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Asia,  Discussions,  Japan

Tattoos in Japan: Are They Taboo or Not?

Before going to Japan, everyone gave me the exact same warning: it’s going to be difficult there with your tattoos. This was said to me by both people who lived there and those who had never visited the country. You’ll have to cover them up! You won’t be able to go to such and such with them! People will think you’re a criminal! It seems to be a “fact” that most people “know”. People really do believe that tattoos in Japan are not appreciated.

But how much truth is there to it, and how much is purely overblown stigma?


A Brief History

The contrasting relationship between the Japanese and tattoos is almost as old as time itself. It’s known that even during the Jomon era over 16,000 years ago, much like the culture of the Maori people, tattoos were considered highly sacred. Their prevalence found on recovered figures leads historians to believe they were a vital part of tribal culture, possibly even a rite of passage. They also identified tribal members as well as signifying their social status and prestige. However, by the Edo period (1603-1868) this tradition had disappeared just as much as the tribal cultures themselves.

Depictions of ancient tribal Japanese tattoos on recovered statues, ©Heritage of Japan

It was during this period in history that tattoos would take a turn for the worse in the eyes of the Japanese. Tattoos (or irezumi-kei) henceforth were used to mark out criminals. Often markings were placed on their foreheads or arms; somewhere not easily hidden. These people would face the punishment of forever being outcasts of society with their distinguishable symbols. This form of branding discouraged would-be felons who feared such social disapproval as well as having to withstand the intense pain of receiving one.

Examples of tattoos given to criminals of the time, ©Tokyo Creative

Eventually, the practice was dropped, however, by then the stigma of tattoos had been firmly imprinted in the minds of Japanese citizens. Before the tradition had come to an end, one group of individuals in Japanese society had already started to adopt the practice into their own culture.


Modern Connoisseur

For decades, one class of Japanese citizens has become synonymous with the art form of visible tattoos. They are of course the notorious Japanese gangsters, or as most of the world knows them; the yakuza.

The yakuza’s adoption of this culture began as a protest against the unusually cruel form of criminal branding. This quickly turned into a mark of pride and an expression of their rebelliousness against society. The earliest precursors of the yakuza would incorporate other artistic works into the tattoos they had already been branded with. Soon, just like the tribal tattoos of old, they became a symbol of status within the early forming organizations.

Early precursors to the yakuza, ©Wikipedia

This marked the beginning of a new tradition amongst yakuza members. Modifying their bodies with varying symbolic art soon became a rite of passage. Members would undergo the very painful process of irezumi; a specific method of hand-poked tattoos. The agony was a vital step in the process, allowing prospective gang members to demonstrate their courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. They’re both a symbolic representation of themselves as well as their organization. Even the cost of the tattoos became a status symbol, as being able to cover their entire bodies is a sign of their financial success.

Modern Yakuza members ©Tattoo Do

However, unlike the crips and bloods on the streets of L.A. with tear-drops on their cheeks and sub-machine guns on their necks, Yakuza members prefer a degree of discretion. Due to the undeniable link between tattoos and the criminal underworld, their artworks are traditionally covered when clothed. Many designs even leave a strip of clean skin running down the centre of their torso to allow them to unbutton their shirts without causing alarm.


21st Century Reality

Fast forward to the 21st century, is this really still the case? I was told endlessly that I’d have to cover them up, that people would be offended by the sight of them. Do tattoos in Japan still mark you out as a criminal, a lesser member of society? The simple answer is – not really. Though this is a quite accepted fact, in reality (outside of rare cases) it’s not true.

People aren’t appalled or cross the street as they see a tattooed individual approaching. On the contrary, during my time there on multiple occasions, I had people approaching me to compliment my obvious Japanese designs. Frankly what you might overhear or read online is very much blown out of proportion. It’s made out that you must always be aware of showing your artwork in public when in fact you don’t. On a daily basis in the country, there are practically no negative reactions to tattoos (apart from one industry, we’ll get to that shortly).

My Japanese-style sleeve

If there is a remaining stigma amongst the public, then it’s simply nothing more than an old-fashioned mindset. Sure, a 75-year-old grandma might very well associate your ink-covered arms with the criminal underworld. However, a 21-year-old student or clubgoer doesn’t give the slightest shit. Quite the opposite in fact, the young folk are as fascinated with them just as much as the youth of any other nation! It’s not even that unusual to see the odd Japanese citizen that has one themselves. Not as often as back in the West of course, but certainly not rare.


The Remaining Stigma

I would be lying if I said that modern-day Japan is completely free from stigma towards tattoos, though it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be. Displaying your tattoos in public places is generally not a problem. That includes restaurants, bars, parks, and beaches, it’s all fair game. That being said, one particular type of establishment is an exception, and quite a significant one when it comes to tourism in Japan.

Onsens are Japanese hot springs. They’re found throughout the country and are incredibly popular with both locals and visitors alike. However, these seem to be one of the few places where real stigma towards tattoos still exists.

