In Japan, Tattoos Are Not Just For Yakuza Anymore

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A young man with a stunning tattoo of Kanon Bosatsu (観音菩薩)the all-seeing, all-compassionate Buddhist deity. Designed by Horiyoshi The 3rd.

Tattoos are as Japanese as sushi, samurai, and yakuza but in recent years with the crackdown on organized crime (the yakuza), tattoos have become increasingly socially unacceptable while many younger Japanese and people living abroad have embraced tattoos as a fashion item.

In December last year, the government of Saitama Prefecture submitted a bill to revise local ordinances to prohibit tattoos under the age of 18. A fine of up to  500,000 yen will be levied on the violators of the law.  If a space is provided to tattoo on young people under 18, there is  a fine of up to 300,000 yen for the tattoo parlor owners. If the law is passed it will go into effect as of February 1st, this year.

Japan has waged many fruitless wars in the past and the latest war is a war on tattoos. Kicking it off was the Mayor of Osaka, the son of a yakuza boss, who as most yakuza are, was probably heavily tattooed.

In May 2012, the mayor of Osaka and founder of the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), created a huge controversy by ordering all public employees to confess to whether they had tattoos or not. In Japan, where tattoos are seen as a sign of being a yakuza, (member of the Japanese mafia), the tattoo “witch hunt” is in danger of alienating a large number of Japanese citizens and tourists as “tattoos” become more and more fashionable. Ironically, due to a series of laws cracking down on organized crime, the yakuza themselves are ordering their members to remove tattoos or not get them in the first place. One yakuza boss and tattoo artist laments, “All of my customers now are straight people (katagi). No yakuza in his right mind gets a tattoo now. You can’t do business that way. You can’t rise up the underworld ladder.”’

According to AERA magazine’s June issue (2012), at least two people in the Osaka metropolitan area have removed their tattoos after the mayor of Osaka announced the city’s crackdown on tattoos.

The young and charismatic mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who was elected in 2011, has been compared to Adolf Hitler in the Japanese media for his authoritarian governing style, showing that Godwin’s rule applies even in Japan. Although, Hashimoto does have some fascist tendencies. It’s hard to really root for a guy who rose to stardom under the tutelage of yakuza associate and lousy comedian Shimada Shinsuke, who had Hashimoto appear on his variety show about laws in Japan. Hashimoto also got his start as lawyer for consumer loan outfits, Japan’s equivalent of legal loan-sharking, which doesn’t exactly make him a champion of the downtrodden.  Never mind.

From May to June this year, he ordered an official survey upon the Osaka civil servants to reveal whether they wear a tattoo on a visible part of their bodies.

Mr. Hashimoto, 42, announced a crack down on tattoo bearers who work in the public sector in Osaka last May. After a survey was conducted, the people of Osaka decided, that public servants should not wear tattoos, “because those who see them feel ‘awkward,’” the spokesman of the Osaka city hall explained. The mayor Osaka then requested all the public servants to indicate how big and where  their tattoos were located, in an official letter.

The root of this controversial crackdown on tattoos was sparked by the case of a welfare officer who intimidated children by exhibiting his tattoos. “We do not wish the tattoo to be visible to the eyes of the public, we simply would like them to hide their tattoos with clothes or band aids, if they are visible,” the spokesman said.

To conduct the survey, the city hall of Osaka asked the public servants to respond to their inquiry, which is a “work-related instruction.”

After May 2012, the esthetic surgery clinics reported that tattoo related issues and requests from patients “to remove their tattoos” had increased by 25% and are still increasing, according to AERA.

According to a medical doctor interviewed by AERA, there are three ways to clinically erase a tattoo: the laser ablation, the resection and the food technologies.

It should be pointed out that this policy is not going to become a law, but simply “the ethics of work” in Osaka, and the staff will be requested not to exhibit their tattoos at work.

In order to target the concerned staff, the city of Osaka sent a written request to 35,000 people. 113 replied that they had tattoos in a visible place on their bodies.

