The Many Tattoos of Enson Inoue

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

Enson Inoue is a Hawaiian by birth, a former heavyweight champion of Japanese proto-MMA league Shooto, and a pioneer on the Japanese MMA circuit, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert who once got into a game of face-tenderizing with Igor Vovchanchyn just because. He earned the nickname Yamato Damashii—a reverent term meaning "Japanese Spirit"—for fighting with a will to die. Now, three years after he last set foot in the ring, Inoue seeks spiritual growth outside of it, whether on an 870-mile pilgrimage across the island of Shikoku or during one of the more than 23 relief missions he has made to help the victims of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. He's also got a lot of tattoos, and a story behind each one.

Enson Inoue: For me, a tattoo isn't about fashion—it isn't about [having] something that looks cool. It's something that I want to take with me when I die.

I got my first tattoo before my Zulu fight. Funny how I always gauge things by my fights. I put a little Shooto kanji on my back to show my support for Shooto. That was my first tattoo, and at that day and time, nobody wore tattoos.

I was the Shooto heavyweight champion, so they couldn't banish me from the ring because of a little tattoo. And it was a tattoo that said "Shooto," so it made it even harder for them to banish me.

The next tattoo I got was a real honorable tattoo, where I put “Yamato Damashii” on my back. That was my nickname. I was a foreigner that still represented the real samurai spirit of Japan. I had two tattoos and they were still allowing me to fight, so it pretty much opened the door for other fighters to get tattoos.

The tattoos in the palms of my hands mean the most. Not only because they hurt the most.


Whenever you meet a not-even-three-month-old baby and you put your finger in the palms of his hands, he'll grip it really strong. You meet someone that's on the verge of death with cancer—I've seen three or four people close to me go with cancer—it comes to the point where they're so weak that they can't speak or open their eyes. But you put your hands in their hands and ask if they're hurting: “If it's yes, squeeze once. If it's no, squeeze twice.” So I realized that to clench a fist was your first power and your last power. And I thought to myself: The two things that I always want to protect to my death are my family and my pride.

I first saw the saying “live as a man, die as a man, become a man” in a Yakuza office. I went to my friend's office and he had it hung up on the wall.

My friend said, “The first line means all the trials in your life, all the hard times in your life—you take it head on and use it as a test to become stronger. All these little trials in your life are tests to live as a man, to become stronger as a man. The reason why you're taking all these tests is because you have a final examination, which is death. The scariest thing you'll ever do is die. And until death comes, you won't know if you have become a man or not.”

I can live as a man and be strong and everything, but if I die as a coward, I haven't become a man. If I live as a man and hit all the trials head on—you know, the Yamato Damashii way—and I die without any fear in my heart, and I die for what I believe is right without regretting having to go, then I become a man.

I have a cross on my stomach that has the date I was arrested—October 18, 2008. It has the names of the people close to me that I really miss a lot. The reason why they're on a cross is because that's when I started reading the bible.

There are a lot of times I think, “Oh, if I would've done this, I wouldn't have been arrested.” Then I've gotta slap myself on the head and say, “Hey, wait a minute, that was probably the best thing that happened in your life.”

The things I gained from going to jail were big. The biggest thing is I really appreciate my freedom. People complain that they've gotta go to work this morning, or “Aw shit, I gotta go visit my parents, but I want to go out with my friends.” But you know what, man? You've got the choice to do it. You've got the choice to visit your parents or tell 'em, “No, I'm gonna go be with my friends.” I was sitting in a bus chained up with other inmates and looking outside, and it was the only time we ever got to see the outside. And I looked at these people with a frown on their face walking to work thinking, “You guys are fucking lucky, man.”

This tattoo is a map of the pilgrimage. It actually has little dots where each temple was, and it has a date: 2010, August 18 to September 18, the time it took me to finish the pilgrimage. It also says 108 temples, which is the number of temples I covered, and 1,400 kilometers, the distance I covered. And linked to the tattoo is a Japanese saying that basically says no matter how hard or how scary the situation you're confronted with, hit it with all your power until the end of your power. Almost like when they say leave it all in the ring.

