Tainted by Tats? The Stigma of Ink in Japan


“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.”  ~ Jack London

I can hear you pleading, “But Asia’s all about ink, right?”  Afraid not, my friend.

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187682628_75c07e600d_oInk’d up?  Sure, it’s becoming more and more of the norm these days in the States, in Europe, and it seems in most places West.  However, things seem to be quite different here in Japan.  In a somewhat surprising Far Eastern twist, the Japanese have had and still do associate an off-putting stigma with tattoos.  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 can result in disapproving looks and negative comments om the East.  There are prominent, clearly labeled signs at mainstream Japanese establishments like fitness gyms, public swimming pools, and especially at Japan’s renown hot springs that state anyone with even the most handsome butterfly ankle irezumi (Japanese for tattoo, literally, “insert ink”) are banned from entry.

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But why all this negativity?

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AntonKustersYakuza1The easiest explanation, of course, is that Japanese gangsters (the yakuza) traditionally mark their bodies with tattoos, but this is simply a copout.  The yakuza are not just inked like many of us Americans are used to from our own limited exposure to Western-style gangbangers; they are more than likely literally covered in ink…and easily distinguishable from say a more law-abiding ink aficionado.  And, by the way (and unsurprisingly so), the vast majority of people in Japan who may have a tattoo are simply not associated with organized crime.  Regular folks have them here too.  More and more in fact, taking their leads from Asian celebs and artists that are often at the forefront of cultural change.  That’s no surprise – and oh, by the way, they get a “pass” on the bans, like how celebs are treated in most other societies around the world.  And as far as I can tell, people here are motivated like any other person who contemplates and ultimately the permanency of skin art:  fashion, fad, or a more personal interest in body art and its symbolism….

Japanese Gangbangers sport not your normal tattoos

Japanese Gangbangers sport not your normal tattoos

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Yeah, avoid this guy....

Yeah, avoid this guy….

Now I’m a pragmatic at the same time.  While I may have, in my youth, judged those with ink sleeves, I see things more clearly and with fewer connotations today.  However, at the same time, I realize that if you want a professional, executive job in traditionally conservative or say “professional” corporations, or want to front the public in high-profile way and positions, than those facial tats and multiple lip and nose piercings are probably just not a good idea, regardless of how you personally feel about your American god-given right to freedom of expression.  Yes, the strategic placement of my ink was critical, for various reasons, then and now, to be relatively easily hidden from public consumption.  I like to preserve many options.  The story of my own skin art can be found here in “Tattoo You,” Part 1 and Part 2.  In short, I’m happy that – thanks to ink, it’s still relatively easy to tell which people should be avoided at all costs….

Which would you take more seriously?

Which would you take more seriously?

It turns out that this disgrace associated with body art in Japan isn’t a recent phenomenon.  Japan has had a long tattoo history.  There’s some evidence, based on historical Chinese records noting tattooed Japanese men, that tattoos were culturally important during the country’s quite early and ancient Jōmon Period (12,000 to 300 BCE.).  Further, the history of Japan and body art is that of a love-hate relationship.  For example, in the 17th century, Japanese criminals were tattooed to shamefully and blatantly mark them instead of punishment through mutilation – like hacking off a hand, ear, or nose, practiced in much of the rest of Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East at the time.

Really, a hunchback and with a pirate scar on his check?

Really, a hunchback and with a pirate scar on his check?

After becoming somewhat fashionable in the 18th century during the Edo Period, tattoos were banned in Japan in the mid-to-late 19th century (Meiji period) as the country opened up to the outside world.  The fear was that any ink-based Far Eastern flirtation might seem primitive to foreigners or be mocked abroad by internally perceived “more-advanced” outsiders.  The Japanese government saw tattoos as “barbaric” and certainly not part of their program to modernize.  It wasn’t until after World War II that the legal prohibition against tattooing in Japan was lifted, and then only by the Allied occupation forces…and hence the long associative lineage of Mom, tats, and dirty nasty sailors.  But, given the almost 100 years of previous prohibition, the stigma against tattoos was firmly rooted in Japanese culture and custom.

Navy Old Skool Tats

Japanese wearers of traditional tattoos frequently keep their art secret, as tattoos are still seen as a sign of criminality in Japan, particularly by older people and in the work place.  Ironically, many yakuza and other criminals themselves now avoid tattoos for this very reason.

Everyone knows criminals now tattoo themselves to support prison breaks!

Everyone knows criminals now tattoo themselves to support prison breaks!

To highlight how bad ink-based humiliation in Japan can be, in 2012, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka (one of Japan’s largest and most modern urban centers), made his views about people with tattoos quite clear:  they had to go.

C'mon, even Marge has a tramp stamp.

C’mon, even Marge has a tramp stamp.

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 concerns about privacy, it also resulted in some strong criticism from western countries where tattoos have become more and more acceptable.  The goal of the mayor’s campaign was to ensure the trust of the local people in their government.  The thought went something like this:  if citizens were interacting with city employees who had visible tattoos, it would reflect badly on the city and its leaders.

Covered tats really aren't there....