In December 2012, three Osaka municipal workers who were punished for refusing to respond to the survey have submitted a petition to the mayor of Osaka urging him to revoke the disciplinary action, Kyodo News reported. They submitted the signatures of 3,205 people. The supporters who wish to revoke Hashimoto’s disciplinary measures say that the Osaka Municipal government has “violated human rights.”

A sculpure found at the Tattoo Museum owned by Horiyoshi the Third in Yokohama, 15 minutes away from his work studio

A sculpture found at the Tattoo Museum owned by Horiyoshi the Third in Yokohama, 15 minutes away from his work studio

According to Manami Okazaki, the author of Tattoo in Japan: Traditional and Modern Styles, who researched in depth the current situation of tattoos and those who wear them in modern Japan, “With the popularity of tattoos in America, with several reality TV shows and celebrity tattoo artists, tattoos are increasingly popular among young people in Japan.” Whereas before, more yakuza people used to wear tattoos and “the gang connotations were stronger.” However, the historical connection to the yakuza still remains overall, because the recent crack down on tattoos in Japanese society has increased more than ever, she explained.

An explanation of the decline of yakuza clientele and the increase of ordinary citizen clientele given by Hokuo, a tattoo master in Japan interviewed by Manami Okazaki, is that nowadays, the yakuza do not have the money to buy extravagances such as whole body tattoos. A decade ago a full-body tattoo could take up to 500 hours to complete and cost over 5 million yen.

The cooperative association of Hakone hot springs and ryokan said that the traditional Japanese irezumi (入れ墨)generate “fear and awkwardness,” generally because they are associated with members of the anti-social forces (反社会的勢力. The Hakone hot spring association spokesman said that, people wearing tattoos are now increasing and “discussions are raising everywhere in Japan, because there is no definition or explanation of the ‘fashionable tattoo’ and the traditional irezumi.” He also added that there was no clear explanation given to whether this is “good or this is bad,” but the Japanese irezumi is forbidden everywhere, in public baths, in swimming pools, etc.

He said that the problem is when the tattoo creates “fear and uneasiness.” “It’s a difficult problem. It’s true that the irezumi could be seen as part of Japanese culture, and people who are not members of the yakuza are also wearing tattoos. However, in general, in Japan, tattoos are not good,” he concluded.

Another figurine found at the Tattoo Museum, featuring Horiyoshi III working on the body of a woman

Another figurine found at the Tattoo Museum, featuring Horiyoshi III working on the body of a woman

The Asahi Newspaper in Hokkaido reported that a new initiative rose among the Hokkaido public baths owners’ union who submitted a proposal to restudy the manuals for letting tattooed customers use the facilities.

The initiative, currently under consideration, was raised as some owners started to say that: “excluding tattooed people is discrimination.” According to the Asahi Shinbun, since the Hokkaido organized crime exclusionary laws went into effect in 2011, this reality has raised other sorts of trouble. 245 public bath owners have been inquired on this issue. 75% have replied to the inquiry.

Currently, 75% of the public baths owners allow tattooed people to use their facilities, 19% believe that they might lose customers if they ban them, 17% answered they fear that “not letting tattooed people in might create trouble with the other customers,” and 36% answered that they have nothing to report in particular. 24% of them informed their customers about the ban on tattoos on posters or orally. 71% answered they have not announced anything in particular.

Most of the public baths owners reported that their main concern was to “establish the right limits between the Japanese traditional irezumi and the fashion tattoo.” Many also reported that even though they announce the ban on posters, “it is difficult to actually refuse them entry.” The result of the survey basically announced that 60% of the poll requested that “each public bath owners should have the freedom to exercise the right to ban or allow entry to tattooed individuals based on their own judgement.” And 16% wish the rules to be changed, and are considering changing the content of the manuals. The reason given is that discriminating against  tattooed people would be a violation of the human rights.

Archives of Japanese tattoos aimed for criminals explaining their meaning on different location of the body

Archives of Japanese tattoos showed how they were used to brand criminals explaining their meaning on different location of the body

The spokesman of Hokkaido’s union of public bath owners said that they did not intend to change the manuals only because of the tattoos issue. They conducted the survey because they received some complaints over the last few  years. The revised manuals have been published in the summer of 2012. “Some people think that the tattoos are a nuisance. But the opinion are quite diverse, it is fifty-fifty,” the union member said.

