The Taboo Of Tattoos Part I: Japan's Archaic Views On Tattooing

The Taboo Of Tattoos Part I: Japan's Archaic Views On Tattooing
22 June 2017 Tori Mason Life
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I knew what I was getting myself into when I moved to Japan. I’m heavily tattooed, and knew I would be restricted from going to certain onsen (温泉), gyms, and any other place where they could be seen. I accepted this, and even accepted wearing long sleeved cardigans last summer when I taught English. You reap what you sow, right? With that being said, I somehow hit the lottery and can now have my tattoos out at my current job without any issue.

Having tattoos here, whether native or foreign, is sure to draw some stares or complaints, though I feel I have it a bit easier than some of my tattooed Japanese friends. Being Japanese with tattoos holds a completely different stigma in Japan than being foreign. Historically, in line with China’s views, tattoos were given as punishments as early as 297 AD. The first documented event of a tattoo given as punishment took place in 720 AD. By the 17th century, tattoos marked and caused the ostracization of criminals, but by the end of the century large ornate tattoos began to cover penal tattoos. This is thought to be the beginning of the association of tattoos with organized crime, or the yakuza (極道).

Top left we see 犬 (dog) used for criminals in Hiroshima (広島)


Due to a history rooted in identifying criminals by their tattoos, it’s no wonder Japan holds a stigma towards people that are tattooed. The real question is, at this point in time, why is it so hard to let go of a stigma that is so deeply rooted in a time we no longer live in? Japan runs deep in its culture and its ideologies, but surely not everyone that has tattoos is a part of an organized crime syndicate. Not all of the staff where I had once worked knew I had tattoos, so it was always an interesting conversation when they would tell me their thoughts on how people with tattoos were irresponsible and bad individuals.

Irezumi (入れ墨: insert ink) is the form of traditional tattooing. If you want to see current examples that may or may not have yakuza shown, search #sanjamatsuri on Instagram, to view a festival where members are known to participate and show their tattoos.


Japan’s population is aging quickly and unevenly due to the younger Japanese putting off having children, or not having them at all. When you add this to the longer life expectancy of the elderly, we end up with a Japan where 25% of its population is currently over the age of 65. There is a strict class structure and sense of hierarchical values to respect as well. It’s felt that you received your body from your parents, and because of this, any modification can be thought of as disrespectful. This is something I’ve heard before from my own mother when I would come home with a new addition. It’s only natural then that this demographic still possesses such a strong stigma towards tattoos, and culture can’t be held entirely at fault. The stigma of still applying it to organized crime though, is something else altogether.

Members of the Yakuza show their tattoos

In way of showing an apology, fingers are often cut to the next knuckle for each offense

A lot of strife began in Osaka when former mayor, Toru Hashimoto, ordered a survey to find the tattooed amongst over 30,000 employees after it was rumored that a welfare officer used his tattoos to intimidate children. Hashimoto wasn’t only looking for visible tattoos, but concealed ones as well. Many refused to answer to the survey as it was believed to be an invasion of human rights, a theme we will often see repeated as we progress on this topic. Other instances of prejudice can be found in mainstream media. I’m talking Disney, and we can’t get any more mainstream than that. Check out the difference in promotional posters for Moana:

In 2013 a Māori woman was denied entrance to an onsen in Eniwa because of the traditional tattoos (tā moko) she had on her lips and chin. It wasn’t even that she was just visiting, she had been invited to Biratori, Hokkaido by a group that studies the languages of indigenous people. An argument was given that the onsen patrons would not be able to distinguish cultural tattoos from those that represent organized crime. This is a prime example that there are Japanese people trying to reach out and embrace other cultures, but are still being met with internal prejudice, misunderstanding, and outdated stereotypes from within their own country.


Let’s look into some of the laws that are in place and just how they currently affect tattooists in Japan.

Medical Practitioner Act of 1948
Only doctors can perform medical procedures.

The Health, Labor, and Welfare Act of 2001
Giving tattoos is under the same umbrella as laser hair removal and chemical peels, which can only be given by licensed medical doctors.

Pharmaceutical Affairs Act
Antiseptics and disinfectants can only be purchased in person, and at the time of purchase, verbal instructions on how to use the product will be given.

The third act may seem a bit misplaced, but is the catalyst for the trials we are seeing today. Tattooist Taiki Masuda was on the purchaser list of a Nagoya pharmacy that dealt solely with their clients online, and when the pharmacy was held under investigation, subsequently so was Masuda. This avalanched into a series of arrests and fining of tattooists who were thought to have violated the Medical Practitioner Act, since according to the Health, Labor, and Welfare act of 2001, giving tattoos was seen as something that could only be done by licensed medical doctors. Masuda refused to pay the ¥300,000 fine, and decided to he would rather get a final word on the matter regarding the legality of being a tattoo artist in Japan. The first trial took place on April 4th of this year, with the closing arguments set for July 21st and August 4th. The final verdict is currently set to be revealed on September 27th.

Here is Taiki’s story:


The outcome of this trial will eliminate all uncertainty regarding tattooing in Japan. Thus putting many artists’ jobs and livelihoods on the line, and creating an atmosphere of apprehension as we all await the verdict. If tattooing becomes illegal, there is a fear that many will leave Japan for work, and those who stay will have to either stop completely or resort to underground methods. This latter method could parallel to the consequences the States saw during prohibition, as well as before Roe vs. Wade went into effect. More harm, than good, could come out of making tattooing illegal, as a way around the law will be found, but it will potentially be more dangerous. Not to mention suffocating and potentially eradicating a deeply rooted cultural art could be extremely detrimental as a whole.

Legends, like Horiyoshi III, would have to legally stop performing the artwork they’ve built their whole lives perfecting.

There is still hope though, not everyone in the National Diet is opposed to tattooing. Diet member Akihiro Hatsushika expressed his belief that the Medical Practitioner Act, in this way, violates freedom of expression, which is protected by the Constitution of Japan. Hatsukhika also talked about how he notices rising athletes have tattoos which influence fans in a positive way. The era of tattoos being taboo needs to pass, especially with the upcoming Olympics in 2020 when surely many visitors will have tattoos and want to try out onsen for themselves.

Things may be looking better, Neymar Jr. shows his tattoos in a Japanese shampoo add

From what happens per trial, to how the tattoo community handles things, all hangs delicately on how the law decides to delegate separating stigma from fact. The next installment covering this topic will include interviews from within the community, as well as more history and the heavy influence tattooing has around the world.

For more information, and to follow the case, you can visit http://savetattooing.org/ , or via Facebook by searching for @savetattooingiverenglish .


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