Covered tats really aren’t there….

It didn’t matter if the artful employee worked in a top office position, or if they were a simple garbage collector; the public should not see any city employee with ink on their skin.  In a move that cries prejudice and is clearly against our own equal opportunity and protection laws, the Mayor’s idea was to consider that all 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.  Further, those who refused to take the survey were told that their pay would be cut and some were also threatened with possible termination.  Hashimoto publicly stated that if people had or wanted to get tattoos, they should find other lines of work.  What an asshole; I wonder what skeletons that paranoid prick has hiding in his closet!

The Mayor should be much more worried about his own words than hidden ink....

The Mayor should be much more worried about his own words than hidden ink….

114c7baf78ecae8ad8209eeb684e4750Does ink say something about a person?  Yes, sure it does.  If a tattoo is visible, it’s by design there to be seen and contemplated.  And therein resides the central issue.  Beauty, after all, is only skin deep…and rests squarely with the eye of the beholder.  But be careful:  labeling yourself but wanting not to be labeled are more often than not at contradictory odds.

Of course there are those that welcome stigma!

Of course there are those that welcome stigma!

9 thoughts on “Tainted by Tats? The Stigma of Ink in Japan

  1. Oh, Asia… How I love your cultural quirks. Tattoos are still “illegal” for Koreans, too. If a young man has a tattoo when it’s time for his obligatory military service, it’s seen as an act to try to avoid his duties and can actually lead to prison time! When I got my second, the shop owner told me he was only allowed to tattoo foreigners and celebrities (like you said, they get a pass).

    • A, you have TWO know? Let me guess: a playful dolphin on your ankle and P’s name across your lower back (wink). I’m not sure you have any the last time I saw you, but then again, that’s been years and years now. I didn’t really check into the wider Asian stigma with tattoos, but I find it fascinating that for us, coming from the West, most American’s probably think of body art really having its genesis in the Eastern part of the world. For governments or city officials to be able to ban, fire, and imprison people for privately placed ink really says something about the flavors of democracy that can exist in the world. Hope you are well, and looking forward to your next Eurotrip. You know you can almost buy a hotel in Greece for a nickel these days….

      • How DID you know?! The first was pre-P, but it’s totally his name 😉

        I am greatly looking forward to the trip! Just planning for it makes me want to buy a B&B and move my happy butt over there. We’ll see. Maybe I can convince the soldier to get out for nude beaches. Ha!

  2. Thank you for the very interesting post; I never knew that the japanese government feared to be mocked and therefore forbade tattoos. The usual explanation does not go beyond the “Yakuza” excuse but the fear of being mocked by the “advanced foreigners” makes a lot of sense.

    • Thanks for your comment Fujiko-san! It’s an interesting but significant difference here in Asian cultures that quite often priority is given to the “greater good” rather than to an individual’s freedom, as it is in American. I’ve always said that the American ideal of independence and freedom will be it’s downfall as well, as it goes to the extreme of allowing individuality at the expense of the greater good of culture and country. But then again, when I see how easily individual rights and freedom of expression can be “officially” squashed here in these Eastern “democracies,” it makes me cringe as well. I guess the real problem is twofold: where does an individual, a society, a culture and country draw “the line,” and more importantly perhaps, who gets to be the decider of that line??

  3. I’m coming to Japan to work at an eikaiwa school and am heavily tattooed (one full sleeve, one half sleeve, pieces on both sides of my ribs and a chest piece). All of my tattoos can be covered for work so I’m not really worried about that. My question is in regards to onsen… am I pretty much screwed when it comes to public ones? I’m aware that I could rent a ryokan with private attached onsen, but that seems costly to do more than once or twice. Also I’m half filipino, half white, so I do have an asian appearance. Everything I’ve read about foreigners being let in with tattoos have either been about people with one or two small tattoos, or caucasian foreigners who have no chance of being mistaken for yakuza. Can you provide any insight as to what I might expect, if you’ve seen any other non-yakuza asians with sleeves in onsen, or if it’s just something that really isn’t in the cards for me at this time?

    • Rabbit, it all really depends on where you are, specifically. I mean what location in Japan, and then what type of neighborhood or facility you are actually interested in using. I recently stayed at a Japanese resort on the remote island of Iriomote (Okinawa Prefecture), and while the hotel had a clear policy of no tattoos in the outdoor pool, I used the pool without issue. Now, there were very few people around, and while I have a large tattoo on my back, I can keep it relatively hidden sitting in a chair and once in the water. I did notice one other Asian man who had a small arm tattoo who was also using the facility with his wife and child…. Many more people in Okinawa have tattoos than up in the mainland, so they are de facto more accepted. I believe the Onsen are much more formal and stern about such things, and with yoour coverage, there may be issues at most of the mainstream facilities. Like I said, this stigma around ink is one of the more backward corners of what is otherwise in most ways a very progrressive society. You’ll have too learn how to fit in as best you can, and no doubt you’ll be part of the change in attitude towards body art that is taking place throughhout Japan.

  4. Pingback: Okinawa: A Year in Review | Far East Fling

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