The Hokkaido Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinance Team  told JSRC that the inquiry started in November last year and that the survey does not judge whether the tattoos are “good” or “bad.” The Hokkaido organized crime exclusionary laws that went into effect in 2011 evoke the issue in a “hygienic sense,” and also from the point of view of the human rights and discrimination against tattooed people.

With regard to the hygienic issue, the spokesman of the Hokkaido law enforcement unit explained the hygienic issues of tattoos, such as transmissible diseases. Tattooed customers’ “hygienic issues” were compared to customers with tuberculosis.

“The reason we have to kindly ask certain customers not to use the public facilities is because we would like to have ‘healthy bathtubs’, the message is ‘let’s have clean public baths. People tend to feel awkward on the hygienic level when they bathe with tattooed people,” he added.

Tom Stringer, 25, a British English teacher in Osaka for  four years was refused entry to become a member of a gym spa called Costa, because he was wearing an 8 cm diameter circular tattoo on his chest. First, when he tried to apply, the staff asked him if he had any tattoos at all, he answered honestly, and he was banned from the gym.

He said he had to wait 7 months before reapplying, hoping that the club had forgotten about him. Tom left the Costa gym earlier this year, but during the whole time he was attending the gym facilities, he could not use the shower, nor could he use the hot tub. In the changing room, he was constantly trying not to be seen by the staff members, and had to change facing the wall. It was a supreme pain in the ass. (Metaphorically.)

In Sapporo this year, Tom was also discriminated because of his tattoo on hischest. Inside the changing room of a spa, while he was getting ready to use the facility, he was kindly asked to put back his clothes and leave the onsen, when a female cleaning staff member came in and saw his tattoo.

In his four years living in Japan, Tom was discriminated twice for wearing a tattoo. At  the Language school in Osaka where he is currently teaching English, no one has treated him badly because of his tattoo.

Foreigners or tourists are not the only victims of tattoo discrimination. The surgeon interviewed by AERA also reported the case of a young Japanese woman who was discriminated over her tattoos. One of the surgeon’s patients, a young woman in her twenties, told him that a employee of a spa kicked her out while she was washing her hair, and did not let her finish bathing. She told him she remembered crying bitterly after that experience.

 Horiyoshi III, Japan’s most famous tattoo artist, and also said to be the inventor of a new and better tools for wabori (和彫り)traditional Japanese tattooing, spoke to JSRC in his tattoo studio in Yokohama. “I think that the Western people also have a prefabricated idea that the Japanese traditional irezumi are designed for the yakuza. Someone once told me ‘I want a yakuza-style tattoo.’ It is a common recognition of it. But it is not the yakuza’s fault if their tattoos are designated in such way.”

Horiyoshi the Third, the world's most famous tattoo artist, in his studio in Yokohama

Horiyoshi the Third, the world’s most famous tattoo artist, at work in his studio in Yokohama

Horiyoshi the Third claims that his clients are 90% “ordinary people”, among them salary men, musicians, bar hosts, “Of course I do have yakuza clients as well.” However he said that he has much fewer yakuza clients than he use to have in the past. “Some kumi, or organized crime groups, nowadays order their members to erase their tattoos with lasers, if they can afford it.”

Horiyoshi III holding the original tebori XXX

Horiyoshi III is renown for using the Tebori you no nomi

It is difficult to say whether the wabori Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the electric sound of the needle.

Despite the crackdown on tattoos, Horiyoshi the Third does not believe that his art, together with the art of tattoos in general will ever die after his death. “I am a descendant of this tradition, and despite the government bans our culture has survived. The tattoo will never die. It will evolve. Since the Edo period, the tool, the designs and technologies are constantly evolving. Therefore my art will evolve, rather than disappear.”

