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.


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.


But why all this negativity?


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


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!

Tattoo You? Round Two.

“The phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies, and still defying fortune’s spite; revive from ashes and rise.” ~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

“She said, ‘a tattoo is a badge of validation’.  But the truth of the matter is far more revealing.  It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”  ~Jimmy Buffett, Beach House on the Moon

“Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix” ~Christina Baldwin quotes

The Japanese Phoenix:  Hou-ou

The Japanese Phoenix: Hou-ou

dragon-and-phoenixThe Arabian-Western phoenix we are all familiar with has a close analogy in Asia.  Dating in China from the 11th Century BC, the Chinese Far East Phoenix is known as Fèng Huáng or Feng Huang (鳳凰), and in Japan, the creature is referred to as the Hō-ō (鳳凰) or Hou-ou.  The Kanji for “Phoenix” is made up of Feng 鳳 representing the male phoenix, yang and the sun, alongside Huang 凰 representing the female phoenix, yin, and the moon.  In Asia, the (female) Phoenix is often portrayed with a (male) dragon, either as mortal enemies or as blissful lovers, the duality of roles adopted by couples at varying points in their relationships.  Adopted as the symbol of the imperial household, particularly the empress, this mythical bird represents, in general, fire, sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity.

Chinese Fèng Huáng in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese Fèng Huáng in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

KairoPanel_Hou-ou_8150clipAccording to legend (mostly from China), the Hō-ō appears very rarely, and only to mark the beginning of a new era — the birth of a virtuous ruler, for example.  In other traditions, the Hō-ō appears (nesting) only in peaceful and prosperous times, and hides itself when there is trouble.  As the herald of a new age, the Hō-ō descends from heaven to earth to do good deeds, and then it returns to its celestial abode to wait the start of the next, new time.

I am inked, and inked with a Far East Phoenix.  My original tat is of origins and impregnation while stationed previously in Okinawa (Japan), with a genesis that took years to finally coalesce (read about it here:  Tattoo You?  Absolutely).  Although my ink is positioned to avoid daily public exposure and consumption (generally speaking), it is also positioned so that I, for often long periods of time, forget about it…as odd as that sounds)…until…someone asks me about it.  Or my wife has to scratch that certain spot of my back which happens to coincide with the Phoenix’s tail, which can result in Nirvana (I think everyone should have an itch and spot like this)!  Only then is its presence reaffirmed in my psyche, and more often than not, I’m only too happy to share my story (usually abridged, depending on the audience).  That’s the whole point of a tattoo, isn’t it?  To graphically tell a personal story?

A temporary tat I got in 1999 to freak my mother out!  It worked....

A temporary tat I got in 1999 to freak my mother out! It worked….

EhafHWhich brings me to an interesting tangent.  How many of you out there know someone who has a rather generic or dare I say “mundane” tattoo?  You know the kind I’m talking about:  the dolphin on the ankle, or the rose on the shoulder-blade, or worse, some form of Asian kanji writing anywhere on the body….  I bet if you stop and really take stock and inventory, you can come up with at least two or three people, given the popularity of tattooing today.  This can be a fascinating insight to these particular people:  if one is not going to take great care and great pains on placing permanent art on one’s most personal and irreplaceable canvas, what other areas of life come (and go) so easily?

I considered Bettie Page for a long time.  What a silly story that would've made!

I considered Bettie Page for a long time. What a silly story that would’ve made!

Worse, think about those people you may know that have a tattoo, maybe an ornate design or some really intricate ambiguous layout where meaning is hard to grasp and any story remains hidden.  To me, these make the best kinds of ink, the kind that make people wonder, contemplate, and finally, inquire.  But what if that (ink’d) person refuses to tell their story?  Why graphically display such symbology if only to keep it locked away inside.  I know someone like this – not well and have never asked – but I don’t hesitate to conclude that there isn’t really a story there, at least one with any deeper meaning, and this, in my opinion, is why these types of people with ink hide behind their “art.”

soup tatoo

By the way, a word of caution here:  after having lived in Japan for my 6th year, and having seen how badly and hilariously English and Japanese can be translated back and forth, please take a moment or three decades to reconsider that kanji character you have so badly been wanting (see here). Or, to make this much more plain, look at how silly pedestrian English words would appear as tattoos on Asians….  ‘Nough said.


