Water Margin and it’s impact on Japanese Tattooing

February 26th, 2009 in Japanese,Tattoo

The story “Water Margin” or sometimes referred to as ”The Outlaws of the Marsh”  or in Japan as the “Suikoden” (The latter which spun off to many TV series, films, and a line of video games.) is a story I’ve mentioned before on my blog. It is without a doubt one of my favorite epic novels, epic because it is usually seen in 4 volumes and consists of about ~2500 pages. It was written in China around the 16th century.

The story was about brotherhood, chivalry, honor, and virtue – despite it being a story of 108 bandits (That lead an army of bandits) these men (and women), although many of them not the stereotypical “good guy” as we see today in action movies or in westernized novels, they have killed, stole, and beaten but why they are seen as heroes is because they were driven to become bandits by corrupt officials that surrounded the Emperor (We see the same theme in another Chinese Epic, Three Kingdoms). Despite the Liangshan Marsh bandits’ (The Liang Mountain is where the bandit’s hideout stood) fights against the Imperial army, the bandits were loyal to the Emperor because they still believed that the Emperor was appointed by god and they wanted to be pardoned in order to serve the emperor (Loyalty and honor to the Emperor).

So why is the Chinese story of the Liangshan Marsh bandits so important to Japanese tattooing? When the story was brought over to Japan it was immensely popular and many were inspired by it’s characters who showed such virtues such as honor, loyalty, and brotherhood. The story starts off with one of the most well known Characters, Shi-Jin, or “Nine Dragons Shi-Jin”, called by this name for the nine dragons he had tattooed all over his body. His father was a wealthy farmer and when a military instructor (who was on the run from the officials after they had framed him) was seeking food and shelter at the estate where Shi-Jin lived. On the day of him leaving, the instructor saw Shi-Jin with his clothes tied down to his waist and body of dragon tattoos training with a staff, telling the young man that his technique was flawed and that the old instructor could beat him in a match. They fought, the instructor easily overtook Shi-Jin in strength and technique – this was the beginning of Shi-Jin’s story. Shi-Jin goes off and fights bandits who were harassing the villages around his – he gains fame throughout the land and becomes a popular character instantly.

Popularity with characters like Shi-Jin from Water Margin is what helped stir the tattoo craze in Japan, after reading the story many young men had the desire to cover their bodies in elaborate tattoos such as the ones Shi-Jin and Yang-Qin (The Prodigy, who was “porcelain” skin was tattooed).

Sagacious Lu, from Water Margin. Known as “The Flowery monk” for his Flower tattoos

Why were so many bandits covered with tattoos? When a punishment was issued and one was to be exiled the town/village where the criminal was exiled to was tattooed on them. In order to cover these “criminal tattoos” the criminals would then get larger and more elaborate japanese tattoo designs to cover them. Going from being inspired by the Bandits of the story and obtaining body suits just like the ones the Outlaws had, with the release of Kuniyoshi’s “Heroes of the Suikoden” a series of prints that illustrated much of “Water Margin”.

Kuniyoshi print of Yan-Qin “The Prodigy”

With Kuniyoshi’s series of the “Heroes of the Suikoden” came not only copying the tattoos the outlaws of the Marsh wore but also tattoo designs of these heroes themselves. Even today getting a Nine Dragons Shi-Jin or print from Kuniyoshi’s series tattooed is often seen. It is amazing how a story such as this can impact people, and how the virtues of those bandits are still honored today.


  1. [...] with the people of the Edo period looking for individuals to tattoo popular woodblock designs (see: Water Margin’s Popularity in Japanese tattooing) they turned to craftsmen already familiar with the designs and with manual skills. This allowed an [...]

  2. プラチナ万年筆

    Comment by 折りたたみ傘 人気 — August 19, 2013 @ 10:01 pm
  3. Nice to see an article about this. As a tattoo artist who studied in China, rather than Japan, I hope to be able to educate people on the influence that China has had on Japanese tattooing, not to mention that current Chinese tattoo artists have caught up with their Japanese counterparts now…

    Comment by Benjamin — February 7, 2014 @ 9:43 am

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