Japanese symbolic culture, inscribed on León’s arm

About my friend (and former caregiver) León Hernández Alvarez (hereafter, LH) and the tattoos covering his left arm, from wrist to shoulder, reflecting his deep sympathy with the symbolic culture of Japan. Here’s LH in a face shot that will serve as an introduction to his text (as I edited it for compactness) taking us on a tour of the ink, along with seven photos he took to accompany the text (as I cleaned them up for presentation here):

(#1) LH showing off the arm (and the muscles he’s developed at the gym)

After most sections of LH’s text (which I’ve boldfaced), there’s some background material about the things depicted in the tattoos, with some photos from real life.

I hope to post separately about LH, including some about his personal qualities, but here I offer four important pieces of biographical data: LH is in his early 40s, he’s Mexican (here on a work visa), he has an MBA and a previous history working in business in Mexico, and (like me) he’s gay.

LH photo 1: the Hannya mask.


At shoulder height is the Hannya mask. The word Hannya in Japanese means ‘wisdom’, and the masks themselves are symbols of good luck; they also ward off evil spirits, protecting the wearer from evil or negative emotions.

The Hannya mask portrays the souls of women who have turned into demons due to obsession or jealousy — similar to the Buddhist concept of a hungry ghost.

Background: Hannya masks. From Wikipedia:

The hannya (般若) mask is a mask used in Japanese Noh theater, representing a jealous female demon. It is characterized by two sharp bull-like horns, metallic eyes, and a leering mouth. In Noh plays, the type of mask changes according to the degree of jealousy, resentment, and anger of the female characters.

(#3) Wooden hannya mask at the Tokyo National Museum. Edo period, 1600s or 1700s. (Wikipedia photo)

LH photo 2: the samurai and lotus.


Beneath the mask is a samurai, symbolizing courage, courage, honor, justice, the straight path, discipline, honesty, and inner strength.

Something dark but visible, right in front of the samurai: a lotus flower. In Buddhism this represents the purity of body and soul. The flower (associated with the Buddha, and therefore sacred) grows in muddy waters, which represent carnal desires; so the flower shows a promise of spiritual elevation. It represents eternity, life, rebirth, hope, self-improvement, inner and outer beauty, good fortune, and purity.

Background: samurai. From Wikipedia:

Samurai (侍) were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan from the late 12th century until their abolition in the 1870s during the Meiji era. They were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo, the great feudal landholders. They had high prestige and special privileges.

Background: the sacred lotus. From Wikipedia:

Nelumbo nucifera, also known as sacred lotus, Laxmi lotus, Indian lotus, or simply lotus, is one of two extant species of aquatic plant in the family Nelumbonaceae. It is sometimes colloquially called a water lily, though this more often refers to members of the family Nymphaeaceae.

Lotus plants are adapted to grow in the flood plains of slow-moving rivers and delta areas. Stands of lotus drop hundreds of thousands of seeds every year to the bottom of the pond. While some sprout immediately, and most are eaten by wildlife, the remaining seeds can remain dormant for an extensive period of time as the pond silts in and dries out. During flood conditions, sediments containing these seeds are broken open, and the dormant seeds rehydrate and begin a new lotus colony.

Under favorable circumstances, the seeds of this aquatic perennial may remain viable for many years, with the oldest recorded lotus germination being from seeds 1,300 years old recovered from a dry lakebed in northeastern China. Therefore, the Chinese regard the plant as a symbol of longevity.

Nelumbo nucifera is a lotus species with historical cultural and spiritual significance. It is a sacred flower in both Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the path to spiritual awakening and enlightenment. In Christianity, the lotus flower is often associated with the apostle Thomas and his coming to India.

(#5) Nelumbo nucifera (Wikipedia photo)

LH photo 3: the Japanese dragon.


On the inside of the biceps we have the dragon, a sign of good fortune, generally benevolent. The dragon brings happiness, wealth, and success, and symbolizes (to the Japanese) wisdom, perseverance, and immortality.

Background: Japanese dragons. From Wikipedia:

Japanese dragons (日本の竜, Nihon no ryū) are diverse legendary creatures in Japanese mythology and folklore. Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and the Indian subcontinent. The style and appearance of the dragon was heavily influenced by the Chinese dragon, especially the three-clawed long (龍) dragons which were introduced in Japan from China in ancient times. Like these other East Asian dragons, most Japanese ones are water deities or kami associated with rainfall and bodies of water, and are typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet.

LH photo 4: cherry blossoms, clouds, and a coin.


On the triceps we find cherry blossoms, representing the ephemeral character of life. The cherry blossom conveys beauty, simplicity, relaxation, peace, feminine features and love, the delicate, the beautiful and the fleeting. It is also the symbol of samurai warriors. Alongside these flowers is a Japanese coin, representing luck and good fortune.

LH photo 5: koi fish.


On the front of the arm we have a koi fish, a symbol of love and friendship, associated with perseverance and strength in the face of adversity, persistence, and patience.

The koi fish has the yin-yang symbol on its forehead, standing for the balance of two opposing forces in life: because within everything bad, we can always find something good; and within everything good, there will always be something bad, Perhaps this is what makes us grow as people and gives meaning to life: one does not exist without the other, and the two opposing forces balance each other — yin representing stillness and cold; yang, restlessness and heat.

Background: koi fish. From Wikipedia:

Koi (鯉), or more specifically nishikigoi (錦鯉, literally “brocaded carp”), are colored varieties of the Amur carp (Cyprinus rubrofuscus) that are kept for decorative purposes in outdoor koi ponds or water gardens.

… In Japan, the koi is a symbol of luck, prosperity, and good fortune, and also of perseverance in the face of adversity. Ornamental koi are symbolic of Japanese culture and are closely associated with the country’s national identity.