But back to MY story surround MY ink.  As you may recall from my previous blog on the subject, I was able to successfully translate conflicted and dark feelings into permanent art to adorn my body, initially back in 2005.  The biohazard design I ended up selecting symbolized such feelings succinctly, yet in a way that translated directly onto my skin.

The biohazard motif I had settled firmly on held the central idea of man being his own worst enemy, but also could so easily be extended to include those wars, conflicts and smaller upheavals we all find omnipresent in our daily lives.  However, what started as a personal yet metaphysical conflict mostly within myself quickly morphed into a wider outside battle at the time my ink started to dry, philosophically speaking, as my marriage was liquefying down the drain.  Thus, my original tat became, somewhat on purpose but mostly a result of collateral damage, tied excessively to the pain and suffering of a disintegrating 16 year marriage and 18 year relationship.


And although that original tat did serve as a visible mode of attaining a form and depth of corporeal catharsis, I reached a point in my life where I no longer wanted to forever and always associate the pain of ink with a past marriage which had, in totality, become toxic.  Although these memories remain with me today, they certainly all have, at worst, faded, but at best, they have in many cases surrendered to exactly what most feelings are:  a contemporary reflection of only a temporal phase of life.  So, sometime after divorce in 2006 my consciousness started to almost immediately drift.  And finally, in roughly 2010, it had traveled far enough away from my initial viewpoint for me to again seek a change (for the better)…and new transformative ink, on top of the old.

Bad Transformation; I'm not sure which one is worst!

Bad Transformation; I’m not sure which one is worst!

I started to re-research a refreshed approach to morphing my art to something which would better match my now-current story.  And that story is a much different story than that told by my ink back in 2005.

I have recovered from emotional devastation of the destruction of a previous marriage, and the bitter betrayal of someone who once was loved and cherished.  I have recovered from the financial disaster of divorce and the irresponsible deficit spending that followed; only just this month (January 2014), can I claim once again that I am debt-free, the first time since 2005…although the witch continues to get a portion of my military retirement.  I have accepted the tragic loss of my status, influence and proximity as a father to my children during their adolescent years.  And, most importantly, I have found the love of my wife, a woman who is truly my equal (except for blogging – WINK!), and who loves me easily and unconditionally the way we all deserve to be loved and equally cherished in life.


So, again, the central question of inking:  graphic design!  My life has always revolved around flying, literally as long as I can remember.  I am a pilot, flew in the military, and continue to skydive today.  I also am enamored with myth and legend, particularly when it comes to their symbols and symbolism.  I almost immediately thought of integrating a Rising Phoenix into my biohazard symbol to show rebirth, resolution, resolve, and recovery.

untitledimagesIn Greek mythology, a phoenix (Ancient Greek φοίνιξ phóinīx) is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn.  Associated with the sun and most likely of Egyptian origin, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.  As part of our collective myth and legend in the Western world, the phoenix symbolizes renewal and resurrection.  It’s interesting to note that many cultures have formed independent analogues of the Greek/Egyptian phoenix, including those of Persia, India (Hinduism), Russia, Turkey, Tibet, China and Japan.

I am NOT a graphics artist....

Rough Ideas: I am NOT a graphics artist….

After toying around with various designs and layouts for about a year, and researching the myth as well as how others had translated such ideas into art, I began my graphics design in earnest.  I decided to avoid the more ornate and flowery, colorful phoenix portrays, and instead pursed a more minimalistic tribal style.  Finally, when I had narrowed my choices down, and after finding a tattoo artist (and service) I was confident and comfortable with, I was able to finalize the new blueprint.  The tattoo artist here was indispensable; knowing both the medium and media, he was able to make some fine tweaks and additional recommendations on transforming my “permanent reminder” to match yet another temporary feeling….

Finalized & Stylized Design

Finalized & Stylized Design

Thus, my artistic upgrade was completed in two phases:  the bird itself fencing in the original biohazard tattoo, followed by the flames and biohazard re-treatment which together give rebirth to the creature (and my new lease on life), while subsuming the biohazard symbol itself…along with a tainted past.  My new era ensues.

Phoenix Risen, Phase 1

Phoenix Risen, Phase 1

We all need a harbingers to help announce and illuminate new eras throughout our lives, when the old have become stale and cumbersome.  Change is the only constant in life, and if you let it, affirmative change can serve as the egg for your very own phoenix.  Together, you both can rise from the ashes, no matter how bad you think the destruction may be.

