The topic of people having tattoos in Japan caused quite a commotion among the headlines in the last few weeks. Well, more specifically, it was Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, and his views about people with tattoos. Hashimoto launched a controversial campaign against employees of the city who had tattoos, requiring them to fill out paperwork and document exactly what the tattoo was, and where on their body it was located. Not only did this stir up questions of privacy, but it also brought some criticism from western countries where tattoos have become more and more acceptable. But before we continue on that topic, let’s talk a little more about how tattoos are seen in Japan.
Despite the popularity of Japanese art and imagery among tattoo artists and enthusiasts in the West, even the most beautiful piece of body work done by the most talented artist will result in disapproving looks and negative comments. Not only that, but even the smallest, most insignificant tattoo will get you thrown out or prohibited from entering certain public places. Even that little one on your ankle or wrist, or the one on the inside of your forearm that no one can really see unless you raise your arm straight up.
There are prominent, clearly labeled signs at establishments like fitness gyms, public swimming pools, and especially at Japan’s renown hot springs, that state anyone with irezumi, the Japanese word for ‘tattoo,’ are banned from entry. “That’s fine,” you may think, as those are places where you generally remove or wear less clothing. But if you have a much larger tattoo, or one that is easily visible, say on your neck or one that runs the length of your arm, it is not unheard of to be asked to leave establishments like restaurants or stores. And don’t think you can get away with it just because you’re clearly recognized as a foreigner. You probably won’t be asked to leave food establishments or shops, but those public places like pools and hot springs will definitely apply the same rules to you as they do everyone else.
Probably the most sought after Japanese tattoo artist in the world is Horiyoshi III. He is recognized for his stunning, intricate full-body ‘suits’ that can take many years to complete. These are the kind of tattoos that are synonymous with the yakuza — the Japanese mafia, or criminal underworld. This isn’t the glamorous, or honorific lifestyle that is sometimes portrayed, the yakuza are involved in everything from drug sales, prostitution, and gambling, all the way to up the crime in the white-collar world, like loan-sharking and personal or political blackmail. And everyone in Japan knows this. When they see or hear about yakuza and their world, the know it’s dangerous.
Horiyoshi III openly admits that he used to be involved in the criminal lifestyle, although he gave it up long ago to focus on his craft. He hopes that one day his work can contribute to a change in the perception of tattoos for Japanese people, and bring an end to what is sometimes seen as discrimination as people with tattoos. I think Horiyoshi III explains it best, that the perception Japanese people have of tattoos, at its most simple, core level is this: People see tattoos and that equals yakuza, yakuza means criminal.
This is central to what happened in Osaka and led to Mayor Hashimoto’s campaign. A local resident went to city hall to conduct some business, and when they were communicating with the employee, they got a glimpse of the person’s tattoo. It’s not exactly clear where it was on their body, it could have been as simple as a covered chest piece but the collar of their shirt dropped down just low enough to get a peek. But it was enough for the resident to complain, and once that instance was repeated a few times more, it was enough for Hashimoto.
The goal of the mayor’s campaign was to ensure the trust of the local people in their government. If people were exchanging with city employees who had visible tattoos, it would reflect badly on the city and its leaders. It doesn’t matter if the employee works in a top office position, or if they were a simple garbage collector, the public should not see any employees with ink on their skin. It was considered that those who admitted to having tattoos, whether they were easily covered during working hours or not, would be transferred to positions out of the public eye, or worse, even terminated. Those who refused to take the survey were told that their pay would be cut and also threatened with possible termination. Hashimoto publicly stated that if people had or wanted to get tattoos, they should find other lines of work.
Now, being from the U.S. I will admit that personally I feel Mayor Hashimoto was taking things a little too far, but that’s because I don’t have the engrained aversion to tattoos that the culture of Japan does. Think of it this way, what would you never expect someone working for the city or in some kind of service industry to get away with? I know this is a poor example, as most piercings have become just as acceptable as tattoos in America, but you wouldn’t expect a bank teller or hostess at a nice restaurant to have a large ring through the septum of their nose would you? Now, that is just an example of something people would maybe find along the lines of inappropriate, it’s not really equivalent to the fear or uneasiness that Japanese people feel when they see tattoos.
Here’s another example: In 1999 there was a tragic incident at the Columbine High School in the U.S. state of Colorado. If you’re not aware of this, two students armed with guns embarked on shooting spree at their high schools and killed over a dozen people and injured more than 20 others. This incident shocked the nation and was talked about for months, and even years afterwards. When the two students conducted their attack, they were wearing long, black trench coats, with their weapons tucked inside, inspired by a well-recognized scene from the movie The Matrix. In the months following that incident, any young, high school-aged person who fit the portrayal of being a “social outcast,” and was wearing a long, black coat gave people a reason to pause.
That association went away, obviously, but we were only inundated with the imagery of the attackers in black trench coats by the media for a period of months. Imagine growing up in a culture where not just the media, but the culture as a whole is taught that tattoos have a direct association with a criminal lifestyle. Is it another example of Japan’s dangerous tendency towards group-think? Sure. But that doesn’t make Japanese people’s fear any less real or legitimate. There is a deep, culturally engrained reason why tattoos are not taken lightly in Japan. When one culture gradually finds something more acceptable over time, it isn’t always the same for another.