(#9) Koi (Nishikigoi) in Ojiya city, Niigata prefecture, Japan (Wikipedia photo)

Background: yin-yang. From my 6/2/21 posting “Phosphorus and Hesperus”:


yin-yang is … a high-level conceptual distinction, manifested in all aspects of life, in binary oppositions of lower-level concepts (on those binary oppositions, see my 5/3 posting “The Raw and the Cooked”). A (very long) list of some of those lower-level concepts, with the concepts for yin and yang listed in parallel:

YIN: dark, black, blue, green, old, north, west, evening, night, autumn, winter, inside, feminine, water, wood, earth, sour, sweet, the moon, cool / cold, slow, wet, soft, passive, introvert, receptive, cooperative, flexible, indirect, conservative, negative

YANG: light, white, yellow, red, young, south, east, morning, day, spring, summer, outside, masculine, fire, sky, metal, bitter, pungent, the sun, warm / hot, fast, dry, hard, active, extravert, aggressive, competitive, unyielding, direct, innovative, positive

LH photo 6: the Fu lion.


On the inside of the forearm we have the Fu lion, with his sphere of life and a mandala around it. Fu lions serve as symbols of protection against evil spirits (demons), bad energies, and bad people; and as defenders of the law. For this reason, palaces, buildings and homes used to be decorated with figures of these creatures, which always come in pairs of male and female. The ancient belief was that the male Fu lion protecting the residents of a home outside of it, while the female protected the inside of the home. Meanwhile, a mandala tattoo can reflect: your inner peace (or the desire to obtain it); your interest in cultivating your own spirituality; and your path towards personal growth.

Background: komainu. From Wikipedia:

Chinese guardian lions, or imperial guardian lions, are a traditional Chinese architectural ornament, but the origins lie deep in much older Indian Buddhist traditions. Typically made of stone, they are also known as stone lions or shishi (石獅; shíshī). They are known in colloquial English as lion dogs or foo dogs / fu dogs. The concept, which originated and became popular in Chinese Buddhism, features a pair of highly stylized lions — often one male with a ball which represents the material elements and one female with a cub which represents the element of spirit — that were thought to protect the building from harmful spiritual influences and harmful people that might be a threat. Used in imperial Chinese palaces and tombs, the lions subsequently spread to other parts of Asia including Japan ([as] komainu)

Further from Wikipedia:

Komainu (狛犬), often called lion-dogs in English, are statue pairs of lion-like creatures either guarding the entrance or the honden, or inner shrine of many Japanese Shinto shrines or kept inside the inner shrine itself, where they are not visible to the public.

… Meant to ward off evil spirits, modern komainu statues usually are almost identical, but one [AZ: usually identified as male] has the mouth open, the other [AZ: usually identified as female] closed. … The two forms are called a-gyō (阿形, lit. '”a” shape’) and un-gyō (吽形, lit. '”un” shape’) or referred to collectively as a-un.

This is a very common characteristic in religious statue pairs at both temples and shrines. The pattern is Buddhist in origin … and has a symbolic meaning: The open mouth is pronouncing the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced “a”, while the closed one is uttering the last letter, which is pronounced “um”, to represent the beginning and the end of all things. Together they form the sound Aum, a syllable sacred in several religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

(#12) A pair of komainu, the “a” on the right, the “um” on the left (Wikipedia photo)

LH photo 7: the pagoda.


Next to the Fu lion is a Japanese-style pagoda illuminated by the sun — the pagoda symbolizing home, and, for many people, where they came from and where they are going in the future. The rising sun symbolizes new beginnings and opportunities in life.

Clouds: alluding to freedom, the greatness of the sky, and the power of dreams, and representing the transition to other worlds.

Wave: symbolizing the irrepressible force of nature. The wave is a spiral that can be broken down into fractals, representing the geometry of nature. In Japan it is often a revered symbol of beauty.

Background: pagodas. From my 2/28/21 posting “An uncanny object at an elevation”, starting with the Reading (PA) Pagoda:


From Wikipedia on this Pagoda:

The Pagoda is a novelty building, built atop the south end of Mount Penn overlooking Reading, Pennsylvania, United States. It has been a symbol of the city for more than a century.

… Perched on the edge of a cliff, 620 feet (190 m) above the city and 886 feet (270 m) above sea level, it offers a 30-mile (48 km) panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside

… And on pagodas in general (from Wikipedia):

A pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves common to China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other parts of Asia.

… In addition to religious use, since ancient times Chinese pagodas have been praised for the spectacular views they offer

… The oddity of having a Japanese pagoda at the top of Mount Penn is muted for locals by its having become just a part of the landscape. But it is in fact a strange object, with no natural association with its location.

5 Responses to “Japanese symbolic culture, inscribed on León’s arm”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    With regard to the lions/lion-dogs: The sculpted lions that appear all over SE Asia do in fact resemble dogs more than they do actual lions. We were told, during a trip through Cambodia and Myanmar ten years ago, that the reason for this is that lions were never native to the area, and the depictions were based on second- or third-hand accounts from people who had actually seen lions.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    Re yin/yang: I can’t see this without remembering that this past February I had appointments on successive days with a cardiologist named Dr. Yang and an ophthalmologist named Dr. Yin. (Male and female respectively, as it happens.)

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    People have asked where LH got the tattoos — in Japan itself being fairly unlikely, because of the association of tattoos there with the yakuza (Japanese gangsters). LH writes to me:

    I got the tattoos in Mexico with a tattoo artist who helped me put together this sleeve with representative drawings of Japanese culture and precisely with values that I identify with.

    Meanwhile, I’m pleased to report that LH really liked what I did with the materials he gave me.

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