Phoenix Risen, Phase 2

Phoenix Risen, Phase 2

Thankfully for me, my harbinger resides with me, mostly out of sight, but always there in spirit (and the mirror if I really look).  And while this permanent tattoo certainly serves my current temporal views and feelings more appropriately today, you may note that the tattoo is offset and asymmetrical, a reflection of the nature of life itself….  BUT, in a more pragmatic sense, because I’m leaving room for an old Far Eastern-influenced tattoo idea that continues to congeal the more time I spend in Asia….

Stay tuned for that development.

(...but here's a hint!)

(…but here’s a hint!)

Tattoo You? Absolutely.

The Price was WRONG
The Price was WRONG

“Outside of having kids, getting tattooed is one of the worst mistakes a person can make, yet somehow (much like having kids) millions of people do it every year.” ~Aviva Yael

“She said, ‘a tattoo is a badge of validation’.  But the truth of the matter is far more revealing.  It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”  ~Jimmy Buffett, Beach House on the Moon

Do you have a tattoo?  If so, what’s the story behind your ink?  If you don’t have a tattoo, what might you consider getting emblazoned permanently on your skin?  I think many people, even most people ask themselves such questions silently and without witness, and although tattoos are more popular than ever, how many really go to the permanent extreme?  And, perhaps more interesting, why do people reach such a dramatically inked conclusion??

I was always captivated by this tattooing scene in "The Bounty"

I was always captivated by this tattooing scene in “The Bounty”

I am inked, and it’s one of my past Far East Flings.  And while the physical tat was implanted here in Okinawa in 2005, the genesis of my body-art goes back many years.  My ink is not for daily public consumption, generally speaking.  It is positioned so that it can be covered by a collared shirt, and a short-sleeve tee only hints at its presence on my upper back.  Back in 2005 when I was still on Active Duty, the Navy’s tattoo policy was referred to as the “25 percent rule,” which stated that no more than 25 percent of any limb or part of the body that does not show while in uniform could be tattooed.  Tattoos on those portions visible were required to be no larger than an open hand for lower arms (fingers together), and no larger than a closed fist for women on their legs that would show in a uniform skirt.  The neck has always been and is still off-limits in the Navy for tattooing….  Although I’m the last to follow the rules of “The Man,” at the time I was bound.  So, initially my tattoo was small, and relatively hidden on my upper back.

Modern rules have changed the Navy's love affair with ink

Modern rules have changed the Navy’s love affair with ink

I had been contemplating a tattoo for quite some time prior to 2004-2005, but the real dilemma in a tattoo is exactly what Jimmy Buffett captured in the opening quotes:  no matter how well thought through, and how well graphically and symbolically planned, a tattoo is a permanent symbol of something that is more likely than not temporal in nature.  Sure, we all like to think that certain core elements of our internal nature don’t change or meander with the wanderings of time.  And while that may be true for the most central elements of character (once we reached something like our mid-20s), for most everything else we are continually and constantly shaped and molded by our environment’s intersection and quite possibly conflict with our inner-selves.  It can’t be helped; we, in this shared human condition, lead both evolutionary and, at times, revolutionary lifestyles that are seldom, if at all, static.  Change is really one of the only constants through time.

So, what to choose?  This is the short, simple question that kept me at bay for literally years.  But my plans and schemes were evolving.  You see, starting in the late 1990’s, I began to change my opinions and views of man, mankind, and the nature of violence, armed conflict, and the devastation and suffering they cause for mere political aims.  Up until that point, I was more than happy to be on the “tip of the spear” flying attack aircraft off of aircraft carriers as a Bombardier-Navigator in the mighty A-6E Intruder.  Carry a nuke or two?  Sure!  Toss cluster munitions on troops in the open?  NP.  Drop a string of “dumb” 2,000 pound bombs across more than 600 feet of city streets to take out one simple telecommunications building in the heart of Basra, Iraq?  Well, if you say so.  Of course there are losers and winners in war, so might as well be on the aggressive, winning side….  Or so I thought.

