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4 Japanese TIGER Tattoo Meanings behind Japanese Culture

what does tiger tattoos mean in japanese culture?Japanese Life & Travel

Hi, it’s Junko from Japan. Tigers have been a popular motif for traditional Japanese tattoos. In this post, I’ll explain what tigers mean in Japanese culture. It’ll serve as excellent inspiration for your ideal tiger tattoo design.

Symbol of Physical Strength

In Japanese traditional drawings, a tiger frequently contrasts with a dragon. A tiger symbolizes physical strength while a dragon represents inner strength and a mighty mind. Neither of them has an advantage over the other. Both of them portray strength in different ways.

The King of Beasts

I think many people think of lions when it comes to the king of beasts. But Chinese culture regards tigers as the king of beasts because there are no tigers in China. Japanese culture imported a lot from China, and tigers were one of them. Japan didn’t have tigers either, but Japanese people admired them as powerful and beautiful creatures. Many Samurai lords and warriors requested tiger drawings for their furnishings. Also, tiger meat was believed to be medicine for long life and was sometimes presented to authorities.

Interestingly, Japanese artists had never seen real tigers and used cats as models. That’s why the drawings of tigers in the Edo period have cat-like eyes with thin pupils. Here’s one of them by GANKU (1749 – 1838), a top-notch Japanese drawing artist who kept drawing tigers. He imported bones and fur of tigers to draw realistic tigers, but his earnest research didn’t reach real tigers’ eyes!

picture: a japanese tiger drawing by ganku, provided by colbase
Tiger Drawing by Ganku

One of the Four Divine Gods: White Tiger

Japanese culture has four sacred animals called SHISEIJU. It’s originally from Chinese mythology, and each divine animal governs one direction and one season. The tiger god is called BYAKKO, meaning “white tiger” in Japanese. It’s a mythical creature that guards the west and autumn.

The old Japanese capital called HEIANKYO (current Kyoto), meaning “peaceful capital” in Japanese, was built based on the four divine animal concepts. It has four big temples that symbolize each divine animal god that protects the capital from evil spirits. According to the legend, the white tiger god BYAKKO dwells in the western temple of MATSUNOO TAISHA (pine tree tail great shrine). The temple still exists, and he watches over the western region of Kyoto even now.

Matsunoo Taisha in Kyoto protected by the white tiger
A white tiger charm you can get at Matsunoo Taisha

A white tiger tattoo will give you a sacred power to drive bad luck away and bring good fortune! If you want to know more about the four divine god animals, check out the link below too.

4 Ideas for Cool Japanese Kanji Tattoos – Symbols for Divine Animal Gods

One of the 12 Oriental Zodiac Animals

illustration: a tiger and japanese folding fans and a drum

Other than the four divine gods, we have 12 oriental zodiac animals called ETO. Your ETO animal is determined by your year of birth while zodiac signs are defined by months of birth. Japanese people know what is their guardian animal. Tigers are guardian animals for those who were born in 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, and 2022.

Like western horoscopes, each ETO animal has its characteristic. It’s said the person with the tiger ETO is challenging and never gives up achieving their goals. Not only having passion but also having the smartness to act cool depending on the situation. Tigers are not merely warriors but can be strategists as well. How cool! If you were born in the tiger years in the oriental zodiac, they must be an ideal guardian for you.

What Objects Are Designed with Tigers in Japanese Tattoo Designs?

Bamboo Trees

The combination of a tiger and bamboo trees is a typical design motif in Japanese art. Bamboo trees represent a home for tigers where they can live safely and peacefully. Bamboo trees alone can represent the power of life, and it’s one of the most auspicious combinations in Japanese traditional design.

Another theory says bamboo trees stand for the intelligence of tigers. Tigers can’t hunt elephants if facing directly them. So tigers lure them into bamboo bushes and hold them. As a result, a tiger can fight and beat an elephant that is much larger than himself.


As I explained first in this post, a tiger and a dragon is a common combination that expresses mighty strength. Japanese Samurai lords in the period of the warring states in Japan preferred this design and made the drawings to show their power to the public.

Kanō Sanraku, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Generally, a dragon is put on the right with crowds, and a tiger is on the left with the wind. This is a traditional art motif based on a Chinese tradition.

Peony Flowers

Peony flowers are a popular motif for Japanese-style tattoos. Peony is called BOTAN in Japanese and it’s praised as the king of flowers. It symbolizes good luck and prosperity.


There’s an old phrase TORA NI TSUBASA, which translates to “give wings to a tiger.” It’s a metaphor that a person with power gains more power and becomes overwhelmingly powerful. Though it’s not a popular symbol for Japanese traditional tattoos, wings might be an interesting object to add to a tiger if you want a unique design. Wings will enhance the power of tigers.

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