The Ainu Women of Japan
The Ainu women are the indigenous people of Northern Japan. They call themselves "Ainu," which means "people" in their language.
One of the most distinct feautures about the Ainu women is their tattooed upper lip which was traditionally exclusive to Ainu women only.
Lip tattooes signify a perception of life experiences and are done to repel evil spirits. Ainu women believe that tattooing came from the ancestral mother of the Ainu- Okikurumi Marchi and it was considered a part of their religion. Traditionally, women had to get the lip tattoos because the Ainu believed they could not marry without being tattooed.
The Ainu lip tattoos are made using knives called Makiri and soot to mark the skin. The blood is then wiped with a cloth drenched in hot ash wood or nire & a spindlewood antiseptic while the tattooist sings or hums a poem and recites a spell to permanently mark the skin.
From the age of 12, the lips, arms and hands are tattooed. They take years to build up and complete due to the pain and injuries it inflicts. The tattooes are usually completed by age 16.
Ainu tattooists were all female, usually maternal aunts and grandmothers.
Japanese authorities prohibited the tattoos at different times and in 1871, the authorties forbade any girl born after that year to be tattooed. However, the Ainu women evaded this law and continued this tradition.
Along with the lip tattoos, Ainu women also wear tattoos on their arms and hands. They believe that these curvilinear and geometric designs protect young girls from evil spirits.
Due to the intervention by Japanese authorities and the changes in tradition, the Ainu culture was lost and the last tattoed Ainu woman died in 1998. Eventually, a movement called for the revitalisation of the Ainu culture.
Older Ainu people are teaching the younger generations the culture including the traditional dance, songs, stories and traditional language.
Have a glimpse of these fascinating lip tattoos of the Ainu women via these vintage photographs!