Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Recently, Japanese media (and consequently, their international counterparts and the Internet) are once again at the subject of tattoos: because of a tattoo artist from Osaka who was ordered to pay a $2000 fine, many people (in Japan too) found out that since 2001, tattooing is subject to the Medical Practitioners’ Law; in other words, that they are considered “potentially hazardous to the public health” and can be only carried out by licensed medical practitioners. The 27-year old artist decided to challenge the fine arguing that what he does is neither a crime nor a medical procedure and the media seized the opportunity to discuss for the umpteenth time the peculiar relationship Japanese society has with tattoos, its reluctance to widely accept them and the problems that might arise in the 2020 Olympics when thousands of tattooed non-Japanese athletes and viewers will ask to be admitted even in places like public baths or municipal swimming pools that usually forbid entrance to those who have decorated their skin with one of the oldest forms of art man has devised.
As can be easily seen with even a superficial Internet search, irezumi (入れ墨), literally “ink insertion” goes so far back in Japanese history that some are even suggesting it is visible in the markings on Jomon period figurines (i.e. 15,000 years ago); they are probably wrong but nobody can argue that since the Edo period they spread considerably among townspeople (and especially in certain groups like hikeshi firemen, artisans or rich merchants) mostly because of Hokusai and Kuniyoshi’s illustrations of the Japanese edition of the Chinese novel “Suikoden” (水滸伝) and the need for a discreet –or less discreet- demonstration of opulence. At the same time, research will reveal that there is a parallel “tradition” of using tattoos for marking criminals, a tradition that started before the Edo period but became more prominent then –a combination of all the above but also of the obvious symbolisms (pain tolerance equals bravery, lifelong commitment etc.) is responsible for the connection between irezumi and the members of the organized crime groups which, in turn, kept alive the prohibition of public demonstration of body art from the Meiji period until today.
Considering that most people alive today weren’t there when authorities used to mark criminals with ink, the only unpleasant connotation for tattoos are that with the members of the yakuza. Still, none of the public baths or the onsen that forbid entrance to tattooed people openly admit it; their argument is always something vague about “sense of security of the other bathers” but nobody will explain why a small colored butterfly on the shoulder of a blond Swedish girl will cause uneasiness to the Japanese women bathing next to her. Like in the case of the young artist from Osaka what bothers non-Japanese the most is insincerity: if the whole fuss is about ostracizing members of the yakuza as much as possible, the various authorities would do much better if they declared it loud and clear and if they found a better way to differentiate between outlaws and law-abiding citizens: for reasons of both keeping a low profile and cost, younger yakuza members have abandoned the whole-body suits with the dragons, the Hannya masks and the skulls –it’s ironic but these days such tattoos are more often found on the bodies of young trendy Japanese or New York hipsters.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.