Before the Tattoo Taboo

Tattooing. The concept seems fairly simple and familiar to those of us in the United States; walk down any street in a city or college town and flanking the sidewalks are tattoo parlors galore. The stigma of tattoos as symbols of delinquency has faded with the advent of the twenty first century, at least in the United States. Although they have become quite common in the U.S., tattoos in other places, places where the U.S. has a military presence, are often seen with greater ambivalence. In the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa Prefecture, tattoos were respectable during the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom (14th to 19th centuries) but became shameful after the kingdom was annexed by the Japanese empire in 1879. Ironic then, that a place with such a large American population, not only looks down upon tattoos and their owners, but inadvertently spurns a practice that was uniquely Okinawan.

In the Gail Project, we are working with a collection of photos taken in Okinawa by an American serviceman, Dr. Charles Gail, while he was stationed in Okinawa in 1952. In this collection, there are four photos in which we can see distinctive tattoos on the hands and wrists of older women. What might a young, educated American man have made of these markings on these women? Did they appear to him as primitive or as signs of a distinct culture in the process of disappearing?

The best clues as to what he saw in the scenes he shot come in the handwritten notes he pencilled on the back of many of his prints. Tattoos are clearly visible in four of the 150 photos we are working with, but we can see from his notes that the tattoos were not the reason he took the photos. Rather, they became a distinctive feature of those in which they were present.

History and Folklore

Hajichi, the traditional tattooing of women’s hands in the Ryukyus, was a practice lost to the world in the name of Japanese assimilation. Authentic hajichi dates back to the Ryukyuan kingdom of old (14th to 19th centuries), tattoos were given to girls as a symbol of their transition into womanhood. But the art of hajichi has further implications than just a status symbol. The tattoos were applied on the back of a woman’s hands for a variety of reasons. Some traditional explanations allege that they were a means to chart family lineage, others say that the practice was to make girls undesirable to hostage-taking Japanese pirates.

Public Domain

A folkloric explanation reasserts the notion of “uglification,” through hajichi, as a means of protecting Okinawan girls. In this folk tale, which dates from around the fourteenth century, a young Okinawan priestess somehow found herself in the northern islands (presumably Japan proper) where a prince, so infatuated with her beauty, sought to claim her for his own. The priestess’ maid, in an attempt to protect the girl, tattooed her hands. Upon discovering the blue marks, the prince lost all desire to marry her, because he saw them as a bad omen. From then on, the tale claims, the women of Okinawa had hajichi applied to the backs of their hands, regardless of social class. The story presents to us the idea that hajichi were symbols of a woman’s virtue and good morals, not poor character.

The extent to which a woman’s hands were tattooed varied by social class, the higher classes being more intricate. Though monetarily worthless, women were said to have regarded their hajichi above tangible indicators of wealth. The tattooing itself was done by injecting blue/black ink with bamboo needles and often carried out by a shaman. This method persisted through the years of Ryukyuan sovereignty.

The annexation of the Ryukyus and subsequent establishment of Okinawa as a prefecture in 1879 brought Okinawans into the sphere of Meiji Japan, and subject to its assimilation policy. Hajichi were banned by the Meiji era government in the 1890s as a way of assimilating Ryukyuans into the social mainstream while also belittling the influence and power of local shaman women. Despite being banned, the practice continued for a number of years, though surreptitiously. The last woman with pre-ban hajichi died in the 1990s.

When the battle of Okinawa took place in 1945, and even well into the occupation years, significant numbers of older Okinawan women still had hajichi tattoos. Prior to the battle, American soldiers were taught that hajichi were a distinguishing factor between Okinawan women and mainland Japanese. Paying attention to the presence of tattoos could mean the difference between killing and saving an innocent civilian. It was into the aftermath of this that Charles Gail and his camera entered Okinawa in 1952.

Dr. Gail, an Army Reserve dentist, was stationed in Okinawa just before the exponential growth in the number of bases. During his tour, Gail spent his free time travelling around the island and taking photos of the landscape, the culture, and the natives. By the time Gail was stationed in Okinawa, hajichi were socially accepted in older women as living relics of traditional Okinawan culture. Yet, Japanese assimilation policy during the Meiji era into and after World War Two had done its job, and by 1952 younger women rejected tattoos, as did the mainland.

“If you looked closely you can see the tattoos on her hands and wrists that are placed on their at marriage. This was outlawed in 1879 by the Japanese, but there are still lots of them to be seen” (This Old Mamasan.)

Gail understood hajichi to be related to a marriage practice. His information about when they were banned and why they were applied may not have been historically accurate, but they were certainly commonly held beliefs. If hajichi were still legal when these women got them, then the women he photographed would be around 70–80 years old.


There is wide variety in the designs of hajichi. In Studs Terkel’s The Good War one soldier recalls his encounter with a tattooed woman. She “held out her hands. There was an hourglass figure tattooed on it to show she was Okinawan.”* Other descriptions of hajichi include spider, weaving, geometric, and arrowhead symbols. Before its suppression, hajichi would be added for major life events, the initial tattooing was done when a girl came of age, and subsequently done for reaching a milestone year, and the birth of the first grandchild.

For such an identifying feature of native Okinawan culture, however, academic research on hajichi is exceptionally difficult to find. There were times while writing this that it seemed like Pinterest knew more about hajichi than my university’s library did. The ranks of Wikipedia and artist’s interpretations yielded more information on the elusive practice than did the four sentences I managed to find in seven books. It is in this regard that the success of assimilating Okinawa prefecture into the schema of Japanese culture and society is apparent. Very few academic resources are available in English on traditional Ryukyu culture, those that are tend to be very old- occupation era old- and focus on the Okinawan language and traditional dance. The Okinawan stigma against tattoos stemmed from the Japanese one. Whether or not Gail realized it, he documented a practice which would cease to exist past his own lifetime.

*E.B. (Sledgehammer) Sledge in “The Good War.” Studs Terkel, page 201.

The Gail Project

A collaborative, international public history project exploring the American occupation of Okinawa through the photographs of Captain Charles Eugene Gail


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Lex McClellan

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Undergraduate History major at the University of California, Santa Cruz

The Gail Project

A collaborative, international public history project exploring the American occupation of Okinawa through the photographs of Captain Charles Eugene Gail