“Ten years ago, 10 percent of my clients were foreign and this year, I have  40 percent of my clients are non-Japanese. The number of Japanese tattoo fans is continuously increasing over the years,” he added.

A mid-level yakuza boss and tattoo artist in his spare time explained to JSRC that during the Edo period, there was no real jobs related to the firemen, it was the carpenters or the workers on construction sites who volunteered in stopping fires when such accidents occurred. “They [the firemen] were the ones known for wearing whole body tattoos. It seems like this category of people were those who did the work that nobody else can do or does not want to do, like the ancestors of the current anti-social forces.”

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A yakuza boss and part-time tattoo artist at work.

According to this tattoo artist on his spare time, the layer of ink inside the skin helped the firefighters to endure the heat of the fire. Whether this is true or not is hard to say–there hasn’t really been a study of tattoos and fire-fighter endurance.

IMG_1369

John, 52, is a computer engineer currently based in California, who worked seven years in Japan in the past. He started his whole body tattoo at age 40 with Horiyoshi the Third, in Yokohama. John travels two weeks a year to Japan to get his tattoo finished year after year by his favorite tattoo master. John has been tattooed by Horiyoshi III for 12 years but the tattoo is not yet complete.

John was tattooed by Horiyoshi III since XXX

John has been tattooed by Horiyoshi III for several years but the tattoo is not yet complete

John

John

John operates in the business world, and as an educated man with a career, he admits there is a certain amount of risk concerning what his colleagues would think about his tattoos. When asked if he faces social discrimination at work in California for his tattoos, he replied: “Tattoos are not  business wear. I do not display or mention them in professional situations. I feel that concealed tattoos should not matter. It’s the same as with a suit. When the situation calls for a business suit, I must actually wear one. It does not matter how many are hidden in my closet.”

 A special agent with the Australian Federal Police said on background, “We don’t see the young yakuza coming in with tattoos or missing fingers. The new generation is all cleanskins.*

 One Japanese police officer states, “If we continue to discriminate against people with tattoos or ex-yakuza, we’ll never be able to reintegrate them into society.  Tattoos are no longer a reliable indication of whether a person is in the yakuza at present. It’s time the laws reflected the reality.”

Mr. Kazuki Kai, 42, from Kyushu said he heard about Horiyoshi III’s reputation even before he had his tattoo studio in Yokohama. Mr. Kai started to have his first tattoo of a dragon by Horiyoshi-sensei on his left arm 23 years ago. He abandoned having any tattoo for a while and started again a new tattoo of a snake on his right arm and shoulder this January 2012. (You can see the difference in the colors.)

Mr. Kai works as a harbor blacksmith for a power generation company in Kyushu. He intends to get a whole body tattoo at Horiyoshi the Third’s tattoo studio in Yokohama. He estimates that it will take him another 3 to 4 years.  The traditional methods of tattooing in Japan are close to dying out and as Japanese culture adapts to tattoos, Japanese society is experiencing some growing pains. Whether those growing pains even come close to the actual pain of a traditional tattoo is best left to the imagination.

“It is difficult to say whether the wabori Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the electric sound of the needle.”–Horiyoshi the 3rd

Mr. XXX from Fukuoka accepted to pose in the studio of Horiyoshi the Third

Mr. Kazuki Kai from Kyushu accepted to pose in the studio of Horiyoshi the Third

 *Criminal without identifying body art or physical features.

Comments
61 Responses to “In Japan, Tattoos Are Not Just For Yakuza Anymore”
  1. Sebastian says:

    I have been to Japan several times and one of the things I enjoyed the most were the Onsen and public spa. It was always a pain to use them since I have a small tattoo on my arm and I would have to cover it with band aids every time and make sure they don’t come off while in the hot water. In every place I was asked if I had a tattoo while registering and had to lie about it even thou I would never be confused for a Yakusa. A couple times I was asked to leave by the staff when my small tattoo was spotted beneath the band aids. At the time it seemed more like an excuse to kick out a gaijin than preventing Yakuzas to mingle with the patrons.
    LaQua next to Tokyo Dome was a particularly harsh while small public bath were more relaxed. One nice exception was Spa World in Osaka where covering tattoos were happily suggested by the staff with a complicit smile.

