6 Things That Will Surpise You About Tattoo Culture in Japan

6 Things That Will Surpise You About Tattoo Culture in Japan

Tattooing or getting inked has been around for thousands of years, but the rise over the last thirty years as fashion statement globally is quite remarkable. But how much of this is a purely Western phenomenon? Don’t we Japanese, other than gangsters, like to get inked too? And what can the foreign “inked” visitors expect in Japan? The answers may surprise you!



 

6 Things That Will Surpise You About Tattoo Culture in Japan

 

1. The Tattoo Ban

For ‘inked’ foreign visitors to Japan, there is one unavoidable fact you will have to accept: you will not be allowed to enter hot spring baths (onsen), public baths (sento), swimming pools or any other facilities normally enjoyed in the naked or near naked state. It just isn’t allowed.

The good news is that the Japanese government is considering ending bans ahead of the 2020 Olympic games, for Japan is already experiencing record numbers of foreign tourists and many of them may bear ink of one sort or another. Also, according to NHK, The Japan Tourism Agency has asked onsen operators to explain their policies on tattoos with a view to making recommendations for the future.

 

2. Why is Japan so Anti-tattoo?

I will come on to the historical basis for Japan’s tattoo-phobia shortly, but the common perceptions are that body ink is indicative of criminality or low morals, and is often described as dirty or scary. This is not an isolated or minority perception but widespread.

As recently as 2012, the Mayor of Osaka, Tōru Hashimoto, campaigned for companies to dismiss employees with tattoos. He received far more public and corporate support.

 

3. The Origins of Irezumi

Irezumi (which literally means ‘to insert ink’) probably dates back to Paleolithic times in Japan, though there is no concrete proof of this. However, by 300 AD there existed commentary by various Chinese travelers attesting to the practice of tattooing in Japan, possibly for religious purposes or as status symbols.By 600 AD, tattooing had begun to garner the negative reputation that has followed it into the modern age. During this time, tattoos were applied to criminals as a kind of punishment, most notably the inking of the Chinese character for ‘dog’ on miscreants’ foreheads.

 

4. The Edo Irezumi Renaissance

Inspired by wood block printing, the Edo period saw a brief development of body art in Japan. The popular Chinese novel, Suikoden, with its lavish wood block prints of heroic figures, their bodies decorated with dragons and other mythical creatures, led to a demand for similarly elaborate tattoos. Many of the tools used in cutting and carving wood printing blocks were adopted for tattooing, along with Nara black, an ink that famously takes on a bluish green hue under the skin.

It is not certain who might have worn such tattoos; some say it was the lower classes, others think it may have been wealthy merchants who were barred by law from flaunting the usual trappings of success, such as jewelry. What seems certain is that the art of irezumi veered between being a punishment and a fashionable fad at this time.

 

5. Modern Attitudes

At the beginning of the Meiji period, Japan outlawed tattooing in an effort to make a good impression on the West and irezumi fell into disrepute, cementing its connotation with criminality. There was still interest in Japanese tattoo artistry, much of it from foreigners, so tattoo artists continued their work in secret. The association between the Yakuza, Japan’s organized crime families, and tattooing has added to the art’s notoriety and hardened the general public’s attitudes to it.

Yet attitudes are changing gradually, especially among younger Japanese who have seen the impact tattooing has had on Western fashion sensibilities.

 

6. Getting Inked in Japan

Getting tattooed in Japan is not easy. There are very few ‘visible’ tattoo shops, and those that do exist tend to be located close to US military bases. Many Japanese tattoo artists work on a referral basis, their reputation spread by word of mouth. They are also rather expensive compared to other countries. Yet for the tattoo purist, getting inked in Japan is well worth the effort as the skill of Japanese tattooists is very highly regarded.

Although most modern tattooing is done with a needle gun, the ancient irezumi art is still practiced by a few hard to find specialists. It is both painful and time-consuming, involving far more formality than western tattooing and using traditional wooden handled needles. Western style tattoo artists will do what the customer wants, but irezumi artists have far more say over design, even to the point of refusing to ink customers who disagree with them. It can take years of weekly visits to complete a traditional body tattoo and cost many thousands of dollars.

 

Conclusion

Sadly, it will probably require political action to end the tattoo bans entirely, in much the same way that some bars were forced to stop displaying ‘Japanese Only’ signs twenty or so years ago, though that was a clearly constitutional issue. Of course, those who already bear ink, especially foreigners, may have a role to play in changing ingrained attitudes.

I am reminded of a furor in the international media in 2013 when a New Zealand woman of Maori descent, with traditional facial tattoos, was refused entry at a Hokkaido onsen. It makes no sense to me that those most popular of Japanese tourist attractions, prized for their health benefits and cultural significance, should actively exclude visitors with body art.

But the Japanese are quick learners, so hopefully the old attitudes will have died out within a few years… time enough to get a dragon inked on my back!

 

6 Things That Will Surpise You About Tattoo Culture in Japan

1. The Tattoo Ban
2. Why is Japan so Anti-tattoo?
3. The Origins of Irezumi
4. The Edo Irezumi Renaissance
5. Modern Attitudes
6. Getting Inked in Japan