Long before Japan was sufficiently civilised to possess any records of her own, Chinese travellers noted down their impressions of this "mountainous island in the midst of the ocean." One, writing early in the Christian era, gives various interesting scraps of information,-among others that "the men all tattoo their faces and ornament their bodies with designs, differences of rank being indicated by the position and size of the patterns." But from the dawn of regular history far down into the Middle Ages, tattooing seems to have been confined to criminals. It was used as branding was formerly used in Europe, whence probably the contempt still felt for tattooing by the Japanese upper classes. From condemned desperadoes to bravoes at large is but a step. The swashbucklers of feudal times took to tattooing, apparently because some blood and thunder scene of adventure, engraven on their chest and limbs, helped to give them a terrific air when stripped for any reason of their clothes. Other classes whose avocations led them to baring their bodies in public followed suit,-the carpenters, for instance, and running grooms (bettō); and the tradition remained of ornamenting almost the entire body and limbs with a hunting, theatrical, or other showy scene. A poor artisan might end by spending as much as a hundred dollars on having himself completely decorated in this manner. Of course he could not afford to pay such a sum down at once; so he was operated on by degrees through a term of years, as money was forthcoming.
Soon after the revolution of 1868, a dire catastrophe occurred:-the Government made tattooing a penal offence! Some official, it would seem, had got hold of the idea that tattooing was a barbarous practice which would render Japan contemptible in the eyes of Europe; and so tattooing, like cremation, was summarily interdicted. Europe herself then came to the rescue, in the shape of two young English princes who visited Japan in 1881, and who, learning that globe-trotters had sometimes managed surreptitiously to engage a tattooer's services, did the like with excellent effect, Prince George (now Prince of Wales) being appropriately decorated on the arm with a dragon. From that time forward, no serious effort has been made to interfere with the tattooer's art, and in the hands of such men as Hori Chiyo and Hori Yasu it has become an art indeed,-an art as vastly superior to the ordinary British sailor's tattooing as Heidsieck Monopole is to small beer. Birds, flowers, landscapes of marvellous finish and beauty-thoroughly Japanese withal in style and conception-are now executed, some specimens being so minute as almost to render the aid of a microscope necessary in order properly to appreciate them.
The principal materials used are sepia and vermilion,-the former for the outline and ground, the latter for touching up and picking out special details, for instance, a cock's crest. A brown colour is occasionally produced by resorting to Indian red. Prussian blue, also yellow and green, may likewise be employed, but are considered dangeous. The needles are all of steel, the finest being used to prick in the outlines, the thicker ones for shading. There are six sizes in all. The most delicate work takes only three needles; but ordinary outlines require a row of from four to nine needles. Shading is done by means of superposed rows of needles tied together, as, for instance, five, four, and three, making twelve in all, and so on up to as many as sixty. In such cases the thickest needles are employed. The needles are always spliced to a bone handle by means of a silken thread; and this handle is held in the right hand leaning on the left, somewhat as a billiard cue is held. Though an appreciable fraction of the total length of the needles protrudes beyond the splicing, blood is rarely drawn, owing to the skill with which the instrument is manipulated.
The most recent refinement of the art is the use of cocaine, either as a wash or mixed with the sepia. But the pain, on an ordinarily fleshy arm, is not acute enough for most persons to care to avail themselves of it. Smooth arms are the best to operate on, hairiness being apt to make the colour run.