  2. Deano @ JTM says:

    Great post, really interesting to see all the facts and stats.

    Plus Horiyoshi III looks like a badass!

    • subcultureist says:

      I think he’s a pretty tough guy. And I never argue with anyone carrying sharp objects.

      • John says:

        He’s actually one of the calmest people I know.

        • subcultureist says:

          I’m not surprised. It reminds me of something a Marine Colonel once told me. “When you walk into a bar, you don’t worry about the loudmouth
          talking up a storm. It’s the quiet guy in the corner who you’d better
          worry about.”

  3. John says:

    Thank you for featuring me in your article.

    Actually, despite my opinion that tattoos are not business wear, I am considering displaying my tattoos even at work. My tattoos demonstrate that I can set an outlandish, difficult goal, use my diverse resources to drive it to completion, and get an excellent result. That’s what counts in my project oriented, goal based profession. My tattoos demonstrate that I know how to make shit happen.

    As for the Yakuza connections, it’s easy for me because I’m Caucasian. White guys can’t be Yakuza. Also, after talking to me for even a few moments, any reasonable person can tell I’m not a underworld type. It’s not my style.

    • Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky says:

      Thank you John-san for answering my questions at Horiyoshi-sensei’s studio. I remember you commenting on the mayor of Osaka, Mr. Hashimoto and his crack down on tattoos, you said “By talking about tattoos in the workplace, it’s the mayor of Osaka who is violating my rules of professional conduct. It’s actually kind of lurid, like in The Rocky Horror Picture Show when Dr. Frank-N-Furter asks, ‘Do you have any tattoos?’”. We had nice chat.
      Courage with the rest of your tattoo. I never had a tattoo, but I guess it takes a lot of courage to let a needle pierce your skin every nanosecond during several hours.
      By the way, I think there can be caucasian yakuza, I heard “there have been a couple, but few of them reached executive status.” There were once a Russian yakuza, an Iranian yakuza, a Black yakuza, a Chinese yakuza. So, Quentin Tarantino’s character O’ren Ishi (half Chinese, Half American) may not be a total fiction :-) except that there have never been any female yakuza boss ever.
      Thank you to all the readers of Japan Subculture Research Center!!
      Kyoko

  4. manami says:

    Happy New Year
    Brilliant article, well researched… thank for you posting! Yes, I remember seeing photos of a heavily tattooed (currently incarcerated) Iranian yak whilst flipping through late tattoo master Horikazu’s portfolio.
    Have a fantastic year and keep up the great work.

    • subcultureist says:

      Thank you Manami-sama!
      Your seal of approval on the article is much appreciated.
      There was an Iranian yakuza in the Sumiyoshi-kai that rose fairly high in the organization but that was years ago.
      Happy 2013!

  5. Question everything says:

    I am old enough to remember when tattoos in the West meant something rather than just being consumer fashion items … even if that ‘something’ was the person wearing them was a retard or psychopath, rather than an attention whore with a tramp stamp. In the old days they truly were subcultural. Now, like trademarked Harley-Davidson clothing, they seem to belong to a conformist part of society who believes one can buy being different by an external decoration.

    But what they are buying now is only a facsimile of what tattoos used to be.

    Coming to Japan in my later life, I am so glad that I never got any because I love the bathing culture. First and foremost I defend the right of the small business owners who run local onsen and sento do decide themselves in this matter and would strongly resist and reject any “Debito-esque” attempt to demand and enforce “equal rights”, ‘wants’ really, by those afflicted by tattoos.

    What about our rights at not having to look at them?

    Personally, I have no problems with tattoos and have had numerous friends with them. By which I mean proper ones earned through gang affiliations or challenged upbringing rather than vanity, self-importance and wealth that enable fashion tattoos.

    I tend to chose my onsen by the quality of water and local ones include those who allowed full tattoos. Indeed, by the lack of little fingers around the place, I would say they seem to specialize in old school ex-Yakusa members. Others obviously allow current members, often with ‘works in progress’. But the majority disallow them and I am glad for it.

    I am glad for it not because I am frightened by members of closed societies but because I like the anonymous universality of the bathing experience. As with nudism, it is the only time in life when everyone is stripped down to being bare naked equal with none of the obvious trapping of class, wealth or position and you see them, and are seen, as one is.

    I am also old enough to remember when sports teams used to go out wearing just their colors and, just like I prefer to look at a wall or building, a piece of clothing or uniform without some kind of intrusive logo demanding my attention, so too I prefer no more visual clutter than are required.

    I am sorry but in life one just cannot have everything one wants.

  6. Ross says:

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out an error in this article. Horiyoshi III, who has tattooed me, is NOT “said to be the inventor of a new technique called tebori.” Tebori means “hand shading” or tattooing by hand (as opposed to a machine). It is, in fact, a very old, very traditional technique that predates Horiyoshi III by a few centuries.

    That said, I enjoyed the article.

    • Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky says:

      Ross-san, thank you for reading the story and noticing this detail. One thing is true, Horiyoshi did a lot experiments on his own skin since he was very young. An interview with him will be posted on this website today.

      • Ross says:

        It’s true that he experimented on himself first, but that’s no different from the way that virtually every tattooer begins.

  7. Brendan says:

    I imagine that younger generations who find tattoos socially acceptable seek a variety of styles, not just traditional Japanese designs. I’m curious, tho, whether you’ve noticed or sensed any sort of backlash against tattoos considered ‘yakuza’ among people who like getting tattooed themselves, if there’s any movement to intentionally alter the look of fashion to create some distance.

    • subcultureist says:

      Most people can’t tell “yakuza” tattoos from other tattoos. All tattoos are seen (in general) as signs of being connected to anti-social forces.

  8. Derek says:

    Thank you for this article! I make several trips to Japan every year for work and pleasure and am in love with the hot springs, but for years I’ve been kicked out of several of them by older managers. It’s interesting how the is definitely a generational shift, the younger employees can distinguish between yakuza tattoos from those of personal expression. I’ve also found something of a double standard, like the more luxury onsens will turn a blind eye to even those with a full body suit (even though the no-tattoo sign is clearly posted).

    I understand the owner’s situation, after all it’s hard to operate a family business with a gang of tattooed “chimpiras” intimidating customers, but on the other hand more and more tattooed westerners and young fashionable urbanites are discovering the joys of Japanese hot springs (which is good for business, especially in this economy). I guess it would be hard to set a policy of no-tattoos and then allow western or fashion tattoos in.

    • subcultureist says:

      I think it’s time to give up the ban on tattoos. The days when tattoos equalled yakuza are fading into the past.

  9. In my experience, Japanese unwillingness to disturb other people’s peace can be both a blessing and a curse. And the point made above about those with tattoos still bearing signs of their class, wealth or social position is an interesting one. Although taken alongside remarks like “What about my right not to have to look at them,” (wow!) the writer’s credibility takes a hit. I mean, where do you draw the line there?! At the end of the day, a naked tattooed person is still naked and defenseless with their clothes off as a non-tattooed person. In some cases, more so. And tattoos do not make an

    • Question everything says:

      Not really … tattoos are visual noise, like shouting in public or using your keitai on public transport. Funny enough, onsen are one of the last places left in Japan where there is a lack of or no visual noise.

      There’s something to be appreciated in the whole modest, minimal, humility and decorum thing.

      And, more to the point, the majority of tattoos are pretty immature, or just look a mess.

      As I said, in the old days they meant something. Nowadays they are just a conformal consumer item with which people think they can buy being special or different, and draw attention to themselves. It’s rare these days you met someone with a tattoo that is more interesting than their tattoo. Horiyoshi surprised me in this. He’s a corporate brand now, like Nike.

      I’d draw the line at one’s own bath at home if you must, rather than feed the exhibitionistic element of it.

      I think what I dislike most is the attitude behind it which is a sort of, “I demand whatever I want, where I want, whenever I want it” (and I’ll sue to get it) … it’s all about “me”. It’s a very Western, dare I say American attitude that does not fit well in Japan.

