Interpreting Japanese Culture in Tanizaki's “The Tattooer”

by Clifford J. Kurkowski


                The reader-response theory illustrates that people often use a table filled with a vast wealth of knowledge in order to decipher a text, and, whether or not their interpretation is correct, critics generally offer their reactions to those who have read it. When one examines a work from only an emotional perspective, it does not always involve the professional methodologies necessary for one to read effectively, resulting in hidden meanings, imagery, or an interpretation implied by the author.  David Bleich, in his essay, “Feelings About Literature, “ suggests that “the habit of objectification is fundamental in human mental functioning, and no one does with out it” (1270).   In other words, when examining a work, it is natural to associate an emotion with it immediately, but as readers continue deciphering it, they may “respond to some form of “objectification” in order to “depersonalize the response” (1270).  Not only does Bleich propose that most works do invoke an emotional response from the reader, but as he or she analyzes it more carefully, the brain begins processing certain elements of the text, often resulting in a more viable interpretation.

                Bleich claims that an “associative response” such as this often reveals a “perception, affect, associations, relationships, and finally a patterned presentation” of how a reader organizes the work, illustrating an interpretation focuses on their own “ personality at the time of the reading” (1270).  This “associative response” theory may be useful for those interpreting strictly American literature, but, if one uses this method to examine literature from another country, can his or her criticism help them gain a better understanding of the intent by the author?  Would a reader be able to properly analyze a text and come up with a critical interpretation?  To apply Bleich’s “associative response” theory we will interpret a translated short story from Junichiro Tanizaki, called “Shisei” or “The Tattooer.”  Since this story is based on Japanese culture it will be interesting to note how an American reader, like myself, will be able to interpret a text like “The Tattooer” and base a critical response on my knowledge of the culture.  My goal is to give a brief synopsis of what I have read then try to interpret some of the Japanese cultural aspects in the story. In turn, my “associative response” should give readers a useful interpretation of the author’s intent.

                Junichiro Tanizaki’s story, “The Tattooer” begins with the narrator illustrating the ancient art of tattooing. He vividly describes that Japanese men, who were performing in the Kabuki Theater, received tattoos in order to satisfy their upper class audiences and enhance their beauty.  This story is about a young tattoo artist named Seikichi who trained as an ukiyoye painter in his youth but dropped in social status and became a renowned tattoo artist. For years, Seikichi perfected his tattoo artistry on many clients. To him they were his body canvases which came in all different shapes and sizes, but he yearned for something more, he wanted the perfect canvas to paint his masterpiece on. Then one day, while passing a restaurant, he caught a glimpse of a beautiful woman’s foot and fell madly in love with her. A few days later, the beautiful woman appeared at his door carrying a package from one of Seikichi’s friends. He gazed at her beauty, she had the facial features that he desired, and her body was the perfect canvas he wanted to paint his greatest masterpiece on. Unfortunately, the young woman did not share in his dreams and was frightened by his gestures.  As much as he tried to convince her, she still refused his offer to be his greatest masterpiece. In order to get what he wanted, Seikichi drugged the young woman and enslaved her.

                The next morning Seikichi started his masterpiece on the sleeping woman. He did not stop until he finished his work of art.  After Seikichi finished, the woman started to move about, the spider that Seikichi tattooed on the woman’s back moved as she did. His artwork was now alive and this gave him great pleasure. As the woman slowly gained her composure, she asked to see the tattoo but the artist refused and made her bathe in hot water first in order to bring out the colors. The hot water made her suffer horrific pain as it made her skin sting.  She screamed at the artist to wait in the other room because she did not want anyone to see her in so much pain. An hour later, the woman emerged from the room beautifully dressed and with a twinkle in her eye. Seikichi was amazed at what he saw.  She was beautiful.  He gave her some art and told her to leave but she refused.  Seikichi asked to see the tattoo once more. The woman slowly turned around and took off her kimono. A ray of light from the window caught the spider drawn on her back, and it was engulfed in flames.

                As I read this story, several details surfaced about the Japanese culture that I did not understand but it did prompt me to research Japanese culture more. The first detail that I encountered, which is also the leading subject in the tale, is that tattoo artistry is a social art form dating back centuries. In fact, tattooing men was an act to beautify them; “people did all they could do to beautify themselves, some even having pigments injected into their precious skins. Gaudy patterns of line and color danced over men’s bodies” (1). As an art form, tattooing was considered a sheik item for people in the theater and for samurai men, it was part of the entertainment and the audience loved it. Though tattooing one’s body is still considered an art form today and almost any one can get one, the art of tattooing someone’s body was considered a social art form in the Meiji Era of Japan between the years 1868 and 1912.  Junichiro Tanizaki wrote this story in 1910 during a period in Japan when tattoo artistry was banned because it was considered “barbarism” and the Japanese people wanted to show the world that they had other forms of culture and beauty besides tattoo art (Yamada 3).  This bit of history shows us that Tanizaki wanted to reveal a part of Japanese society to readers and that the art of tattooing was being suppressed in some fashion. If we were to interpret this, after knowing some of the history, we could say that the enslavement of the woman is a political statement against the suppression of art in Japan.  We can also state that Seikichi’s actions and temperament could symbolize the reaction of the Japanese government to suppress the art.

