Japanese tattooing, or irezumi (入れ墨), is said to have originated in the Jomon Period (10,000 BCE-300 CE). Modern styles of tattooing seen today grew from the Edo Period (1603-1868), when tattooing in Japan became illegal (3). Tattooing in Japan has for the most part always been controversial, with ties to criminal activity and filial piety (2). Many establishments, such as public pools and hot springs, or onsens (温泉), outwardly ban those with visible tattoos, no matter how small they may be. With the growing number of Western visitors flocking to Japan, current laws and societal stigmas surrounding tattoos are becoming not only confusing, but harmful for this Japanese art form, as more and more government officials work to ban tattoos for natives but be respectful to inked visitors (2).
- History of Japanese Tattooing
- Cultural Meanings and Traditions
- Ties to Crime and Filial Piety
- Public Controversy
- Laws Prohibiting Tattoos
- Japanese Views of Tattoos
- Other Resources
- History of Japanese Tattooing
1.1 Cultural Meanings and Traditions
Many historians trace tattooing back to the Jomon Period (10,000 BC-300 BC). Clay figurines called dogu have been found to show tattoo-like marking on their faces and bodies, with the oldest dogus having been found near Osaka in 1977. Evidence of ancient Japanese tattooing can be found in Gishiwajinden, the third century Chinese history text that contains the oldest record mentioning Japan (6). Men of Wa, what was then called Japan, decorated their faces and bodies with designs such as fish and shells. The tattoos were used as protection symbols or ornamental designs that varied among tribes and induvial according to rank. Other historical texts point to the importance of tattoos to samurai in the sixteenth century as forms of identification. Certain areas marked soldiers in order to better identify them after death on the battlefield, as scavenger often looted bodies of their belongings (6).
The Ainu, an indigenous tribe from the Hokkaido region, have a longstanding history with tattooing. Ainu tattoos were first recorded by Girolamo de Angelis in 1612 and are most found around the moth, cheeks, forehead and eyebrows. These tattoos were used for cosmetic and tribal purposes, as well as symbols of religion and sexual maturity. Girls first received tattoos between the ages of 10 and 13, some much younger, and continued tattooing until they reached a marriageable age. (6). The Japanese government first tried to outlaw Ainu tattooing in 1799 with little luck, but passed stronger ordnances in 1871 with the arrival of Westerners. Even though tattooing was prohibited, many continued to tattoo in secret (5).
Modern day Japanese tattooing rose in the Edo period (1600-1867) in cities such as Edo (modern day Tokyo) and Osaka. The development of woodblock printing, ukiyo-e, in the eighteenth century helped further develop the art of tattooing, as more and more people were exposed to tattooed heroes featured in published illustrations and novels. With the rise in popularity of tattooing, the government outlawed the art on the ground that it was “deleterious to public morals” (6). Even with laws prohibiting tattoos, common folk such as firemen and labors continued to tattoo. This period also brought rise to the influx of tattoos among the Yakuza, or gangs. The yakuza sought tattoos because they were a painful way to prove one had courage and because of their permanent nature. Since tattoos were illegal, getting one made them outlaws forever. Modernly, many Yukuza are choosing to avoid tattoos in order to keep a low profile (6).
With the arrival of Western forces in the nineteenth century, Japanese officials cracked down on tattooing in order to maintain a civilized and clean image. Working to avoid occupation after being isolated for over 200 years, Japan worked to modernize fast, quickly working to show Western societies that the Japanese people were well controlled (5). Official bans were not lifted until 1948, but many fear the Japanese have forgotten their tattooing history. Many artists still work to keep the tradition alive, even if tattoos are still largely kept out of sight.
- Ties to Crime and Filial Piety
Tattoos in Japan are stigmatized mainly due to ties with the Yukuza, or gangs, and filial piety. Throughout history, tattoos have been used to symbolized persona who have committed crimes, with the earliest record found in 710 AD. During the Kofun period (300 AD-600 AD) tattoos lost their social acceptability. Tattoos were seen as a form of punishment that branded a person for life and a variety of different symbols existed (6). Different prefectures had different tattoos, with many tattooing the forehead or arms (as seen in pictures below). Prefectures such as Hiroshima tattooed the kanji for inu (犬), or dog, on a person’s forehead, while others such as Chikuzen, now Fukuoka, and Takanoyama, now Wakayama, tattooed lines or dots. Hiroshima in particular used to tattoo the lines in pieces to complete to kanji for dog, with each lines representing a different crime. Others added lines on the forearm for the number of crimes committed (4).