Inside a typical Japanese public onsen

It’s of varying levels. The majority of establishments outright deny entry to anyone (foreign or otherwise) who has any sort of tattoo. Others allow entry if the tattoos are small or discrete. Others require you to reserve a private booth (at extra cost) to keep you hidden from public eyes. Only a very select few allow the use of their public pools.

In 2015 the Japanese Tourism Agency conducted a survey of over 3800 ryokans (traditional inns that include an onsen) about their policies towards tattoos. 56% outright refuse tattooed guests with only 31% allowing them without any restrictions. This prejudice extends to similar industries such as swimming pools, bathhouses and gyms. Essentially the kinds of places where more skin is usually on show.


Finding the Right Onsen

Though visiting one is not impossible, it does cause a bit of a hassle. If you’re like me, a simple plaster or bandage can’t hide my extensive tattoos, unless I want to wear a full-body cast. In this case, you just have to research beforehand which places allow them. It’s such a reoccurring problem that places will usually state their policies on their website. There are even specific websites for tattooed folk to find acceptable venues, such as Tattoo Spot.

Happy tattooed foreigner in a public onsen

Count yourself lucky, as in years past it wasn’t this simple. You would have had to visit an onsen exclusively used by the Yakuza if you wanted to try one. However, with the changing modern times and tattoos becoming more prevalent, establishments have increased pressure to start changing their policies. Tourist cash is a very important source of income after all, and almost every visitor to Japan will want to experience an onsen. Thus the acceptance of tattoos has begun to increase little by little.


A Governmental Mindset

It seems some members of the government still uphold the antiquated mindset towards tattoos. You might notice very few tattoo parlours during your time in the country. This is down in no small part to what the government believe the process of receiving a tattoo is.

Take the city of Osaka as an example. They consider receiving a tattoo to be a medical procedure, as it involves needles piercing the skin. Thus, tattoo artists must qualify to be medical doctors before they can give a tattoo. Imagine having to go through a 4-5 year medical course just to turn around and say you want to be a tattoo artist, absurd!

Of course, this hasn’t stopped everyone. Either way, most traditional tattoo artists whose clientele includes hardened Yakuza members only work on a word-of-mouth basis.


Don’t Believe the Hype

Again, the majority of chatter on the topic is overblown and nothing more than rumour snowballing. Nothing proved this more than at my time in a Buddhist temple just outside of Nagoya. It was another type of establishment where I was told I should cover my tattoos out of respect. Of course, that makes sense. Having a half-naked woman or a grim reaper displayed across your arms might not be appreciated in a place of worship.

Tattoos freely on display in a Buddhist temple

I kept that in mind and fastidiously ensured my tattoos were covered for the first few days, not wishing to offend the resident monk or his family. That was until one particular day I took off my jacket and had the entire family look in open-eyed fascination at my arm. They began asking endless questions about my Japanese-style sleeve before the Buddhist monk’s daughter rolled up her shirt to reveal she had one of her own!


A Foreign Influence

In the last year, two enormous events have assisted in forcing Japan to reconsider its stance. The country recently played host to the Rugby World Cup and soon will be hosting the Summer Olympics. Two events which bring with it an enormous influx of foreign visitors from across the globe. They bring along a number of different cultures and mindsets, to which Japan must be welcoming and open-minded. One of these is the tattoo culture.

We in the West have long come to terms with the fact that tattoos are just a normal part of life. It’s not shocking to have one and neither does it have anything to do with the character of the individual. We foreigners have helped steer the outlook of tattoos away from criminality. Take me for example, would the Japanese really believe “Oh shit, that white boy’s in the Yakuza!”?

This has actually raised quite an important ethical quandary. A debate was sparked back in 2013 as a Maori academic visiting the country was denied entry to an onsen because of the traditional tribal tattoo she had on her face. Japan is a nation full of the most respectable and polite individuals you’ll ever meet. However, the situation shone a light on how these policies appear to be discriminatory to cultures different to theirs.

If cultural differences aren’t enough to bring a change, perhaps financial incentives will. An enormous influx of Westerners comes with it an even bigger influx of money. The Japanese economy doesn’t want to miss out on that juicy tourist cash because of an antiquated and inaccurate stigma.


Is It Really Different To Anywhere Else

Following my time in Japan and reading a number of articles on the subject, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of fear-mongering. Apart from the onsens and similar establishments, there’s practically zero direct prejudice to tattoos.

Yes, some people will hate the sight of them, and possibly be offended. Some people will still associate them with criminals. Some will wish (but rarely tell you) you covered them up out of respect. So is this really that different from any other country? Even my own grandmother bawls at the sight of mine, repeatedly reminding me they look disgusting and low-class. There will always be a sub-section of people who won’t ever understand or appreciate their appeal.

Like many things of this nature, it’s a generational mindset. This stigma isn’t held by the youngsters, rather it’s their grandparents. Something even we in the West can appreciate. Within a decade or two this old-fashioned mindset will simply disappear.

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