Me and the Mighty All-Weather Attack Bomber, the A-6E Intruder (1991)

Me and the Mighty All-Weather Attack Bomber, the A-6E Intruder (1991)

That all changed rather abruptly in 1998.  Two things struck home, in relative quick succession, coupled no doubt by a universe unfolding pretty much how it should.  While training to go over to Italy in support of the Bosnia conflicts at the time, I went to see the then new movie Saving Private Ryan on the Army Ranger base where I was stationed.  Most people seeing the flick were in uniform, and were there at that particular base training for the exactly that as was portrayed on the silver screen.  Needless to say, after the movie and upon exiting the theater, there wasn’t a word spoken.  By anyone.  The only other time I’ve ever experienced anything like this mass silent contemplation was after seeing The Passion of Christ.  That’s pretty good company I would say.  Up until that point war movies had only really touched on the nerves that Ryan was able to make sing, and certainly it should give anyone pause in considering the glory of warfare.

Savagery cleanly and clearly portrayed

Savagery cleanly and clearly portrayed

And then off to Bosnia I went where I was the NATO Training Chief at the Combined Air Operations Cell (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy.  Now, this – being “forced” to live in Italy in a flat with a rental car and weekends off – was pretty much the best unplanned thing to happen to me in the military, besides maybe being “forced” to Okinawa the first time.  BUT, there is no free lunch; every good deal comes with a price, and no good deed goes unpunished.  And the price was seeing a truly devastated region of the world…from the ground, up close and personal…not from 20,000 feet in a relatively safe, sterile cockpit.  Sarajevo was an occupied city, and suffered a level of destruction reminiscent of the old WWII photos of any number of unnamed bombed-out German cities late in the war.  The only thing keeping the peace was literally armored personnel carriers (APCs) and combat troops stationed at every intersection.  There were no-go minefields everywhere signified with what appeared to be yellow crime-scene tape.  Most all the glass was gone – shot out and destroyed, cemeteries were vandalized and degraded, and many of the destroyed buildings were left as-is out of fear of bobby-traps inside.  The hotel were the allied forces headquarters was located was formerly a resort spa and hot springs; the massage rooms in the basement had been turned into torture chambers, and the locker rooms served as executioners’ hallows; there were bullet holes all over the walls to serve as silent witness to the brutality and genocide that had occurred there.  It was a truly shocking experience for me, something that began, finally, to open my eyes to the personal role that I was playing in the military-industrial complex that is, quite simply put, cold and numb to the human condition.

Bosnia devastation; might as well by 1944

Bosnia devastation; might as well by 1944

Then in the fall of 1999, I found myself on the ground in East Timor (Indonesia) as part of the military stabilization force sent there to stop a brutal civil war and more genocide.  Cities burned to the ground and massive amounts of people which the military refers to as “Internally Displaced Persons (IDP),” or, citizen refugees in their own country.  I was at the Dili Airfield when the first of the IDPs were returned to their home regions within East Timor.  The streams of people coming off the C-130 transport aircraft were overcome with emotion at being returned and reunited with their homeland; women would come up to me crying, hugging me, utterly and emoting what could only mean thanks, happiness, and sadness all at the same time.  Men would drop to their knees with their hands clasped in a profound combination of prayer and thanks.  And, in a scene out of any number of nameless WWII movies, I actually got to play the American GI who hands out MRE ration candies and food to all the children, who, without exception, and even though surely quite shell-shocked by the whole affair, responded as all kids do – with a great big if not shy smile!

Me in a flak vest at Dili Airport (1999)

Me in a flak vest at Dili Airport (1999)

These experiences forced me to generate a new view of the world, one where any type of violence waged en masse on a people, country or region has unimaginably horrible and long-lasting consequences.  There are always innocents who pay the price in any war.  And when the rich wage war, which they have always done and continue to do, no matter the country concerned, no matter the political party that beats the drums of war, and no matter how righteous and well-intentioned the military forces involved may be, it is always the poor that die, and everyone suffers.

I started to have way too many questions....

I started to have way too many questions….

This all had a profound effect on me as a warrior.  I had no qualms about supporting Kuwait in 1990-1994, where I deployed twice via aircraft carrier under the Bush 41 and then the Clinton Administrations.  I had no issue stepping in to help stop the wanton violence and undeniable genocide and ethnic cleansing being doled out throughout the former Yugoslavia.  But when it came to the “Global War on Terror (GWOT)” and the rhetoric of the Bush 43 Administration, I had grave misgivings about our country’s goals, exit strategies, let alone the reality of what really could be accomplished with yet another imperial western power waging a modern crusade against the Middle East.

We are responsible for 18%

We are responsible for 18%

Okay, maybe the GWOT shouldn’t be quite characterized to such an extreme, but I felt we were clearly on the wrong path, and that going back into Iraq in 2003 – Iraq has never been about any “war on terror” – would be perhaps the worst mistake our country would make for the 21st Century.  We’ll see.  I was beginning to have a harder and harder time in the military, and found myself questioning authority, our country’s leadership, and my own role in the whole quagmire.