      Well, what about respecting other people’s feelings? What respecting the small business people’s business interest?

      I cannot imagine anyone needing a tattoo these days, save perhaps for some gang membership, but if you some some, there are places you can go. You’ve just got to know who to ask or where to look.

      • Lucas says:

        Of course its “about me”, you stupid shit. Its art. Art is personal expression. When I listen to music, it is “about me”. Should I take into account other peoples feelings with the music I listen to? Get fucked buddy. If someone doesn’t want to look at tattoos, then don’t fucking look at them. Either that, or learn to adapt to the modern fucking world.

  10. individual good or bad so automatic discomfort and unease from those around tattooed people is an illogical response. They should change, tattooed people should not forego the society, intimacy and fellowship of the wonderful Japanese bath.

  11. Agreed… sigh. That’s why it must be hard to make laws and decide on firm principles around which to organize human society. But I think this one is basically easy – less judgment by appearance! Surely there is no argument against this? This ban is a relic.

    • Question everything says:

      It’s not your tattoo, it’s your immature egotism and exhibitionism that’s spoiling the 和らぎ.

  12. It’s permanent, which sets it apart from other fashion statements or personal decorations but the difference for me ends there. Most people make choices about how they look… I’m sorry come off as immature, maybe it’s the simplicity of my argument making me look so?

  13. Question everything says:

    Sadly, the local onsen which accepted ex-Yakusa members has closed. Sad for me because the quality of the water was very unique and special. Probably sad for you because they displayed an excellent collection of unself-conscious, unreconstructed, original full-body suits.

    They were not posing or “look-a-likes”. They were the real thing and had paid the unimaginable price of leaving, the ultimate “body modification” of cutting their own fingers off for honor or to save their own life. Not style.

    But who knows what terrible crimes they had committed in the past, and so it would be wrong romanticized them. Violence, intimidation and extortion in real life is ugly and hurts, unlike the movies and comics.

    The one I remember most clearly had, from his tattoos, being involved in prostitution. I’ll leave you to imagine, or Jake Adelstein to tell you, what he was likely to have done during his career.

    No wonder people don’t feel comfortable to bathe with them.

    • I can understand not feeling comfortable bathing with a bunch of yakuza. Just tattooed people, not so much.

      • Question everything says:

        Quite honestly, I’ve never had a problem with either the ex- or current members.

        The only kid I have had an attitude problem with at a sento, and the only person I ever heard raise their voice, was a young punk with a yankii-style tattoo and hair. A fashion tattoo.

        However, he was ultimately correct … he was upset at me going to use the cold plunge pool after the sauna without rinsing first.

        I just love a culture even whose yobs and gangsters are so hygienic.

        What I was told about the old school ex-s (two pinkies off) was that they were some of the best people to be around simply because they’d seen it all and left and paid the price to do so.

        I had no problem whatsoever despite clearly being the only foreigner who used the place. Funnily enough it was called the Heiwa Onsen.

        With the active members, and you could see their ranking by the ‘work in progress’ across their back, again no problems. The little junior would come in last and lay their razors and tooth brushes out just how they liked them.

        However, as with Debito Arudou and his Hokkaido bath house court case, foreigners don’t seem to appreciate the back story to all this.

        As I understand it, a spate of gang wars in the past which targeting opposite gangs as they took baths traumatized Japan and people from being in the same bathwater as them. Any such incident would destroy a business and so it was fair to avoid such patrons.

        Beyond that, it’s all about dealing with people who are unaware of, or operate outside of the norms and a numerous levels of highly respectable sensitivity and consideration for other people’s feelings beyond what foreigners would understand or be capable of.

        Ultimately, I have to agree and sympathize with the traditionalists. If you have tattoos and want a bath, open your own business catering for other inked up users don’t do as the great liberal liberator Debito did and go about telling other people how to run their small business.

