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



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 just its reputation as a resort destination that hosts 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 American rule, but Okinawans say they are treated as second-class citizens in Japan despite the burden of the American military presence.

Hajichi was banned in 1899 when the Japanese government pushed for assimilation and new standards on public decency have emerged when the country was opening 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.

Now the attempts of a a handful of tattoo artists in Okinawa and Tokyo to revive hajichi reached artists and patrons from diasporic communities in Brazil and Hawaii. Some see the resurgence as a reminder of a time when Okinawan women held positions of power as religious leaders and breadwinners. For them, it is a symbol of empowerment in a country that ranks among the lowest among developed nations 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 “Hajichi from Nakijin, an endangered custom», a research article from 1983. The islands of Ryukyu each had their own conceptions 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 getting them tattooed in 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 talked 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 this 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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