It's changed my life. I experienced pains and loneliness and mental anguish, more than I've ever experienced in my 45 years of life.

The first thing I thought was: 1,400 kilometers—that's not possible. That's like walking from my house in Saitama to Osaka and back. The only thing I had on my mind that I had to prepare to face was the physical anguish. Little did I know that going alone, I was going to face loneliness, the emotional anguish. Little did I know that I was gonna be at temple 28 thinking I won't be able to make it to the next temple, realizing that I still had 80 temples to go.

For everything in your life, there are three circles that it can go into. The first circle is things that make you happy. The second circle is things that don't matter to you. The last circle is things that irritate you or piss you off. The size of each circle, I believe, depends on the happiness of the life that you live.

For me, going on the pilgrimage—things that made me happy, that circle got bigger. The reason being was that things that didn't matter to me like getting a cold glass of water from the fridge any time, being able to call my friends and say hello or have them come over and hang out, the roof over my head, the bed that I sleep in—all those things didn't matter to me. But those and many other things got pulled into the circle that makes me happy.

There's a Japanese style that is represented by the Yakuza—they call it Wabori. But what I've experienced in Japan is instead of saying, “If you have Wabori, then you can't go here or here,” they just generalize on the whole. There are certain establishments that you can't go into or you can't show any tattoos.

In the evacuation centers, a lot of times, they don't let the Yakuza in. A lot of the bad ones try to make money off of the people. They'll bring things they can't get—very, very needed supplies—and sell them for three times the price. They were already hesitant about me giving them supplies and then they saw my tattoos.

I was gonna cover them, but then I decided not to. I wanted them to understand that tattoos don't necessarily symbolize Yakuza. And they don't necessarily symbolize that someone is bad.

When we walked into the evacuation center for the first time, I kinda crouched and huddled with some of the people and said, “I'm here to help. If there's anything you need, I'll bring it back tomorrow.” The first word out of their mouth was “daijoubu,” which means “we're okay.” And any which way you look at it, they are not okay. They've lost their family, they're living in cardboard boxes, they don't even have shoes to wear sometimes. They're not okay, but they're saying “daijoubu” to me. I realized that about Japanese culture: They're really hesitant to take help. Especially if I'm walking in with tattoos—they're more, like, freaking out on it.

The only reason I got taken in was because a friend's family was in the same evacuation center and they realized I wasn't here to take advantage of them. They also realized I wasn't the stereotype of a guy with a tattoo. Everything warmed up when they realized that.

We try to bring things that will make a difference in their life and help out with their daily expenses. We bring tissues, body soap, water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bags of rice. What people fail to realize is, yeah, it does give them a little help, but more than the help, they realize that they're not forgotten.

Right now, in the north, the suicide rate is really high. A lot of these people don't see a reason to live anymore. They've lost everything, they're 70 or 80 years old, they're not gonna start all over again, they don't want to burden their children. It's not really that bringing water or soap or rice is gonna lift their spirits: It's making them realize that they're not forgotten, that there are people that are still thinking and caring and rooting for them.

Each trip costs me $1,500 to $3,000, depending on what we give. What helps me pay for this is my bracelet sales. It hasn't really taken a toll because I've been going up as much as I can when I have that extra cash. So I can't say I've been making huge sacrifices for it, but I've been spending my own money. And it's not as honorable as people think it is; I do get a lot out of it. The gratification I get, money can't buy.

My left thigh is empty. I have it planned; it's already in the makings right now. It's gonna be a tattoo of the north of Japan.

There are two lives—the physical and the spiritual. And the physical—human beings think it's a long time, but it's a grain of sand on a beach compared to the spiritual, which is eternity. Even if you're a millionaire, even if you have a Ferrari, even if you have a beautiful mansion, when you die, you've gotta leave it all behind. The only thing you take with you is your soul. When you cremate your body, I believe it goes into your spirit. Everything I put on my body is something that I want to take with me into the spiritual life.

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