The Liner Notes: “Irezumi”, Shinto and Failure



I wanted to start writing about my processes when writing a short story, notes about ideas or links to things which inspired me to do the writing. I’m calling this series The Liner Notes in homage to the booklets which came in CDs with the lyrics and, now and again, notes from the composers/bands about what inspired the album in the first place.

I’m in the middle of writing a short story called “Irezumi” (刺青 which is used as a word for Japanese tattooing but actually translations as ‘stay’, referring to the way the ink used lingers permanently under the skin). The title is a double entendre and the story is one related by a master tattooist about the time he met a woman whose tattoo, of a bamboo forest, mysteriously began appearing one night.

I started off this story knowing several things:

  1. It was narrated by a tattooist in Meji era-Kyoto (who refuses to give his name but is third in his lineage and took the first character for his artistic name, Hori—, from his own master) in the middle of a country-wide the clamp down on his art.
  2. A woman comes to him with a mysterious tattoo (in her case a grove of bamboo saplings on her ankle) that appears to be getting bigger by the day. She says it’s not something she had done but rather appeared one morning and has been growing since.
  3. The reason why had something to do with the period of modernisation known as the Meiji Restoration (or Meiji Ishin) when Japan thought modernisation was cool and so tried to catch up to Europe as far as possible, banning samurai from carrying their swords (in effect: taking from them their souls), clamping down on irezumi and wearing European clothing rather than Japanese dress.
  4. The narrator visits a blind seeress, an itako, in some obscure village who explains what’s going on.
  5. The narrator fails in his task to help the woman with the mysterious tattoo.
  6. The world is irrevocally changed but the change also forces a new status quo.

I know the theme of this story is sacredness and the narrator’s failure in his task. The image above is a torii gate made of stone which I snapped while in Japan, that rope represents the start of sacred space (it’s called a shimenawa or 七五三縄). Anything can be sacred from shrines to rocks and trees (called yorishiro/依り代), you can tell because there is typically shimenawa surrounding the object. But what if a person is sacred?

Of course, Shinto has a concept for this which works beautifully for the story: yorimashi (憑坐) (the second of which is the same character as the one in miko (shrine maiden/巫女) BTW. Yorimashi are basically kami vessels or god-stolen/occupied bodies and this is the crux of the story, as is the concept of purity and divinity.


The thing about writing this kind of fiction, I’ve discovered, is no one is going to shout at you for writing historical fiction. I’ve always shied away from this genre, convinced someone was going to decry my fiction for errors. It’s not about getting every detail correct, more about creating a convincing world and Japan I know enough about (from going there and nearly a decade specialising in all things to do with the culture) that I can do that.

Some of my favourite parts of Japan involved randomly wandering around Shinto shrines, washing my hands and mouth in the fountain like the one here, mostly while cherry blossom fell around me. Shinto is a religion of purity and sacredness but both can be found and adopted, anything can become a kami and anyone can see the spirits existing in nature around us. I figure, though tattooing involves blood (something normally verboten due to the impurity) the art itself, the healed product, that can be a sacred thing, a meditation on life and a lifelong reminder of something important to the person being tattooed.

Now that is sacredness right there.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.