Depictions of women are a common feature of tattoos around the globe. Traditionally in the West they are often drawn in a burlesque style as well as mermaids being popular among sailors. Within Japan depictions of females takes on a different form. Historically, there are two common female tattoo motifs: Kan’non-sama, a goddess of mercy, and Princess Takiyasha.
It is theorised that the legend of Kan’non-sama came from India to China and then Japan with the first records of her appearing in the 8th century.
She is often portrayed with 42 hands, 38 of which hold a variety of objects including sutra, lotus flower, katana, and various Buddhist objects. Her other hands are often empty and are placed in a variety of positions of prayer.
Due to her compassion, she helps those in need and the many hands are a representation of her ability to assist with any task that she might need to shoulder the burden of.
Those that go on a pilgrimage to pay respect or ask a favour of Kan’non-sama visit Sanjusangen-do in Kyoto, where one will see 1000 statues on display, each individually carved. Legend says that when visiting the temple, one will come face to face with the specific statue that you are connected to.
One of Japan's most famous female legends during the 10th century is that of Princess Takiyasha. Masakado, the leader of the Taira clan and an honourable samurai looking to serve the Emperor Suzaku, left his family and travelled to Kyoto where the imperial court resided. Despite his determination, he was often undermined and disgraced by the Fujiwara clan who controlled the court. Disheartened, he returned home to find that in his absence his uncle had betrayed him and taken over the land. Dismayed by the inequality of life, he vowed to seek revenge upon his uncle and those that betrayed him and overthrow the imperial court. This news soon reached the Emperor who ordered Masakado's death and all those related to him without remorse. He was captured and beheaded, but his son and daughter managed to escape and vowed to continue their father’s quest.
His daughter, Princess Takiyasha, was visited under mysterious circumstances by a warlock named Nikushisen. Nikushisen trained her in the frog occult and magic, which enabled her to summon an army of demons and the dead. This event can be seen in a famous image of a skeleton by Kuniyoshi.
Both siblings were unrivalled in battle and avenged their father, killing his betrayers. One fateful evening, as they were preparing for their final challenge to fight the imperial court, they were surrounded by a group of warlocks and wizards sent by the court, and defeated. However, Princess Takiyasha vowed that even in death she would seek revenge.
If you are fortunate enough to encounter someone bearing a tattoo of a woman, be under no illusion as to the deeper meaning and significance it has to the individual wearer. In order to see the symbology of forgiveness, charity, honour and devoted loyalty, one must look beyond the beauty that appears.
Text: Eddy Wertheim for Japanese Gallery Kensington