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Japanese Tattoos - Namakubi

I'll start off my blogs about Japanese Tattoo imagery with one of my favourites.

Namakubi roughly translates to “freshly severed head.”

You may see these tattoos without understanding their backstory and assume they are meant to be for pure shock value.

As with most traditional Japanese tattoos, there is far more than meets the eye when it comes to design.

To understand why someone would get a tattoo of a severed head, you must first understand ancient Japanese battle fields, and the Eastern way of looking at death.

First Things First

It is a fairly modern, western thing to see death as tragic.

In the West, we have constant medical advances to extend life and to keep people alive, even when they are very ill.

Though every culture has their own funeral rites, and it is natural to be sad at someone’s passing, many traditions embrace death as a part of life.

Attitudes and rituals around death are changing in modern Japan, but there tends to be a romantic attitude toward someone’s passing.

What is Namakubi and what does it mean?

Don't get Namakubi mixed up with the Japanese Samurai tradition of Seppuku, also known as Harakiri.

Seppuku has been seen in pop culture for a long time, so it is familiar to many people.

You may have seen references to Seppuku in a number of places.

In this tradition, a disgraced Samurai voluntarily disembowels themselves.

After completing this task, an assistant will finish the job by slicing through the Samurai’s neck.

The assistant, leaves the head attached at the collarbone, so that it hangs on the body.

Namakubi, however, involves removing the head entirely.

Both Seppuku and Namakubi have their origins in the warrior class of Feudal Japan, a historically bloody time period.

Samurai expect to die at any time.

If they lose in a battle, it is tradition for the opposing team to gather their severed heads and present them to their ruler.

This may sound gruesome, but it is considered an act of respect to a fellow warrior.

It represents life coming full circle when it comes to an end.

Sometimes the severed heads would be presented in a pile, and other times they were hung in trees on display.

If the head belonged to a person of great importance, it may be presented more formally.

In some cases the heads would be kept in ornate boxes as a type of shrine.

Many Namakubi tattoos are of Samurai’s heads, but others are Geisha heads or in some cases another character entirely.

What do Namakubi tattoos symbolize?

Namakubi tattoos may symbolize respect for one’s enemies, or an acceptance of fate.

It may be a way to remind yourself that death is inevitable, and to enjoy life while it lasts while knowing it will all come to an end somehow.

They may also be a symbol of courage.

Remember, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s being afraid and moving forward anyway.

Warriors were not necessarily unafraid, they were simply ready to accept and work with their fear.

A Geisha head, symbolises the power of love and freedom. In the time of the Edo period, criminal punishment was extremely brutal and often included beheading, hanging, and even boiling to death. A geisha could be executed for a number of reasons, Whatever the story is behind a geisha namakubi, it definitely adds an extra layer of heartbreak and drama.

Or you gave your tattooer too much free reign and he decided, your calfs needed a pair of severed heads, next time is Samurai head.

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