In Okinawa, Japan, women are reviving the art of hajichi tattooing

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NAHA, Japan – Hana Morita was browsing Pinterest when she came across hajichi, a minimalist tattoo worn by Okinawan women on their fingers and hands. Once common on subtropical islands where traces of a distinct culture remain, the art had almost disappeared over a century of assimilation.

As a fourth-generation Japanese-American who visited her grandmother in Okinawa every summer, Morita made hajichi research part of her quest to understand her family’s roots. Then she found an Okinawan hajichi artist on Instagram and got her first tattoo.

“I wanted it to mark the physical affirmation of becoming more of myself,” said Morita, 22. “My grandmother was really happy to see it, because her grandmother also had hajichi.”

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Morita is one of a growing number of women in their 20s and 30s discovering the lost art form through social media and driving a small but passionate comeback. They are part of a larger movement to preserve Okinawa’s unique character and show that it is more than its reputation as a resort destination that is home to US military bases.

Okinawa was the independent kingdom of the Ryukyu before being annexed by Japan in 1879 and then occupied by the United States for nearly 30 years after World War II. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan after US rule, but Okinawans say they are treated like second-class citizens in Japan despite the burden of the US military presence.

Hajichi was banned in 1899 when the Japanese government pushed for assimilation and new standards on public decency emerged as the country opened up to foreigners after more than 200 years of isolationist policies. While tattoos are becoming increasingly fashionable among young Japanese people, they remain stigmatized and often associated with the yakuza, Japan’s criminal syndicate.

Today, attempts by a handful of tattoo artists from Okinawa and Tokyo to revive hajichi have reached artists and clients from diasporic communities in Brazil and Hawaii. Some see the resurgence as a reminder of a time when Okinawan women held powerful positions as religious leaders and breadwinners. For them, it is a symbol of empowerment in a country that ranks among the lowest among developed countries in the advancement of women.

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“Hajichi is also part of this idea that women have the power. And living in a patriarchal society like Japan, I think that’s part of why I was drawn to hajichi, said Moeko Heshiki, 30, founder of the Hajichi Project. “Even in the tattoo industry, a lot of tattoo artists tend to be male. But hajichi was usually done by women for women, so it seemed particularly meaningful.

Growing up in Tochigi, north of Tokyo, Heshiki suffered microaggressions related to his Okinawan identity. “You’re fair-skinned for an Okinawan,” people would say and point out that her name didn’t sound like a typical Japanese name. (It’s Okinawan.) But being Okinawan was important to her.

While looking for a tattoo design representing her family, she came across hajichi on Pinterest. She got her first hajichi from a tribal tattoo artist in Tokyo, then in 2020 opened her own studios in Tokyo and Okinawa. Okinawan tattoo artists now practice hajichi, but Heshiki is the only hajichi – “hajicha” – specialist on the islands.

Hajichi’s origins are murky and date back to the 16th century, researchers say.

It was a sign of pride of femininity, beauty and protection against evil spirits. It could also indicate marriage. According to “Hajichi of Nakijin, A Vanishing Custom,” a 1983 research paper, young women often received hajichi over multiple sessions as a rite of passage through different stages of life. The islands of Ryukyu each had their own designs and customs.

Heshiki tries to stick to original techniques as much as possible, hand-quilting with bamboo needles and referencing designs in second-hand bookstore history books and fabrics from various regions.

She makes sure her clients are of Okinawan descent before having them tattoo the traditional finger, hand and wrist locations. Many are young Métis women who find her on Instagram. For those who are drawn to them for aesthetic reasons, she tattoos them on different parts of the body to preserve the hand-worn tattoo for women of Okinawan descent.

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The resurgence led women to new discoveries on Okinawa before Japanese or American rule. For example, when Heshiki showed his hajichi to his father, who was born in Okinawa under American occupation, it triggered memories of his grandmother, whom Heshiki learned also had the tattoo and spoke a dialect. different that disappeared after the annexation.

And they hope to pass it on. Akemi Matsuzaki, a 32-year-old Okinawan native, teaches hip-hop dance and is often asked about her hajichi by her students, leading to conversations about native Okinawan culture.

Matsuzaki, whose grandfather is American, got his first hajichi this year and plans to do a full drawing on both hands. When she turns 37, a milestone age in Okinawa, she plans to get a special design to mark the year.

“When I did it, it was so awesome and it all felt so natural to me,” she said. “Although I was born in Okinawa and work here, getting the hajichi made me feel even more strongly that I’m really here, and I feel more comfortable and proud of who I am.”

Still, hajichi is rare. Getting a tattoo, especially on an exposed body part like the hands, is a major commitment that could backfire professionally.

For these women, Minami Shimoji, a 30-year-old occupational therapist in Okinawa, offers an alternative: a temporary hajichi using fruit-based ink used for Amazonian tribal tattoos. Shimoji discovered hajichi when she saw an elderly patient who had a mark on her hand that looked like the art.

Getting a tattoo in Japan, especially on an exposed body part like the hands, is a major commitment that could backfire on you professionally. (Video: Michelle Lee/The Washington Post)

Shimoji had grown up performing Okinawan dances and wanted to learn more. She aspires to be a full-time tattoo artist, but currently runs a part-time studio in a building in Chatan, near a US military base.

As military planes roared, drowning out the music in her studio, she scrolled through the hundreds of comments on a TikTok video she made about hajichi.

She is aware of the refusal of traditionalists who do not approve of her adaptation of hajichi into body art which lasts only two weeks. But even in the Ryukyu era, hajichi had evolved, she says.

“Hajichi originally had different designs depending on region or class, so it was never just that form,” she said. “I think culture is never static and it’s something that is created together by people, and hajichi can evolve while respecting traditional aspects.”

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