Another piece of Japanese culture that surfaced during the story is the class system for artists. It seems that Seikichi was trained as an “ukiyoye painter” at the “school of Toyokuni and Kunisada” but for some reason fell out of favor and he was “declined to a status of a tattooer” (1). A “ukiyoye painter” is one that paints from the soul and to move up through the ranks from tattooer to “ukiyoye painter” is considered to be a ritual rite of passage for an artist in Japan (Tanizaki 1).  Only skilled professionals taught by mentors can do this, but for some reason, Seikichi fell out of grace with his mentor. This could be the reason why he was so demanding and controlling with his clients. His “secret pleasure, and secret desire” to watch “men in agony” as he “drove needles into them” was probably because he was bitter at being a tattoo artist who had aspired to be something else. From my reading of the text, I interpreted that a decline in social status for an artist meant less money and a dishonor to one’s family, thus Seikichi’s emotions would be justified.  The way he treated his clients and the woman reflected his bitterness and contempt for the way the social system in Japan treated him.  The pain and agony he made them suffer through was a mirror of how he felt as an individual in Japanese society and he wanted to make others suffer for his misfortunes.

One last piece of Japanese culture that stood out in the text is the relationship between Seikichi and the young woman. In the story, the young woman was beginning her studies as a “geisha” under the tutelage of her mistress. A geisha, in Japanese culture, is a professional hostess and entertainer. In order for a geisha to learn her trade, she must go through many years of extensive training and be tutored by a mentor.  In addition, a geisha is taught to be an independent woman of means in Japanese society. In American culture, we view a geisha as a subservient woman, and we add to this myth by depicting it in our movies and books, but in Japan, the role is reversed, a geisha is highly respected for their talent and independence. In this story, the narrator does not really describe the woman’s emotional state nor is there any kind of character profile. Only at the end of the tale does the narrator reveal that she has some sort of independent streak. She does tell Seikichi several times that he does not want to be his masterpiece but he refuses to listen, “No, you must stay—I will make you a real beauty” (Tanizaki 3).  However, the woman’s vengeance at the end does bring a new beginning to the woman’s independence and her actions make up for any lack of voice in the tale.

Drugging the woman in order to fulfill his destiny, the artist tattoos his masterpiece, a spider, on her back. We could interpret the spider tattoo as an ironic foretelling of a prophecy that is yet to come for the artist and the woman. Since the story does not mention what kind of spider is on her back, I would take a leap of faith and state that the artist tattooed a black widow spider.  A female black widow spider is a deadly, venomous creature that eats the male after mating. If Seikichi did tattoo a female black widow spider on her back, it would explain why the woman took on the characteristics of that particular spider. Though they did not physically mate, as a reader I would consider the art of tattooing a creative mating ritual between the artist and his canvas. I feel that she symbolically trapped him in her web of vengeance and planned to make him the “first victim” (Tanizaki 3).  In my opinion, Seikichi let his vanity for art take over his world and he sacrificed everything to create his masterpiece, but in the end, his own creation turned against him and he lost it all. In a way, he is fulfilling his own destiny by tattooing a spider on her back. If it is a black widow then Seikichi sealed his own fate if he knew what the black widow spider symbolized.

In order to “de-personalize” the text I did not look at this as an erotic tale, though other readers may notice the underlying images very quickly, I feel that interpreting this story as an erotic tale would have been an “emotional perception” and not a “professional criticism” (Bleich 1270). There are several sadomasochist images in Tanizaki’s story that would drive the reader to a psychosexual response. However, I feel that Tanizaki has more to offer his readers than to give us a tale of erotic sadomasochistic pleasure. I believe that the author wants his readers to understand Seikichi’s stream of consciousness and piece together the inner workings of an artist’s mind. By doing this, Tanizaki reveals to his readers how art affects an artist and how the love of art can lead to a man’s destruction.

                Peering into Japanese culture with Tanizaki’s tale, I am reminded of what Bleich pointed out in his essay, as an American reader we need to have some sort of “perception” to what we are reading. In Tanizaki’s tale, we now have an understanding of the character, Seikichi, and what he may symbolize. He is an artist that clearly represents a social class structure in Japanese society. He is also Tanizaki’s political character that reveals the oppressive Japanese government and their stance on suppressing tattoo art in the Meiji Era. The woman also has a symbolic role in the tale.  She represents the suppression of art through enslavement, the emerging independence of women in Japanese society, and the diminutive beauty of a geisha. 

In order to comprehend a story from another culture we need to bring to the table a vast wealth of knowledge, take a leap of faith on interpreting what we do not comprehend, and associate past readings of other stories to the tale.  In following a formula like this, a reader can offer a sensible interpretation of the story and produce a credible response.  That is why it is important to “associate” what we read in this story to other texts and points of references in American culture. Though the cultures are different, I was able to reveal some aspects of Japanese culture that I did not understand and “associate” them with reference points and past readings of texts in American culture. This helped guide me to a conclusion of what Tanizaki’s text meant to me as a reader. Bleich is correct in stating that as readers we may not be clear of all the underlying images in a text, especially one from another culture, but in some way a reader will “represent a combination of the aggregate self-image, and the self-image at the time of the reading” once we “de-personalize” the text (1270).



Works Cited

“Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965).”  Online posting:  

Tanizaki, Junichiro.  “The Tattooer.”  Photocopy handout.  1-3.

Yamada, Mieko.  “Japanese Tattooing From the Past to the Present.”  Online posting:

Yoshida, Hiroshi.  “Japanese Wood-block Printing.”  Online posting: