Tattoos in Japan
Japan has a very particular vision of tattooing. If you have tattoos in Japan and plan to travel to the land of the rising sun, you will quickly find that this is a frowned upon art, which could even close some doors in social life for you.
Tattoos in Japan is usually associated with the image of the Japanese mafia, called Yakuza. Its members are in fact used to sporting large tattoos as a sign of their belonging to the local mafia. In addition, as early as the Kofun era and throughout the Edo period, tattooing was used to mark and punish criminals. During the Meiji era, tattooing was banned altogether before being authorized again from 1945. In other words, Japan has a difficult history with tattooing, which explains its aversion to this art and its discrimination. towards tattooed people.
Tattoos in Japan for foreigners
In general, tattooed foreigners will not have much to worry about going to Japan since they cannot be suspected of being Yakuza. If your tattoos are visible, at worst, expect to be the object of insistent, puzzled, or amused stares. However, be aware that the majority of public baths, “onsen”, gyms and even some traditional hotels may deny you access to their establishment. If your tattoo (s) are not visible when you are dressed, still remember to tell the person who greets you that you have a tattoo, to avoid an awkward situation once inside. Always respect the decision of the establishment to deny you access, because there is no point in insisting.
The Japanese have a much harder time finding work if they have a tattoo
The Japanese, on the other hand, have a much harder time finding work if they have a tattoo, even without any connection to Yakuza iconography, especially in administration and in large companies. In some administrations, notably in the Osaka civil service, employees are even required to fill out a form in which they must indicate whether they have a tattoo, what size and on what part of their body. However, more and more young Japanese dare to break the “rules” and get small, inconspicuous tattoos.
When was tattoos legal in Japan?
The laws against tattoos were enforced in 1936 after the war between Japan and China broke out, banning tattoos entirely. The Japanese government thought people with tattoos were problematic. It wasn’t until 1946 that tattooing became legal again.
Japanese tattoo artists
Japanese tattoo artists generally live underground, although a few tattoo parlors can be found here and there in major cities. There are two styles of tattoos in the archipelago: the Japanese style tattoo and the Western design tattoo. The local traditional technique is a little more painful than the classic Western method since the Japanese tattoo is carried out using a needle attached to the end of a handle, which the tattoo artist successively enters under the skin and then comes out manually.
Japanese mentality towards tattoos is gradually softening
Even if the Japanese mentality towards tattoos is gradually softening, this body art is still not well received. If you have tattoos, be sure to cover them up as much as possible during your stay, to avoid curious stares that might make you uncomfortable. Also remember to find out in advance about the public baths and “onsen” that accept tattooed people to avoid being inadvertently turned away at the entrance.
Common motifs of tattoos in Japan
Some common images in traditional Japanese tattoos include:
- Mythological beasts and monsters: dragons, kirin, baku, foo dogs, Hō-ō (鳳凰)
- Animals: birds, koi, tigers, snakes
- Flowers: peonies, cherry blossoms, lotuses, chrysanthemums
- Other plants: bamboo, maple leaves
- Characters from traditional folklore and literature, such as the Suikoden
- Images of the “floating world” inspired by ukiyo-e prints: geisha, samurai
- Buddhas and Buddhist deities such as Fudō Myō-ō and Kannon
- Shinto kami (deities) such as tengu
- Backgrounds: clouds, waves, wind bars
- Masks used in Noh theater (hannya)
Photo description: traditional Japanese tattoo, done by Hori Kasiwa.