So, in 2004 I found myself quite troubled at deploying, on no-notice, to Iraq with the 31st MEU for an 8-month cruise aboard the USS Essex in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The only conclusion I could reach at the time was that I would do whatever it took to protect the lives of US servicemen and women; the political aims and military objectives quite honestly I could give a shit about.  The 31st MEU during that period from the fall of 2004 through the spring of 2005 lost over 50 marines (55 if memory serves me correctly), a price much too high in my mind for what was accomplished – or not – in Iraq.  In my opinion, one marine’s life wasn’t worth today’s outcomes in that part of the world.

We are all humans....

We are all humans….

This long story slowly led me to the conclusion and that we – mankind – are our own worst enemies.  It is not nature, not the environment, pollution, or global warming.  It is not about energy or other natural resources, nor about freedom or the type of government one country may have, or even about what supernatural power or being to which you may or may not pray.  It is in our very capacity to do harm, so quickly, so easily, and with so little thought about the unintended consequences and 2nd and 3rd order effects that always result in and when killing.  Individually we are all responsible for these aftereffects; however, it can verge on the obscene when a population either endorses or even encourages unbounded aggression.  This formulation and collusion of ideas, combined with my traumatic exposure to scenes of massive death and destruction in Banda Ache, Indonesia, after the tsunami of 2004 changed my very core.

Landscape of Thorns:  A timeless warning

Landscape of Thorns: A timeless warning

So, how to translate all these conflicted and dark feelings into permanent art, to be adorned on my body?  That was still difficult.  I knew the direction I wanted to take, but continued to toy graphically with how best to symbolize such feelings succinctly, yet in a way that would translate well onto my skin.  I remembered back to a Discover or National Geographic article from years prior an article that focused on a team of professionals from many varied walks of life who were given the responsibility for designing a warning “system” that would cap our proposed nuclear waste dumping sites in the mountains of the west (see an interesting blog here).  Oh, and it had to last a minimum of 10,000 years, and it could not be language-based or centric.  Think about it – that stuff stays dangerous for a mighty long time (some of it with a half-life of 220,000 years), and there’s no guarantee that language or our current notions of denoting “danger” would apply to the peoples – or even aliens – that could trespass that far into the future.  I can no longer recall the details of the article, but I remember an artist’s portrayal of a series of very long, sharp spires and blades made of the hardest metals and stone (spike fields and landscape of thorns), somewhat loosely based on the sharp points of the biohazard symbol in common use today.


That was it!!  The biohazard symbol!  I could scale it to fit the Navy’s silly “25% rule,” and could position it so that it was high on my back, but hidden in uniform.  I could add a touch of color by shading the inside yellow, helping the bold, thick black border to standout against my skin (and through my already graying back-hair – yikes!).  So, I began toying with the graphical treatment in earnest.  BUT, still, there’s that idea of permanence on your body, and when are you “sure enough” to pull the trigger, umm, or go under the needles?


I became sure once I discovered my wife cheating on me with Okinawa’s revolving buffet of boys, courtesy of Gate 2 street and Club Fujiyama’s (among other places).  But those details are for a different blog…which will be covered soon.  However, my ink already started to dry, philosophically speaking, as soon as I knew my marriage was liquefying down the drain.

The pain of a disintegrating 16 year marriage and 18 year relationship was almost too much for me on top of all the other emotional turmoil I was attempting to deal with at the time.  But this pain also fit perfectly into the motif of the now congealing tattoo conception swirling around in my head.  My biohazard idea of mankind being warned against itself could – and was for me – extended to include those wars, conflicts and smaller upheavals we all find almost omnipresent in our daily lives.  Like those suffering a marriage in catastrophic collapse, or perhaps for those that agonize as the product of a double-crossing, back-stabbing best friend or close coworker.  Sure, this all fits!  I become more and more sure of this direction.

But the coup de grace for me was this:  enduring the physical pain of the tattoo would be, for me, a form of corporeal catharsis, where I would forever and always associate the pain of that particular encounter with the emotional pain I was suffering at the time.  I would endure, and be better for it, by channeling much of my turmoil to be vanquished…or at least contained by this other form of suffering, a memory that is still vividly alive with me today as it was back in the fall of 2005.

