos for a long time, and I don't think that has really recovered. I was shooting modern shops during the peak, and it has been in a depressed state for a really, really long time. There are no Japanese tattoo magazines now, and hardly any conventions, the shops are sad to be around. Subcultures in Japan haven't had that hedonistic, crazy energy for a long time, so I am very happy to have been there during the peak, it was amazing. Most people with business savvy are going overseas where they can take advantage of their heritage, and the burgeoning interest in Japanese ink abroad.

Also there are a lot of non-yakuza people getting traditional work. I wrote about this in the Wall Street Journal.


What would you advise someone non – Japanese that now wishes to get a Traditional Japanese tattoo done in Japan and what to someone who wants a more contemporary piece?

It is no different to getting a western tattoo; be really familiar with who is out there, and make a decision based on that. Everyone knows some names, but there are many many more out there. 

For traditional, you just need a translator and a large space on your body, as traditional tattoos are not meant to be small. For contemporary, it is exactly the same as a western street shop, just do your research and be familiar with that person’s style.

For women, be comfortable with that person, as you have to spend a lot of time with them in close proximity.





In your opinion how does the Traditional Japanese learning system and the master – apprentice relationship apply nowadays? 

It is the same learning system for traditional masters; their world hasn't changed at all. The only change is their clientele.


Has Japanese society “embraced” the art of tattoo again? Or is tattoo still a taboo at large?

Certainly not, in fact, things in Japan are possibly getting worse. You can’t go to most golf courses, gyms, and spas with tattoos, my local beach has a tattoo ban with people patrolling the area. I wrote a story for a mainstream newspaper about tattoos in Japan, and they posted it on their facebook and most of the responses from Japanese people were along the lines of "we don't want to see them, please cover them," and "disgusting." Which is ironic as Japan is seen as one of the meccas for tattoo art. 

Some of the old artists don't really feel this is something that needs to be changed, though. They think that tattoos are a hidden beauty and were never meant to be flaunted in the first place.


Has Traditional Japanese tattoo and its artistic value been more widely and openly appreciated in the West than in Japan? What do you think?

Yes, but this has been for a while now, especially with masters like Filip Leu's interpretation of Japanese.  Both the West Coast and New York has a lot of Japanese tattoo talent, and there are really great Asian Art Museums acknowledging Japanese tattoo art. To have a tattoo show in a legitimate museum in Japan is, at the moment, highly unlikely.

Many of Edition Reuss tattoo books can now be bought in Greece at:


The author, Manami Okazaki. More books by Manami at


All photos are from “Tattoo in Japan” book / Author Manami Okazaki /  Edition Reuss.

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