3 most popular Japanese tattoo themes and their meanings.

3 most popular Japanese tattoo themes and their meanings.

Although Japanese tattoos are one of the most popular tattoo styles all over the world, not everybody knows about their meanings and purposes. If you’re thinking of getting a Japanese tattoo, it  would be wise to familiarize yourself with its image and understand meanings behind it. To start with, here are 3 most popular Japanese tattoo themes and their meanings.


Japanese Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning: determination, wisdom, loyalty, strength, achievement, courage, desire for success, longevity, fortune, perseverance, prosperity .

Koi (Japanese Carp) must be the most popular Japanese tattoo theme outside Japan. According to a Chinese legend, among various kinds of fish that attempted to swim upstream in the Yellow River, only the Koi fish could swim past a rapid fall known as “Dragon’s Gate”. Koi who did this were believed to rise to heaven and turn into dragons. Based on this legend, Koi are seen as symbol of determination to succeed by overcoming major obstacles. There are ascending Koi and descending Koi images. Ascending one is said to signifie step by step progress, while descending one signifies sudden success.

Koi are also known for their strong vitality, and along with other animals with scales, are seen as symbol of economic prosperity. In Japan, some people who get Koi tattoos leave one scale blank, so that it will attract more fortune.

They are sometimes depicted as pairs. An image of a pair of Koi swimming up together usually symbolizes happy family life and strong tie between a husband and a wife.  When an ascending Koi and a descending Koi are depicted together or even separately on different parts of body, the ascending one is said to increase good fortune, while the descending one to ward off evil.


Japanese Dragon Tattoo Meaning: monarch, power, protection, proliferation, four elements (air, fire, earth, water), four direction (east, west, south, north).


Mythology of dragon that came from China was blended with Japanese native snake worship,  and dragons were accepted as water god that control the weather. Dragons are revered as the strongest of all the animals, and seen as sacred creature endowed with supernatural divine power.

Ascending dragons are said to be less than 100 year-old and black in color. They are heading to heaven to receive a training.  While descending dragons are more than 300 year-old and green(blue). They are coming down to earth to do good for mankind after the training in heaven. These older dragons are often depicted as carrying a dragon orb known as the nyoi-ju (wish-fulfilling jewels).

According to ancient Chinese Five Element theory, dragons come in five different colors: green (blue), red, white, black, and yellow, with each represents different qualities.  Nowadays however, there is no single unified color specific meaning of dragons, and choice of color is mostly based on aesthetic and personal preferences.


Hannya mask tattoo meaning: passion, protection, humanness, jealousy.


Hannya in Japanese usually refers to Buddhist word for enlightenment. However in Japanese tattoos, it usually refers to Hannya-mask. Hannya-mask is one of many masks used in Japanese traditional Noh play, and represents a face of a woman turning into an ogre because of jealousy or other grievances. There are also some other masks that depict different stages of this transformation; Namanari  is half way through the transformation and looks more human than Hannya, while Ja is the last stage, and shows even more extreme transformation than Hannya. In either of these masks, it’s said that upper part of the mask express sadness and suffering; while the bottom half express anger.

Unlike Koi and Dragon, Hannya doesn’t have any positive connotation. However in tattoos, they are seen as protection against evil spirit.

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