More sophisticated needles were used in my case (thank goodness)

More sophisticated needles were used in my case (thank goodness)

After some finalizing of my design, and after carefully selecting a tattoo artist and shop that ended up being located almost directly across from the Camp Foster “Commissary Gate” (it is still there), and after scaling appropriately and checking placement of the stencil actually on my back, the artistic performance started.  I had my iPod, I had my earphones, and I cranked the angry white punk music I was so fond of at the time:  New Found Glory, Yellowcard, Chevelle, Disturbed, Finch, Evanescence, Hawthorne Heights, Matchbook Romance, Senses Fail and Nine Inch Nails to name but a few (Interestingly enough I still listen to angry white music, but now it’s more of the rock genre:  Metallica, Linkin Park, Korn, and The Offspring).  I recall jamming, listening to a playlist created especially for this event (how I wish I had a hardcopy to better remember it by!), and I reminisce suppressing the pain below, much as described by Chevelle’s Send the Pain Below:

But long before, having hurt,
I’d send the pain below,
I’d send the pain below.
Where I need it.

So that is the story of my first ink, but it is not the final story.  Much like Buffet’s quote at the opening, the permanence of that ink reminder in 2005 reflected only what become a temporal phase in my life…although it took another five years for my psyche to drift far enough away from this viewpoint for me to again seek a change and new ink.  Unfortunately I do not have, handy at least, a clean and clear picture of that initial tattoo, and I don’t want to spoil an upcoming follow-blog posting about my most recent ink’d transition I undertook in 2011.

And that – and a pic (or two) of my ink, my friends, is for my next Tattoo You installment.

Tattoo You? Absolutely, given the right Territory

Tattoo….  Absolutely.  Given the right Territory.

Do you have a tattoo?  If so, what’s the story behind your ink?  If you don’t have a tattoo, what might you consider getting emblazoned permanently on your skin?  After all, tattoos and Asian are synonymous…at least in the Navy.

What kept sailors' hats on in the 1940s??

What kept sailors’ hats on in the 1940s??

I do (I was in the Navy, and stationed in Asia), and it all started right here in Okinawa in 2004.  But when I started to research and write a blog about the story behind my inked permanence, and while trying to find that just right perfectly crazy connection to Japan, I came across a topic that, well, had to be broken out as a stand-alone conversation:  Zettai Ryouiki Koukoku.

Thigh Advertising.  Genius or demeaning??  Both!

Thigh Advertising. Genius or demeaning?? Both!!

Let me get this straight:  my tat is not for advertising, nor really even for daily public consumption (given its placement).  However, use of tats for advertising was very recently proposed, and not just by a liberal-leaning and progressive marketing company (are there any other kinds?  A rhetorical question for a certain mother-in-law in the advertising industry….), but by The Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau (OCVB) along with the Okinawan Prefectural government.  Seriously.


The OCVB and the government have cancelled their plans to use space on Japanese and Okinawan women’s bare thighs for marketing the Ryukyu Islands as a graduation trip destination to students in Japan’s other prefectures.  After reporting by the local Okinawa Times, numerous complaints were logged criticizing the plan as “undignified” and “not an appropriate use of taxpayer money.”  Citing such criticism, the two bodies stated, “Placing temporary tattoo-like stickers on the thighs of young women to advertise Okinawa is not in line with prefecture’s brand image.”

You think?

Parading around town....

Parading around town….

With “thigh advertising,” a new method of marketing gaining traction in Japan, young ladies wearing miniskirts or short shorts parade around town with promotional stickers placed on their zettai ryouiki or absolute territoryZettai Ryōiki (絶対領域) (or Ryouiki as alternate spelling) loosely translates into “absolute territory” and is the area of bare skin seen between a skirt and thigh-highs or socks, a strategic body location that’s often fetishized in Japanese anime and manga.  The idea of “Absolute Territory” comes from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which initially referred to an “AT Field,” or, a nearly impenetrable barrier (force-field) generated by Angels and Evangelions – in essence, an inviolable area created God.

Can you spot the Absolute Territory??

Can you spot the AT Field??

However, at the time, a popular Chatterbot (known throughout Japan as Jinkou Munou, literally Artificial Intelligence without Intelligence) was noted for eccentric anime character design.  Unveiling its newest character creation Mayura, imagined to be dressed in a black turtleneck, a grey checkered miniskirt, and black over-the-knee-socks and boots, the bot proclaimed, “The distance between the knee socks and miniskirt is invincible!  I can even say that it’s God’s Absolute Territory.”  Thus, while “absolute” in this context hints at the idea of “inviolable sanctuary,” there was also an almost direct and immediate tie-in with Neon Genesis Evangelion.

