In the Edo Period, where the art of tattooing flourished in Japan, people were inspired to adorn themselves with images of plants, animals and mythical creatures. Today, Irezumi is still steeped in this world of symbolism, and the designs carry particular meanings:
In the West, we learn that dragons are frightening beasts that kill people and burn down villages. In East Asia, dragons are symbols of good luck. Dragons use their wisdom and strength to help humans by manipulating the forces of the universe for our benefit.
Asian dragons are at home in all elements. They may breath or emit fire, they fly, they swim in the oceans, and have power over all of the elements. One powerful meaning of the dragon is the joining of Yin ad Yang, the opposing forces that shape the physical universe.
What we in the West think of as just a pretty fish is a symbol for courage, control and achieving of goals. Koi are said to lie perfectly still when awaiting the butcher's knife, unlike other fish who flop around. It is as if the koi meets his fate with dignity and strength, much like a samurai warrior would. There is also a legend where at an area of the Yellow river falls called Dragons Gate, any koi that can swim upstream and jump high enough will be transformed into a dragon.
Tigers are protectors from bad luck and disease, and some Irezumi designs show a tiger battling a demon, which they are also adept at fending off. Strength, long life and courage are also symbolized by the Tiger.
Lions are not native to East Asia, and so their traditional depiction was likely based on second-hand accounts. Thus, they can resemble dogs, and are often called Foo Dogs. They will often be placed at the entranceway to a building, a male with mouth open on one side, and a female with mouth closed on the other. The open mouth symbolizes casting out evil spirits, while the closed mouth indicates blocking evil from entering. The Foo Dog was originally from the Shinto religion, and later became an important symbol in Budhism. Courage, strength, wisdom and protection are all symbolized by the Lion.