Individuals who received tattoos were often ostracized from their friends and family as well as being denied all participation in community life. By the end of the seventeenth century penal tattooing was replaced by other forms of punishment due to the rise in decorative tattoos. With the availability of decorative cover-ups, criminals were able to hide previous tattoos given due to offenses. This gave rise to the association with tattooing and organized crime, particularly the Yakuza (1). With the rise of yakuza movies came a public fear of tattoos. As one of their greatest trademarks, tattoos are a sign of strength, as a traditional Japanese tattoo takes quite a while to complete. Tattoos symbolized strength, courage, toughness, masculinity, and a sense of solidarity with fellow gang members (6). With the rise of the Yakuza population and criminal activity, negative association between the two began to arise due to longstanding beliefs of tattoos and criminals. Today, the number of Yakuza with tattoos is starting to diminish as law enforcement has begun to heavily crack down on members. In an effort to slip under the radar, many are opting to forge full-body tattoos in order to better integrate into the larger society (6).
In 1614, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu banned Christianity, declaring Japan is a country of the gods. Quoting Confucius doctrines, Ieyasu advocated that “body, hair, and skin we have received from our father and mother; not to injure them is the beginning of filial piety. To preserve one’s body is to reserve god” (6). Filial piety is one of the important elements of Confucianism, consisting of filial duties to parents, such as obedience, responsibility, and loyalty (6). To mark oneself is an insult to not only god, but to their mother and father. This teaching has been carried on even today, as aspect of obedience and responsibility lay within criticisms of tattooing.
- Public Controversy
2.1 Laws Prohibiting Tattoos
During the Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan began to open its borders to Western countries, bringing trade, fashion, and a need for modernization. Tattoos, even those of certain tribes like the Ainu, were prohibited in 1872 as a way to appear civilized and sophisticated to the rest of the world (6). The influx of foreigners into the country were enamored by the traditional Japanese designs and flocked to tattoo artists, even though tattooing was illegal for Japanese natives. Royals such as the Duke of Clarence, the Duke of York, and the Czarevitch of Russia received tattoos when visiting the island, helping being the art overseas (6). Due to these laws, tattooing began to move underground as more studios were raided and tattooists were arrested. Tattooing became legal again in 1948, but the stigma around the art remains to this day (5).
In 2015 officers in Osaka raided tattoo artist Taiki Masuda’s studio, charging him for tattooing three people. While it is legal to have a tattoo, it is illegal to give on, which puts artists at risk of heavy fines or jail time. Masuda was found guilty of violating the Medical Practitioner’s Act of 1948, which states no one but a medical practitioner can engage in medical practice (8). Controversy over defining tattooing as a medical procedure started in 2001 when cosmetic tattoos were gaining popularity. As a way to control the ever growing industry, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare constituted any action of “putting pigment on a needle tip and inserting ink into the skin” as a medical practice that can only be performed by someone with a practitioner’s license (8). Due to the ever-growing restrictions and shutdowns of Japanese tattoo shops, many artists are laying low and operating on an appointment only basis (3). In Masuda’s case, as well as many other tattoo artists throughout Japan, their craft and livelihood is in constant danger.
2.2 Japanese Views of Tattoos
Due to centuries of stigma surrounding tattoos in Japan, modern views of tattoos and tattooing seem to focus on crime and deviance, as well as respect. Yakuza movies, which became popular around the 1970’s helped solidify the image of a tattooed gang member as a threat to society (3). Even though the Yakuza are working to avoid tattoos as signs of gang membership, the stereotypical image still remains. Tattoos, as outlined in ideas of filial piety, are also seen as a disrespect to one’s body that was given to them by their parents (5). Japan has a long history of respect and etiquette that can be seen in a variety of everyday actions and language. The Japanese have many social rules around bowing, eating, conversation, and politeness that help shape their everyday lives (9). By disrespecting the body with tattoos, one is breaking social codes of respect and obedience. Many still get inked today as a fashion statement, slowly pushing the social barriers for future generations.
