Strange smiles of the Ainu women

Ainu woman, 1901, photo source

I have already written about the Ainu people costume and jewelry (here). And today's post is about another interesting feature that used to distinguish this ethnic group, particularly women. I am talking about tattoo. What was so unusual about the Ainu tattoo? Well, until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women had black tattoos, resembling clown smiles, around their lips. And though Ainu women were also tattooed on the backs of the hands, wrists, forearms, eyebrows and forehead as well, their tattooed smiles were the most characteristic feature, and the most striking for any newcomer I would say.

photo source

According to legends, tattoo was brought to earth by the "ancestral mother" of the Ainu who was the younger sister of the creator god. Besides being considered sign of beauty, these tattoos were believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the body and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman's life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors. The areas around the eyebrows were also decorated with wavy lines, and the hands and forearms were adorned with a variety of patterns.

photo  source

The painful operation was carried out by female specialists in several stages over a period of years. Powdered charcoal was rubbed into cuts made in the skin with small sharp knives. Girls were first tattooed with an arc of dots above the mouth at the early age of four or five; thereafter a new line was added each year. The process was finished by the age of marriage, usually around the age of fifteen. During wedding, the pattern was symbolically completed by the bridegroom, who executed the pointed extensions.
The tattoo design slightly differed depending on local regions. In the late 19th century the Japanese government prohibited this custom but it continued nonetheless until the 1920s. Nowadays Ainu women still tattoo their mouths for special ceremonies and festivals but those are temporary tattoos.


  1. Very interesting post! Never seen anything like this before...those smiles kind of remind me of moustache. Strange how such lip tattoos were considered beautiful.

  2. I've never seen these women before, amazing photos. I suppose that like ear, neck or lip stretching adornments, these kinds of facial tattoos have/had a particular cultural significance, whether they are appealing or not to our eyes. But the thought of young children being tattooed is not pleasant, they are not in control of it, and I suppose you could say that adult women also had little say over such traditions. And clearly what is judged attractive or not is a very subjective and movable thing! xx

  3. That is fascinating! As a comic book fan I cannot help but think of the permanent smile of the Joker when I see these pictures. So similar it is eerie. It is amazing the customs from the past and interesting to think what will seem that strange 100 years from now. Very cool! xoxo

  4. It reminds me of the Maori women tattooed under their mouths.
    The bridegroom gets to finish the points...you would hope he had a steady hand!
    Glad to live right where I am!! Xo Jazzy Jack

  5. How fascinating. What an odd tradition. I remember encountering Berber tribeswomen for the first time and being fascinated by their facial tattoos. x

  6. I didn't know this about Ainu women. Thanks for these mesmerizing photos and background.

  7. Similar tradition existed among some Croats , but the facial tattoos were in the form of the cross and applied to young children of both genders so they would not be taken into slavery by the Ottomans. Supposedly the tradition lasted until the 19C and then slowly died off. This traditional form of tattooing was called 'usicanje' and was done with needles and charcoal.

    I didn't know about Ainu woman, but I'm glad that the tradition was kept in the symbolical way with temporary tattoos...in that way their culture is preserved...to me these tattoos are quite beautiful!