Taboo about tattoos in Japan

Proud of our inked bodies. Today, Voice Up Japan decided to talk about one historical taboo in Japan: tattoos and their bad reputation. While the archipelago has such a rich and amazing ancestral culture of tattooing, it also nurtures a disgust of it since the Meiji era. A position that leads to discriminatory  behaviour to those who dare to bear one. 

It’s when I first came to Japan, 11 years ago that I discovered the deep culture of tattoos for the first time. Designs, methods, artists creativity, I quickly found it fascinating and naturally had the need and the wish to have my own one. After all, this first trip in Japan was life-changing for me, so why not leave a trace of this strong connection on my skin? 

I never thought about having a tattoo when I was a teenager. I never really saw it as something fashionable either. It’s much more linked to my emotions, to personal experiences that changed me inside: for some reason, I felt the need to “show it” outside too. Also, tattoos are a specific connection with one tattoo artist in particular. Because of that reason, I always go to the same place and meet with Akatsuki-san, in Tokyo. 

Her artistic sensitivity speaks to me. Without much explanation, she can capture what I want to express and turn it into a beautiful picture that is going to stay on my skin forever. What I didn’t know yet is that, when I will start getting one done, it would be quite hard to stop. But tattoo has to be about time and reflection. One emotion to digest at a time, one tattoo to appreciate when timing is good to have it done. It has to be deeply meaningful. 

My tattoos are definitely a part of who I am. The artistic shapes of some scars of the past. I feel shy talking about them or even showing them because they are so intimate. That’s why I can feel hurt when, for some reasons I don’t quite understand, it’s a problem to bear tattoos in Japan. I feel my identity attacked. Why the stigma is still so strong? Why there is no nuance and distinction between all tattoo bearers: a tattoo doesn’t make a person a member of a mafia, having a tattoo doesn’t make you a yakuza, right?

The truth is yakuza are less and less tattooed nowadays while the rest of the world ink itself more. Why wouldn’t we be free to do what we want to do with our bodies and get inked if we want to without being judged by society? If someone doesn’t like tattoos maybe just don’t get one, but why not leave the people who love them, having them in peace ?

Another reason why I got tattooed in Japan is because I like irezumi. Yes, the very traditional japanese ones: dragons, kingyo, phoenix birds. Unfortunately for me, the exact same ones are directly linked to the mafia and that’s how the “problems” started. Access denied to an onsen, as well as swimming-pools where I got one lifeguard, once, a few years ago, who literally kicked me out of the water as if I was a criminal. Never went back to a swimming pool after that. 

One friend told me that when she was working as a lifeguard in a swimming pool in Tokyo, she had to ask kids, wearing Pokemon temporary tattoos, to hide them. To follow the rules. And because tattoos have a “bad reputation”. But really? Children with Pokemon tattoos are a threat to society? Not even mentioning the nonexistent link with yakuza there…

Gym, yoga classes are other places you are denied if you are tattooed. It’s in the rule so it’s whether you hide them or you leave. I can hide mine under my sports outfits but I don’t like to think that I am hiding something on purpose. That I have to be extra careful when I use collective showers and bathrooms because people are going to be “disturbed” if they happen to see my tattoos.

It’s not a good feeling at all. So of course, some friends told me:” Yeah Johann, but why did you get a tattoo in the first place, when you knew it would be a problem? When you guessed the problems that were going to occur in your lifestyle in Japan?” It’s true, I knew it before I got inked but isn’t it my freedom as a human being? Isn’t it my body? I feel like Japan shouldn’t be proud of its rich tattoo culture instead of bullying people who proudly carry it.

Irezumi took its roots in the Jomon period while banning it started in the Meiji era for its link with the mafia. In the past, tattooing was so important for Japanese ethnicities such as Ryukyu (Okinawa) and to Ainu (Hokkaido): nowadays it has almost completely disappeared by fear of discrimination and for the widespread idea that it can be linked with gangs. Only a few artists use the very traditional technique, tebori (tattoo by hand) which consists of using a bamboo or metal stick with a needle at its extremity and tattooing by hand. Still, now, tebori full-body tattoos are still a rite of passage for yakuza. 

For Ainu women, tattoos were a symbol of beauty. Photos :

Tattoo artists’ lives are quite complicated too in Japan: law happens to change but until last year, they needed a specific medical license to be allowed to practice their art. In 2017, tattoo artist Taiki Masuda got fined 150 000 yens because he tattooed three people without this license. The Supreme Court finally dropped out his case, stating for the first time that tattooing requires “artistic skills, different from medicine”.  By concluding that tattooing is not a medical act, there were no violations of the medical practitioners’ law anymore.

This historical ruling, last year, dismissing tattoos as a medical procedure will likely make more room for aspiring tattoo artists to set up their practices in Japan. More importantly, it may change societal attitudes towards people with tattoos. Let’s hope it will.

Main illustration By Danima.

Translation by Ayşe Haruka Açıkbaş.

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