In Japan’s Okinawa, women are reviving hajichi tattoo art


NAHA, Japan — Hana Mrita was browsing through Pinterest when she came across hajichi. This is a minimalistic tattoo that Okinawan girls wear on their hands and fingers. The artwork was almost lost after it became widespread on subtropical islands, where traces of a definite heritage stay.

Morita, a fourth-generation Japanese American, visited her grandmother in Okinawa every summer. She made it a point to research hajichi as part of her search for her family’s roots. She then discovered an Okinawan tattoo artist via Instagram, and got her first tattoo.

Morita, 22 years old, stated that she needed the symbol to symbolize her bodily affirmation of becoming more of herself. “My grandma was really comfortable to see it, because her grandma also had hajichi.”

Morita is one of a growing number of young girls in their 20s and 30s discovering lost art via social media. This has led to a small but passionate revival. They are part of a larger movement to preserve Okinawa’s uniqueness and show it’s more than a tourist spot that hosts American naval bases.

Okinawa was the independent Ryukyu kingdom before it was annexed to Japan in 1879. After that, it was occupied by America for almost 30 years following World Warfare II. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s surrender to Japan under U.S. control. However, Okinawans claim they are considered second-class Japanese residents despite the U.S. Navy presence.

Hajichi was outlawed in 1899 by the Japanese authorities. They favored assimilation, and new norms of public decency were createdin the period when the country opened itself to foreigners. Although tattoos are becoming more popular among young Japanese, they remain stigmatized and not often linked to the Japanese felony syndicate, the yakuza.

few tattoo artists from Okinawa and Tokyo have attempted to revive hajichi. They have also reached out to shoppers and artists in diasporic communities in Brazil, Hawaii and Hawaii. Some see the revival as a return to a time in Okinawan history when girls were religious leaders or breadwinners. It’s a symbol of empowerment in a country that ranks amongst the least developed countries on girls’s education.

“Hajichi could also be part this idea that girls have energy. Moeko Heshiki (30), founder father of the Hajichi Project. Many tattoo artists in the tattoo industry are male. Hajichi was usually done by girls for girls so it felt especially significant.

Heshiki grew up in Tochigi, north Tokyo. She was skilled at microaggressions, referring to her Okinawan ID. People would tell Heshiki that she is light-skinned, which makes her Okinawan. They also point out that her name doesn’t sound Japanese. (It’s Okinawan.) But being Okinawan was crucial for her.

She was asked to create a tattoo that represented her family, and she discovered hajichi on Pinterest. After receiving her first hajichi in Tokyo from a tribal tattoo artist, she opened her own studio in Okinawa and Tokyo in 2020. Okinawa tattoo artists now do hajichi. However, Heshiki — the only hajichi specialist — is located on the islands.

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

It signified satisfaction in womanhood, beauty and protection from evil spirits. It could also indicate marriage. According to ” Hajichi of Nakijin A Vanishing Custom,” an 1983 analysis paper, younger girls received hajichi through a variety of classes. This was a ceremony of passage through completely different phases of life. Every island in Ryukyu had its own customs and designs.

Heshiki strives to stick to the original methods, hand-poking bamboo needles with bamboo needles and referencing design in historical past books.

Before she gives tattoos in the traditional areas of fingers, arms, and wrists to Okinawan heritage-related shoppers, she makes sure they are Okinawan. Many of her younger followers are mixed-race girls. To protect her hand-tattoo for Okinawan girls, she tattoos them on completely different parts of the body for those who are drawn to it for aesthetic reasons.

This resurgence has allowed girls to make new discoveries about Okinawa before Japanese or U.S. rule. Heshiki, for instance, confirmed her hajichi with her father who was born in Okinawa under U.S. occupation. This triggered reminiscences about his grandmother who Heshiki found had the tattoo and spoke a special dialect which disappeared after the annexation.

They often hope to move it down. Akemi Matsuzaki is a 32-year old Okinawan Native who teaches hip hop dance. Her college students often ask her about her hajichi, which leads to conversations about Okinawan Indigenous tradition.

Matsuzaki’s grandfather is American. She received her first hajichi this year and plans to complete a complete design for each arm. She plans to get a special design for the year when she turns 37 , which is a milestone age on Okinawa.

She said that she felt so good after having the procedure done. “Even though I was born in Okinawa, I am currently working here. Having hajichi helped me feel more confident about the fact that I am actually here. It made me feel more comfortable and happy with who I am.”

Hajichi is not common. A tattoo on the body, especially on the armpits, can be a serious commitment that could backfire professionally.

Minami Shimoji (a 30-year-old Okinawa occupational therapist) offers another option: short-term, temporary hajichi using fruit-based ink. This ink was previously used for Amazonian tribal tattoos. Shimoji learned about hajichi after she saw an elderly person with a similar marking on her hand.

A tattoo on a Japanese body, especially if it is half naked, can be a serious commitment that could backfire professionally. (Video by Michelle Lee/The Washington Publish).

Shimoji grew up doing Okinawan dances, and wanted to learn more. Although she dreams of becoming a tattoo artist full-time, Shimoji is currently a half-time artist in a Chatan condo building near a U.S. Navy base.

She scrolled through the feedback she received on a TikiTok video about hajichi as navy planes roared past, drowning out her studio music.

Traditionalists may not approve of her transformation of hajichi to physique art that only lasts two weeks. She is aware of the backlash. She mentioned that hajichi had progressed even during the Ryukyu age.

She explained that Hajichi had initially been designed in completely different ways depending on the area or class. “I believe that tradition isn’t static. It’s something that is created collectively by people. Hajichi can grow while still respecting the basic features.

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