Those who do have tattoos in Japan, even foreigners, face a variety of issues when trying to participate in the public sphere, Tattoos are often a private thing, being hidden beneath clothes or covered. When entering public spaces, such as hot springs or public pools for example, hiding tattoos is near impossible (2). Many of these bath houses and pools ban tattooed guests, weather they are native or not. In the past it was easier for businesses to turn away tattooed natives, but with the influx of tattooed foreigners and natives it is becoming much harder to avoid public backlash (2). Even those with traditional tribal tattoos, such as the Ainu and Maori, have been turned away from public hot springs, which has prompted the Japan Tourism Agency to allowed tattooed foreigners into such public spaces (2). This poses problems though, as natives still frequent traditional hot springs and may not be comfortable seeing tattooed guests. Many major employers still ban employees from having tattoos, even if they are not visible (2).
In 2012, the Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, issued a voluntary survey for city officials in order to gauge how many were tattooed, where they had it, and what it was. Hashimoto advocated that all city officials, from teachers to waste management employees, should not have tattoos (7). The survey, which many felt as an invasion of privacy, was brought to the courts on the grounds that the investigation was illegal and violated anti-discrimination rights (7). The courts ruled in favor of the Mayor and said the investigation did not “cause discrimination unlike in cases in which one’s criminal record or race is revealed.” (7) These tattoo checks are still happening today, as new recruits are checked for visible tattoos within the government.
Tattooing in Japan has a long and complicated history powered by social control and power. Many traditions and views of tattooing have been passed down over the centuries to directly affect views of people today. Whereas many Western countries have come to accept tattooing, Japan is still enforcing negative stereotypes and traditions to not only it’s people but to foreign visitors. The new generation of artists and activist will have to work hard to gain acceptance form not only the Japanese government, which has been placing harsher restrictions on tattooing, but the people themselves, who reinforce such negative attitudes on a daily basis.
- Other Resources
(1) Anon. n.d. “History of Tattoos and Tattooing in Japan.” Tattoo History . (http://www.vanishingtattoo.com/tattoo_museum/chinese_japanese_tattoos.html).
(2) Ashcraft, Brian. 2016. “Japans Problem with Tattoos.” Kotaku. (https://kotaku.com/japans-problem-with-tattoos-1767685623).
(3) DeHart, Jonathan. 2016. “Forbidden Ink: Japan’s Contentious Tattoo Heritage.” The Diplomat. (https://thediplomat.com/2016/10/forbidden-ink-japans-contentious-tattoo-heritage/).
(4) Kurihara, Juju. 2013. “History of Japanese Tattoo.” IroMegane. (http://www.iromegane.com/japan/culture/history-of-japanese-tattoo/).
(5) Mitchell, Jon. 2014. “Japan inked: Should the country reclaim its tattoo culture?” The Japan Times. (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2014/05/03/lifestyle/japan-inked-country-reclaim-tattoo-culture/).
(6) Yamada, Mieko. n.d. “Japanese Tattooing from the Past to the Present.” Tattoos.com. (http://tattoos.com/japanese-tattooing/).
(7) Anon. 2016. “Supreme Court upholds Osaka citys tattoo check on workers as legal.” The Japan Times. (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/11/14/national/crime-legal/supreme-court-upholds-osaka-citys-tattoo-check-workers-legal/).
(8) Crabbe, Stephen. 2017. “Behind the Japanese court ruling that tattoo artists need to be qualified doctors.” The Conversation. (https://theconversation.com/behind-the-japanese-court-ruling-that-tattoo-artists-need-to-be-qualified-doctors-84639).
(9) Yasuka, Author. 2017. “Proper Behavior and Manners to Observe in Japan.” KCP International. (https://www.kcpinternational.com/2017/10/behavior-and-manners/).
Angel Kearns is a graduate student in the Applied Sociology program at Old Dominion University. Serving as the current coordinator of the M-Power Peer Education Network, a peer education program out of the ODU Women’s Center, she is dedicated to educating others on issues related to interpersonal violence, gender roles, diversity and discrimination, and leadership development. She enjoys cats, coffee, and Netflix marathons.