The Japanese Tiger
In Japanese art and irezumi
By Josh Carter
Before the tiger was depicted in Japanese art it first had to be interpreted by Japanese artists. Tigers aren’t native to Japan and the closest ones there are to the Japanese archipelago are in Russia’s Siberian woodlands, the northeastern part of China, and Korea. Regardless, tigers have been displayed on the silk scrolls of traditional Japanese art for centuries. A few tigers had visited Japan before its cultural isolation ended in the late nineteenth century (Meiji Era).
Full-grown cats and mewling kittens were given as gifts to warlords and shoguns, but most artists seem to have depicted tigers using imported pelts as reference. Japanese artists would also depict leopards in the mistaken belief they were female tigers.
Further more, some artists used house cats as models. If you look closely at Maruyama Okyo’s Sitting Tiger, painted in 1777. His tiger glares with green almond eyes and slitted pupils; an ocular feature common to house cats on sunny days, but not to tigers.
Without tigers to draw upon from life, Japanese artists depicted the fearsome cat for spiritual reasons unknown to artists in the west. They borrowed from Taoism, a mystical Chinese philosophy that grew from studying nature.
In free-flowing Taoism, Chinese philosophers saw the universe in terms of a symbiotic yin and yang: yang, masculine order, takes the form of a mythological dragon; yin, feminine chaos, the tiger.
Japanese Zen Buddhism and Chinese Taoism share some beliefs but Outside of the Chinese zodiac the tiger is not associated with either Buddhism or Shintoism in Japan, however some artists depicted twin dragons and tigers on the sliding doors of Zen Buddhist temples and like the Christian story of Saint Jerome and his lion, Buddhists believed that tigers accompanied long-ago holy men.
As a tattoo motif the tiger represents strength and courage, as well as long life. It protects from evil spirits and bad luck, as well as disease. In addition, the tiger is a symbol for the north and for autumn and is said to control the wind. A tiger tattoo protects the wearer from harm and helps them live longer. Its believed that people gain strength from their tiger tattoo, which gives them bravery and confidence.