Geishin was the term used for penal tattoos in Japan from the 17th century until the abolishment of geishin in 1870. Penal tattoos apparently were nothing new during the Tokugawa period. There are records of Japanese both engaging in aesthetic tattoo practices as well as penal tattooing as far back as the Jomon period (10,000BCE-300). However with the Tokugawa period's heavy emphasis on Confucian ideology penal tattooing became not only an issue of identification of wrongs done, but also disrespectful to one's ancestry, as Confucian morals say that to "preserve one's body is to revere God." Large black bands on the forearms of the offender were often used in the Tokugawa period for various offenses and it is thought by many scholars that the origins of the Japanese body suit came from a reclaiming of the body by the wearer of these tattoos. Fully "sleeving" a piece where the black bands start would obscure the offense, and instead turn an ugly social stigma into something beautiful.
Helena Burton, in her article Oriental Irezumi and Occidental Tattooing in Contemporary Japan explains:
- In a country like Japan where the group is very important, social ostracism was the worst form of punishment. Both Mansfield and Richie and Buruma make reference to a complex vocabulary of criminal tattoos emerging by the 17th century. Criminals found guilty of their third offence in Chikuzen in Northern Kyûshu for example, had their foreheads tattooed with the character inu (dog). In Satsuma in Southern Kyûshu a circle was tattooed near the left shoulder, in Kyoto a double bar was tattooed on the upper arm and in Nara a double line encircled the biceps of the right arm.
- However, this sort of identification tattooing was not reserved only for criminals but also for the lower classes. The Hinin (outcast clan, lit. non-people), those who worked with criminals, executioners and gravediggers were tattooed. Later the burakumin (village people) sometimes known as eta who worked as slaughterers or tanners and engaged in unpopular work were also tattooed, although they were tattooed only on the arms and they were not tattooed as punishment, but more it is thought, so that society was able to keep track of them. So it seems that tattooing in Japan has always been associated with criminals and the underclass. The notable exception to this were the tattoos belonging to the Ainu, the indigenous peoples of Japan.
Many scholars reject the theory of body reclaimation as folklore, instead that penal tattooing in Japan had faded out of use by the time image-driven tattooing became popular. Whichever the case, the heavy usage of geishin and its embedded Confucian logic is one of the greatest challenges to overturning the social stigma of tattooing in Japan.