"Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo" Book Review
Written by Takahiro Kitamura and Katie M. Kitamura
2000, 160 pages, Non-Fiction
Released on November 4th, 2000
There's a very fine line between a mainstream book that's very well researched and informative and an academic text that turns readers away because it's full of information but lacks an engaging prose. Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo is a beautifully illustrated tome that manages to walk that line. The Kitamuras researched the history of tattooing in the country that has become synonymous with superb skin art, but the way they present it to readers is more akin to an entertaining magazine article than a history book.
The great irony in Japanese tattooing is that the practice was outlawed in the country on separate occasions. Furthermore, the stigma about criminals being tattooed also has a basis in Japanese culture because they had symbols they would ink on certain places in a criminal's body in order to help regular citizens identify them. Interestingly, there was something much more powerful that made tattooing endure persecution: its ties to the world of the samurai. While all these interesting elements of tattooing/Japanese history are explored, they only make up about a third of the book.
While the chapters dealing with tattooing's history are worth the price of the book, the authors also offer a rich study of the tattoo master/client relationship and the huge role respect plays in it as well as the practices of master/apprentice relationships. Plus, if you're a fan of the yakuza, the portion dealing with how reverential yakuza members are with their tattooists and how low-ranking members have to ask permission to their superiors in order to get inked by their artists will be a treat. Last but not least, the authors draw comparisons between American and Japanese tattooing and delve deeply into the work and legacy of the biggest families in Japanese tattooing, especially the most renowned name in the ink business, Horiyoshi III.
The writing is great and the intensive research that went into the book is obvious, but what sets Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo apart from other books like it is the photography. I have reviewed a few Schiffer tomes and the photography has always ranged between very good and unremarkable. This time around, it's outstanding. Some of the larger pieces are shown in their entirety and then in smaller sections so details can be better observed. Also, a lot of care went into having a correlation between the text and the images.
Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo is a must-read/must-see for tattoo lovers and a well-researched tome that will enrich as well as decorate your shelves. The Kitamuras have made a secretive and elusive subculture available and understandable, and that makes this one a great read for fans of art, history, tattooing, and Japanese culture alike.