A lessor-known Divine Proportion

A lessor-known Divine Proportion

And, as a mathlete, I was tickled pink to find that this segment of weird fetish in Japan has its own “Divine Ratio,” akin to the one of the same name found repeated in nature and art over and over again, strongly related to the idea of God’s Territory.  Some have suggested that the ideal “Divine Ratio” is 4:1:2.5, referring to Miniskirt Length to Exposed Thigh (Absolute Territory) to Thigh-High Length above the Knee.  Oh, and it seems that the acceptable margin of error is ±15%.  Someone has really thought this through….  Unfortunately for him, he’s most likely destined to never touch a woman’s thigh on account of all the weirdness.

Please, no math in my fetish.

Please, no math in my fetish.

Given that mathematical ideal, it’s only perfectly normal to think that there should be a grading scale by which to judge the quality of Absolute Territory.  And there is.  Which is roughly as follows (although these too have recommended absolute distances associated with them):  Grade A – Thigh high socks, thigh-highs or stockings; Grade B – Over-the-knee sock; Grade C – High socks; Grade D – Three quarter socks; and Grade E – Crew socks.  Ankle socks are an instant Grade F.  Only the top two Grades (A & B) are considered true zettai ryouiki and are only properly achievable by females.  Thank goodness.

"F" is not even worth listing

“F” is not even worth listing

Interestingly enough, there appears to be also a most coveted Grade S (wonder what that stands for) that can be reached only from Grade A, and with the addition of two other critical elements:  1) Twintails hairstyle, more commonly perhaps known as pig-tails; and 2) a Tsundere personality.  What is the latter you ask?  Good question.


Tsundere (ツンデレ, pronounced tsɯndeɽe) is a portmanteau of two Japanese phrases:  “tsun tsun” (ツンツン), which is to turn away in disgust, and “dere dere” (デレデレ), meaning to become something akin to “lovey-dovey.”  The term refers to characters who act under a mask of indifference, dislike, or even open hostility to the object of their affections, but secretly (or not-so-secretly) harbor feelings for them.  A tsunderekko is a tsundere female; more rarely you may see tsunderekun for a tsundere male.  Two prime examples of Grade S Absolute Territory include Rin Tohsaka and Hiiragi Kagami.

Rin Tohsaka.  Grade S.

Rin Tohsaka. Grade S.

So, in an attempt to cash in on this craze, a Japanese marketing firm is launching zettai ryouiki koukoku, or “absolute territory PR”.  There are three criteria for prospective thigh flashers:  1) you must be a female; 2) you must be over 18; and 3) you must have over 20 “connections” on your social networking site, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, or something similar.  It’s a one day gig, during which you’ll wear a sticker on your thigh, and participants will get paid between ¥1,000 and ¥10,000 (roughly $10 to $100USD).  You’ll need to be photographed in at least two different locations and then upload those photos on a social networking site.  So, in a sense, it’s not about advertising live in public, but using the idea of drawing eyes to Absolute Territory in public that makes this so…alluring.  From what I can find online there is no shortage of applicants (これはつい見ちゃう自信アリ! 絶対領域に貼りつける広告ステッカー「絶対領域広告 Absolute Territory PR, Kotaku Japan).

From the PR Firm's Website....

From the PR Firm’s Website….

So, given this background and pop-cultural shift in advertising in Japan, Okinawa seems to somewhat at odds with the times.  When asked for a further explanation regarding the cancellation of this type of advertising, the Okinawan prefecture’s tourism promotion section replied, “Though we believe it would prove to be instantaneously effective in marketing to young people, when looking at the image of the prefecture as a whole, the demerits are considerable.”  The OCVB continued, “As funding is coming from national government coffers, we decided it was not worth fighting those opposed.”

Really, we are supposed to read stuff posted *there*??

Really, we are supposed to read stuff posted *there*??

Talk about a Tsundere attitude.  Now, if only the OCVB uniform consisted of twintails and thigh-highs…but there’s little doubt their disposable Foot Sox dooms the government to Grade F, perhaps fitting for this epic failure.

Grade F for Epic Fail

Grade F for Epic Fail