        • Matt says:

          ‘Ultimately, I have to agree and sympathize with the traditionalists. If you have tattoos and want a bath, open your own business catering for other inked up users don’t do as the great liberal liberator Debito did and go about telling other people how to run their small business.’

          What a shockingly poor and narrow-minded line of reasoning. So, going by this logic, if an onsen (or other small business) was to ban black people, for example, from entering, your advice would be ‘suck it up and open your own place’? I find that hard to believe.

          Just because tattooing may have historically negative connotations within a society it doesn’t mean that all people with tattoos are unsavoury characters. That you personally do not enjoy looking at tattoos is not even remotely a valid reason to ban all people who do wish to have their body tattooed from entering any establishment.

  14. dhana says:

    Great article, great site. Fantastic content.
    I was married to one of those guys–in Osaka. I wanted my whole back done so badly, but it was out of the question, so I went in secret. I was introduced by a friends boyfriend, one of the Yamaguchi-gumi (this was a long time ago) to the horishii in Tanimachi 6 chome–a rival of my husbands. I won’t get into the whole story now, I am actually writing it in a memoir, but I was given a beautiful book on Japanese Tattooed ladies.It’s a hardcover coffee table type book that I still have. One of the few things I’ve kept from that time.

  15. fake tattoos says:

    ‘The Tattoo Artist’ features a sailor with a long list of girlfriends’ inked names crossed out on his arm right !!! ??

  16. Dennis Bauer says:

    When i lived in Aomori I had no issues with Onsens or Sports center, only when i came back to the big city, was i barred from entering sports clubs and Onsens. They wil lose a lot of young members

  17. breatheasily says:

    Thank you for the great article, seriously interesting.

    As for myself, getting the three tattoos I currently have were very important and deeply thought over decisions I made, despite the fact that going to an onsen is one of my dreams. It’s interesting seeing things polarized as “fashion” or “yakuza” when I’m sure there are just as many “means something” tattoos out there as well. I mean, honestly the “old ways” of tattoos meaning something have not died out. It’s not always about pride or fashion, for me it’s about being able to carry the messages that these tattoos represent past death until my body crumbles into the earth. They are a part of who I am, an identity I choose for myself.

    I worry though, about ending up working some place that if any co-worker saw a part of one of my tattoos outside of school I could get fired for it. That would be the worst thing. So I keep hoping things get better.

    • subcultureist says:

      I hope they do as well. This summer–”let’s stop tattoo discrimination article” would be good to write.

  18. John B says:

    Great article. I’m a heavily tattooed American visiting the heart of Tokyo for vacation after a business trip to Shanghai in August. I have one arm fully sleeved in Japanese traditional work (dragon and koi) and the other almost completely done in American traditional. I am an engineer and work for a major American automaker and receive no issues showing my tattoos at work in Detroit. I don’t plan on using the Onsen or fitness clubs, but am sure I hope there are no issues as I go about my typical tourist activities.

  19. TheGremlin says:

    Very well write article. Thanks for the interesting read. As a tattooed person living in Japan I have personally felt the discrimination though not in the way you might think. I am very open and honest about my tattoos and I love to talk to anyone about them.

    I have been to onsen on many occasions and had dealing with many Japanese from varying backgrounds and in many different social environments. The discrimination I receive unbelievably is from my in-laws. 60 year old baby boomers holding on to customs and traditions only because they are Japanese customs not because theyes are right.

    There is a discriminatory view being held on to by the babyboomer generation in japan and not just towards tattoos it goes towards anyone that doesn’t fit the Japanese mold. Gays and lesbians, women, disabled, the list goes on.

    This will change thankfully. as the old ideas die and the young takeover, Japan will change and Japan not only Horimotos craft will evolve.

    P.s. Question Everything,
    If you don’t like visual noise close your eyes.

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  1. [...] In Japan, Tattoos Are Not Just For Yakuza Anymore : Japan Subculture Research Center [...]

  2. [...] volverse positiva en los jóvenes. En los baños públicos de Hokkaido por ejemplo, se ha sugerido revaluar las políticas que prohíben que las personas tatuadas entren a baños públicos, pues se considera [...]

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