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Forbidden Ink: Japan’s Contentious Tattoo Heritage

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Asia Life

Forbidden Ink: Japan’s Contentious Tattoo Heritage

Despite an illustrious past and revered status overseas, Japanese tattoos have long struggled for acceptance at home.

Forbidden Ink: Japan’s Contentious Tattoo Heritage
Credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

(Part one of a two-part story.)

From starkly rendered waves crashing over a shoulder to a stern samurai warrior wielding a sword on one’s back, the striking designs expressed in Japanese tattoos are among the most iconic in the world of ink.

The fact that Japanese tattoos have received “recognition in such major Western art museums as the musée du quai Branly in France and general popularity among tattoo enthusiasts abroad are surely a testament to their enduring appeal,” John Skutlin, a PhD candidate in the Department of Japanese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The Diplomat.

Beyond the popular motifs of colorful koi and cherry blossoms mingling with tigers and dragons, tattoos also have deep roots among Japan’s indigenous Ainu people, as well as natives of Okinawa, The Japan Times points out. Ainu women, living mostly on the northern island of Hokkaido, have long etched designs onto their faces and arms using soot from the fireside, to keep evil spirits at bay and ensure a safe transition to the afterlife. And in Okinawa, it was also the women who traditionally marked their hands with a mix of ink and a strong local brew called awamori. Their tattoos served as talismans and had strongly shamanic undertones.

Yet despite Japan’s rich history of tattooing, the painstaking art form has never achieved mainstream acceptance on the islands. There are complex historical reasons for this. Further, there are fundamental differences between Japanese tattoos (irezumi — literally, “insert ink”) and their Western counterparts.

If one was to commit to a proper ink job in Japan, it could mean going as far as getting a full-body suit, extending from the back to the legs, arms, and chest. This would usually end at the neck, wrists and ankles so that “the ink could be shown when occasion permitted it,” Skutlin said. “It’s quite similar to Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s Japanese aesthetic as described in In Praise of Shadows, where he describes traditional Japanese gold-leaf images, lacquerware, and folding screens that, if shown in bright light, are gaudy and even blinding, but when seen in the murky candle-lit dimness of a temple with its eaves keeping the sunlight at bay, a mysterious, mystical kind of beauty is revealed.”

Sitting under the needle for this amount of work is no light matter. Whether a needle of the modern electric variety or the traditional tebori is being used, a full-body canvas can take up to five years to complete. The commitment involves weekly visits to a tattoo studio and fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, refining the design is a collaboration between artist and client, and the tattooist has the right to refuse service if their visions do not align.

Once a deal is struck between artist and customer, the ordeal begins. Charles “Didjelirium” Perez, a Tahitian documentary filmmaker focused on tattoos who runs Blackstone Productions with partner Moana Louis, described the method of tattooing by hand (tebori) as being akin to “some sort of warrior style initiation one has to undertake to become a man, which is often what tattoos were back in tribal times.”

The modern style of tattooing that first flourished during the Edo Period (1603-1868) account for the bulk of the motifs we associate with Japanese tattoos today. However, some historians point to evidence that people may have been tatting up on the archipelago as far back as the Jomon Period (10,000 BCE – 300 CE). Archaeologist Jun Takayama, for one, proposed that decorations etched into the bodies and faces of Jomon-era figurines were depicting tattoos. While this is debated, we can be sure that Chinese records stated in the third century CE that Japanese men were heavily tattooed on their faces and bodies.

And in 720 CE, we have the first mention of tattoos being used as punishment in Japan, akin to a scarlet letter. It was during these centuries, before the dawn of the Edo Period, that criminals’ foreheads were etched with ink using different symbols, depending on the region where their offense was committed. By the end of the 17th century, however, this trend faded as criminals began to cover their ink with decorative designs.

It wasn’t until the Edo Period that Japan’s famed tattoo style came into its own, when tattoo artists proliferated in the red light districts of urban centers like Edo and Osaka. This explosion of ink occurred largely thanks to the development of the art of woodblock printing (ukiyo-e) and the Chinese novel Suikoden, a pre-modern publishing sensation. The tale revolved around a band of courageous rebels whose skin bore dragons, flowers, tigers and religious images.

“Assuming that Japan had a tribal tattooing culture that was lost, we can view the Edo period tattooing culture as a highly unique phenomenon,” Skutlin said. “Around the same time that Captain Cook was helping to bring the Polynesian practices that gave us the word ‘tattoo’ into European popular imagination (circa 1769), Edo tattooists were already developing a flourishing and technically advanced form of marking the body. In this sense, Edo irezumi culture could be seen as Japan’s modern tattooing period, following a completely different path from the history of tattooing in the West that largely followed the flows of trade and imperialist expansion.”

Despite laws strictly banning the art, people at the lower end of the social ladder, from fire fighters to dock workers and palanquin bearers, proudly inked their skin in a spirit of rebellion. The yakuza (mafia) also began its longstanding tradition of going under the needle during this time. They “felt that because tattooing was painful, it was a proof of courage; because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty to the group; and because it was illegal, it made them outlaws forever.”

It was also at this time that the West’s fascination with irezumi began to form. Ironically, while Japanese authorities sought to squelch the work of tattoo artists in the hopes of presenting a squeaky clean image to foreign powers, Western sailors began to visit the studios of various masters in Yokohama in search of ink. Even some Western dignitaries, including the Duke of York, who later became King George V; and the Tsarevich of Russia, who later became Tsar Nicholas II, went under the needle. This dichotomous state of affairs continued through the end of World War II, when General MacArthur pushed through sweeping legal reforms and tattoos were no longer banned.

Fair or not, the image of tattoos being linked to the underworld stuck. According to Taku Oshima, a Tokyo-based tattoo artist focused on blackwork and tribal patterns at Tribal Tattoo Apocaript, “Japanese people, mostly aged 55 to 75, largely have a negative reaction to tattoos. This is largely due to the image spread by Yakuza movies from the 1970s.” Brutal Tales of Chivalry and Kanto Wanderer are but a few of the mobster-themed flicks that colored the views of the baby boomer generation, as The Japan Times notes.

As a result of this historical prejudice, tattoo artists tend to operate quietly and by appointment only to this day. And many public baths, fitness centers and hot springs still enforce bans on customers with tattoos. In one prominent case, a Maori woman visiting Hokkaido from New Zealand was turned away from a hot spring in 2014 due to her facial markings. This, despite the fact that Ainu women living on the island traditionally had facial tattoos.

In Japan, where the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, such social norms are very effective forms of self-censorship, Skutlin explained. “Doing makeup, for instance, is considered common manners for women in Japan, and to not do so (or expose the backstage process of doing one’s makeup in a public space like a train) is considered a violation of norms and a nuisance to others. Similarly, many tattooed individuals I have interviewed are highly conscious of when and where they should expose their tattoos in order to avoid making others around them uncomfortable.”

The social order may stifle appetite for tattoos among those seeking to blend in. But the world of irezumi is alive and well in Japan and overseas. According to Perez, “these incredibly detailed artworks and their skillful execution, created this fascination for Japanese tattoos, probably even more for postwar Westerners’ minds. It also rendered the total eradication of tattoos in Japan impossible, though some would surely like to.”