Are Tattoos Banned in Japan?
Not exactly… I mean, bearing ink isn’t a crime, but tattooed foreign visitors will have to accept that such pleasures as onsen (hot spring baths), sento (public baths), swimming pools, many beaches or other facilities normally enjoyed in the naked or near naked state will not be available to them. “Ink” just isn’t welcome! And if your tattoos are cultural/tribal markings, too bad – you might invoke the Japanese constitutional right to religious freedom, but nobody will take you seriously, except perhaps the foreign media!
Why is Japan so Anti-tattoo?
Actually, tattooing was legalised in Japan in 1948 by occupation forces, but the attitudes that had hitherto criminalised it and driven it underground persisted to the present. There’s no legal basis for these bans, so they exist rather like a dress code.
The common perception is that body ink indicates criminality or low morals, and is often described as “dirty” or “scary” by easily terrified or offended citizens. And this is not an isolated or minority perception, but widespread. As recently as 2012, the Mayor of Osaka, Tōru Hashimoto, campaigned for companies to sack employees with tattoos. That he received more public support than he did criticism is telling.
The Art of Irezumi
Irezumi (lit. to insert ink) probably dates back to palaeolithic times and, by 300 AD, Chinese travellers were attesting to the practice of tattooing in Japan, possibly for reasons of religion or social status. By 600 AD, tattooing had picked up the negative reputation that it has today, when someone had the bright idea of applying tattoos to criminals as punishment, notably the inking of the Chinese character for “dog” on offenders’ foreheads!
In spite of a brief renaissance of body art in the Edo period, probably inspired by popular, heroic wood block prints, the beginning of the Meiji period saw tattooing outlawed in an effort to make a good impression on the West. Thus the art of irezumi, which had been veering between a punishment and a fashionable fad, finally fell into disrepute, cementing its connotation with criminality.
Much of the subsequent interest in Japanese tattoo artistry came from foreigners, and tattoo artists continued their work in secret, eventually acquiring the association with the similarly “outlawed” Yakuza that added to the art’s notoriety, as well as hardening the general public’s attitudes to it. But attitudes today are changing gradually, especially among younger Japanese who can see the impact tattooing has had on Western fashion sensibilities.
Getting Inked in Japan
Getting tattooed in Japan isn’t easy. There are very few “visible” tattoo shops, but the ancient irezumi art is still practiced by a few hard to find specialists, usually on a referral basis. It’s a painful, time-consuming, and far more formal process than western tattooing, using traditional wood-handled needles and the famous, blueish-looking Nara black ink. It’s also very expensive compared to other countries. On the other hand, for the tattoo purist, getting inked in Japan must be pretty cool, if one can accept the irezumi artist dictating design, and the possible years of weekly visits to complete a traditional body tattoo at a cost of many thousands of dollars!
And the Future?
The good news is that the Japanese government is considering easing bans ahead of the 2020 Olympics, which is expected to attract record numbers of foreign tourists, many of whom may bear ink of one sort or another. Additionally, the Japan Tourism Agency has asked onsen operators to explain their policies on tattoos. Certainly, that these popular tourist attractions, prized for their health benefits and cultural significance, should actively exclude visitors with body art, does seem rather anachronistic.
But the Japanese are quick learners, so hopefully the old attitudes will have died out within a few years; plenty of time for me to get a spider inked on my back!