It’s a well-established fact that tattoos, despite recent acceptance by a younger generation, still largely remain taboo in Japan. Japanese celebrities like Namie Amuro and Mika Nakashima, who frequently appear on camera flaunting their ink, have helped the art form – once reserved only for ranks of the yakuza – get its foot in the door of the fashion world. But a recent incident in Osaka has reignited the debate over what is acceptable body art in the conservative country of Japan (and how much of that is the business of the government).
Osaka governor goes apeshit, orders survey of body art on all employees
It was a surprising move by Toru Hashimoto – the young mayor of Osaka who has gained popular support for defying the central government in his opposition to restart nuclear power plants. In response to a seemingly isolated incident in which a childcare worker displayed a tattoo to scare the children, the municipal government launched an all-out investigation. The study was conducted by a mandatory survey asking employees whether they had tattoos and, if they did, to indicate where on their body. A total of 110 employees (0.8% of all 34,000) reported that they had tattoos, with 98 of those reporting that they were in visible locations. Here is the breakdown by department:
- Environmental (waste management): 73 employees (2.3% of the department)
- Transportation (train, bus drivers): 15 employees (0.2% of the department)
- Engineering & Construction: 7 employees (0.2% of the department)
- Development & Promotion: 3 employees (0.4% of the department)
At a press conference Hashimoto was visibly upset:
As an organization, everything about [having a tattoo] is absurd. I’m not saying you’re a bad person if you have a tattoo. What I’m saying is, if you think you can do whatever you like without getting fired or without getting demoted, you better think twice.
At a press conference yesterday the mayor stated, “if Lady Gaga or Johnny Depp came to me and asked for a job with the Osaka government, I would turn them down. [Their tattoos] are only acceptable because they are celebrities. I will not tolerate tattoos on public service workers.” Hashimoto later added that it was highly unlikely that said celebrity would apply for public service work.
Brief Timeline of Tattoos in Japan
Let’s step back for a moment to figure out how we got here.
5,000 BC – figurines dating back to 5,000 BC were uncovered and the engravings on their face are thought to represent tattoo marks.
297 AD – the first written record of Japanese tattooing was discovered in a Chinese text, which stated that Japanese “men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs.” References were typically in a negative context.
720 AD – the first written account of tattooing as punishment in Japan. The rebel Hamako, Muraji of Azumi ( 安曇連浜子) was brought before the emperor but the merciful king, instead of death, commanded he be tattooed instead. The punishment was presumably 2-fold: to inflict pain but also to leave a mark that would forever label the person a criminal.
17th Century – Japan experienced a time in which penal tattooing was generally acceptable. Criminals were often tattooed with symbols indicated the physical location where their crimes were committed. However, an important change had occurred by the end of the 17th century. Criminals began covering their penal tattoos with decorative ones and the punishment became obsolete. This is thought to be the historical origin of the association of tattooing and organized crime in Japan.
click images to enlarge (left: figurines with markings depicting tattoos | middle: characters from Suikoden drawn by Kuniyoshi Utagawa | right: a carpenter whose burly arms are covered in tattoos)
Early 18th Century – Pictorial tattooing flourishes due, in part, to the development of woodblock prints and the needs of popular culture in Edo. Due to its association with criminal activity, the government outlawed tattooing. Its illegal status, along with its painfulness and permanence, solidifies the art form as a symbol of loyalty amongst yakuza gangs.
Mid 18th Century – tattooing gets another push from popular Chinese graphic novel Suikoden, which features many heroes adorned with tattoos. Various artists of the time produced their own interpretations of these characters. The story still remains popular to this day.
19th Century – tattooing remains outlawed but artists were allowed to set up shop servicing foreign sailors. Their skills were well regarded and attracted distinguished clients like King George V and Czar Nicholas II. They also continued to tattoo Japanese clients illegally.
20th Century – tattooing in Japan remained illegal until the end of WWII when General MacArthur liberalized the Japanese laws. Today, tattoos remain largely unaccepted.
click images to enlarge (left: King George V acquiring his first tattoo from the famous Japanese tattooist Hori Chyo | middle: early photos of Japanese tattoos by Felice Beato | right: contemporary yakuza gang)
If you’re Japanese and you get a tattoo in Japan, you’re essentially signing a non-participatory agreement for public baths, swimming pools, water parks and other places where skin is shown. If you’re a foreigner in Japan, don’t assume you’re going to get a free pass. You may, but you also may not. And because it’s probably often used as an excuse, stickers and temporary tattoos aren’t allowed either.
For understandable reasons, Japan has not had a good relationship with tattoos, to say the least. And in a conformist society the act of using your body as a canvas is seen as both rebellious and threatening. But absurd? What seems absurd to me is the government spending taxpayer money investigating what their own employees do with their bodies. And, in a time when the economy is struggling and a certain region (*cough Osaka) is facing major power shortages this summer. But then again, there’s never been much room for individuality in Japan. If you’re wondering what’s going to happen to the employees who were caught ink-handed, they’re receiving an appropriate punishment. The government plans to relocate all employees with tattoos to positions that don’t require contact with other citizens.
[UPDATE March 24, 2016] After conducting an extensive survey across nationwide onsen hot springs last year, the Japan Tourism body found that over half don’t allow those with tattoos to enter their baths. In response, the tourism agency “has asked spa operators to allow tattoo-sporting foreign tourists into their facilities in a bid to get more overseas visitors experiencing the nation’s onsen.”
full disclaimer: author has more than 1 tattoo
all translations by spoon & tamago