You have probably heard of the recent arrest of a fugitive Yakuza member, who was captured only because his signature tattoos were photographed and shared online, after which they went viral. The name of the former gangster is Shigeharu Shirai, and he was able to spend 14 years running from law enforcement. The reason for his arrest warrant was the suspicion that he was involved in the assassination of a rival gang member back in 2003.
A regular Thai resident saw Shirai’s tattoos by accident and was clearly impressed by them. He had no idea who this old man was or what exactly did the tattoos stand for. When he put the pictures of the retired gangster on the Internet, more than 10,000 people shared the post.
One of the other interesting and distinctive body features of the Yakuza member was his missing little finger on his hand. The gangsters have very strict codes and honor is everything to them, so if a Yakuza member allows himself to show disrespect or break a rule, he cuts off his own finger in order to demonstrate that he acknowledges his mistake. The ritual is called “yubisume”.
When the photos somehow reached members of the police force in Japan, they quickly realized that the tattooed man was no other than Shirai. Understandably, they acted immediately. The contacted their colleagues in Thailand and asked for their cooperation, which they received, and the former Yakuza was apprehended.
Most of the ink on Shirai’s body has a certain meaning which could be understood by very few people. The hidden messages in the tattoos on Yakuza members are always linked to the Japanese culture and art, and often represent tradition symbolism and imagery.
The process of making these unique tattoos is known as “irezumi” in Japan.
For a very long time, the body ink has actually served as punishment for criminals; the authorities back then thought that if a criminal was branded in such a way, being forced to wear the tattoos his whole life, the criminal could never be able to become a normal member of society again after the sentence was over. This period was known as “Edo”, and it lasted almost three centuries (1600-1868).
For the Yakuza, however, the tattoos became a symbol of pride; they demonstrated the Yakuza’s honor to be a part of the organization, so the trend spread quickly among the members.
However, most people in Japan today consider tattoos to be a rather negative feature, so almost every Yakuza with full body ink prefers their tattoos in discrete areas, and they are often dressed in suits. As a result, you can never tell the Yakuza is tattooed, because there is no visible sign of them. Shirai obviously decided similarly, and has also used motives from the mythology of Japan for the designs on his skin.
One very popular image among Yakuza can be seen on Shirai’s back—the samurai. It is supposed to represent the Bushido code, also known as the code of the samurai, which stands for loyalty, courage, action, and honor.
Prior to the Yakuza implementing tattoos in their culture, samurais were slowly becoming normal members of the Japanese society, but some of them decided to become Yakuza; many of them decided to remind about their past by tattooing themselves with similar images.
The right nipple on Shirai’s body has a yellow flower drawn on it. The flower could be a lotus, a chrysanthemum, or a peony. Even if it sounds insignificant to you whether it is this or that kind of flower, they actually have a totally different meaning.
One of the main “irezumi” symbols is the peony, and it is used to represent riches and prosperity, and it is also related to masculinity and affection for high risk.
The lotus is related to the Buddhist culture and represents the journey of something trying to achieve its highest goal.
A chrysanthemum symbolizes the relation to the Imperial family, but it also is linked to longevity.
A little lower on Shirai’s body you can find another flower with a different design that has been purposely left partially colored. The technique is called “sujibori”; such a tattoo represents a story that has yet to be finished
Another symbolic detail among all the ink on Shirai’s body is the water tattooed on the lowest part of his back. This illustration means that the person is supposed to change and improve, and also to constantly adapt to life, and we’re guessing that the former gangster had certainly hoped for those things in the past 14 years. However, it seems that his past has caught up with him.
Despite admitting he was a Yakuza back in the days, he has denied any relations to the murder in 2003 whatsoever, and the investigation has yet to reveal what actually happened back then.