Photo:Justin Wolfe on Flickr

Tattoo Taboo

Westerners, for the most part, probably don’t give much thought to tattoos. An awful lot of us have them (myself included), and they certainly don’t carry the stigma they used to, aside from in small pockets of our society. However, in Japan, this is a slightly different story. Whilst Japan is an ultra modern, highly advanced society, there are still places and attitudes that aren’t overly positive towards tattoos. Allow me to explain.

Tattoo history in Japan

Tattoos actually have a surprisingly long history in Japan. In the Edo period, criminals had their wrongdoings etched into their skin, announcing publicly what they had done. Yuujyo, or sex workers, also from the Edo period, adorned their bodies with tattoos as a gesture of romantic interest in favourite clients. These consisted of the customers name, then the word “inochi”, meaning life. Another Edo period custom was the practice of buddhist symbols and sutras being inked. The practice by monks, served to show devotion and offer divine protection. The Meji period saw the practice become illegal (between the years of 1872 until 1948), and this was despite widespread praise from the West of Japanese tattoo practices. Here in Okinawa (formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom), there was actually a culture of tattooing called ‘Hajichi’, a practice that saw the hands of women adorned with symbols to ward off evil spirits. Tattoos have huge symbolism amongst the Yakuza (organised crime units similar to the Mafia). In Yakuza culture, it is expected of members to show loyalty with tattoos, often large, ornate pieces covering most of the body. This shows they are prepared to endure hours of pain, at great expense and, of course, it’s a lifelong commitment.

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Author's own tattoo

Modern day attitudes in Japan

Whilst attitudes have happily shifted somewhat, the stigma still remains in places. For example, some gyms, Onsen (public baths), theme parks like Universal Studios, and water parks either flat out ban folk with tattoos (regardless of ethnicity, so tourists are included in this) or ask you to cover them with stickers or clothing. This may seem unfair, but please remember this is a cultural sensitivity, and when visiting a foreign land, tourists should show respect. However, there are a few places (mostly in modern metropolis’ such as Tokyo), where the attitudes are more relaxed. You’ll also find the shift coming from the younger generation, with many Japanese sporting fashionable tattoos (young women with feminine tattoos, men with full arm sleeves, and so on), so I have no doubt the pattern for negativity found in places will wane over the years.

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Outside tattoo studio
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Outside tattoo studio

Tattoos on Okinawa

Okinawa has a huge Western influence and culture thanks to it’s strong American military presence, meaning tattoos are very prevalent. Americans are seen quite often with a variety of tattoos, age and gender not being a limiting factor. This is also true for many natives. I spoke to an artist at local studio Dragon Tattoo (along Highway 58 in the Ginowan region), and whilst he agrees the culture is markedly different to America (he told me he had been on island around a year or so), he understands it’s the way of the culture, and avoids places tattoos are banned. He also told me that although his client base is overwhelmingly American and Westerners, he still sees a fair amount of local traffic through his doors too. His advice was to be respectful, avoid places tattoos are banned, and cover up at places you’re asked to cover up. He also said the tattoos which caused the most issues appeared to be hand tattoos, most likely because they are harder to cover up than arm, leg and torso pieces (big thank you to the folks at Dragon Tattoo for their time and input into this article).

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Dragon tattoo business card

Getting inked in Japan

The legal age for tattooing in Japan is 20 years old, and practitioners are expected to hold a medical licence. As with anywhere in the world, checking the place you wish to be tattooed is a must. Is it clean? Can you watch the staff at work? Do you see cleaning and good hygiene practice? do they open needles fresh in front of you? Do they pour the ink out, and throw it away, in front of you? Do they come personally recommended by previous customers? That sort of thing. It’s an exciting prospect to be tattooed abroad, however you should always have your health and welfare at the forefront. If anything looks suspicious, leave and find somewhere else to get your work done.

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Author's own tattoo

Advice for tattooed visitors

So what to do if you have tattoos and wish to visit places that don’t allow them? There are a few things you can try. First, check with the individual establishment. Each can set their own rules, so approach first and ask politely what you can do to enter with tattoos. Some are happy for you to cover them up with clothing or stickers, some may even accept entry if you have only small or minimal tattoos, and some will, sadly, refuse entry entirely. If it’s the latter, thank them and move on. For Onsen, public bathing with tattoos is almost always prohibited. However, if you badly wish to visit, you can arrange a private bath in most places at additional cost, however this will allow you to use them. Again, please check with individual places, as each have variations on rules. Also, there are places more accepting of Westerners or tourists with tattoos than tattooed people of the local populace. Places like theme parks, though again some may still ask you to cover up.

What are your experiences? I’d love to hear! Please comment below.

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