This article was first published on VICE Japan
In Japan, tattoos continue to be looked down upon and stigmatised, with tattooed individuals being turned away from places like gyms and hot springs. Just last month, a tattoo artist was arrested in Osaka for tattooing without a medical license.
Yet despite these restrictions, tattoo enthusiast Miho Kawasaki believes Japan is making progress in its acceptance of tattoos. "Looking at the world's tattoo scene and the history of Japanese tattoos, it feels like the time has finally come," she told VICE.
Kawasaki was the former Editor-in-Chief of Tattoo Burst magazine, a leading source on the tattoo scene in Japan since the late 90s. After the magazine closed in 2012, Kawasaki decided that she wanted to “distribute tattoo information online.”
“Even in the era of the Internet, information on tattoos was often circulated through obsolete urban legends and unfounded amateur articles. So I wanted to distribute specialized and accurate information on tattoos,” she said.
This desire gave birth to Tattoo Friendly, a bilingual website run by Kawasaki that’s focused on tattoo advocacy, including letting people know which hot springs and traditionally strict spaces, are accessible to them. It aims to remove the stigma around tattoos in Japan.
VICE spoke to Kawasaki about the history of tattoos in Japan, why she thinks negative attitudes towards tattoos remain, and what she believes needs to be done to overcome unfair perceptions.
VICE: Tell us about the history of tattooing in Japan and how we got here.
Miho Kawasaki: Japan has had a 16,000 year history of tattooing with deep cultural roots, dating back to the Jomon Period where people used to tattoo their faces. All this changed in the late Edo period (1603-1868).
The beauty of tattooing had once grown in tandem with significant cultural arts such as ukiyo-e, kabuki, joruri and rakugo. Edo-style tattooing was recognized as beautiful decoration that took the form of a living painting. Craftsmen were well-respected members of society who often sported full-body tattoos. However, in the middle of the Edo period, the shogunate used tattoos as a punishment for minor offenders, turning tattoos from a subject of admiration to a mark of exclusion.
Although this type of sentence was abolished in the Meiji era (1869-1912) when Japan opened its doors to the world, tattoos were still regulated and looked down upon. They disregarded the fact that tattooing was part of traditional customs for tribes in Okinawa, or the Ainu people in Hokkaido.
When a new Japanese Constitution finally came into effect after World War II in 1947, tattooing was no longer restricted and this helped to further carve out its cultural status.
The booming film industry in the 1960s often featured actors in yakuza (crime syndicates) with tattoos painted on their bodies. This firmly established the connection between tattoos and yakuza and brought tattoos back under public scrutiny.
Despite the fictional popularity of gangsters in movies, intensifying yakuza rivalry in the 1980s caused real harm to ordinary people in society.
Around 1992, when the Crime Measures Law was enacted to expel gang members from society, day-time public facilities for bathing and leisure such as Kenko Land also wanted to protect their establishments from criminal activity. They lacked the courage to declare “No gangsters allowed” on their signage and simply wrote “No tattoos allowed” instead.
Around 1985, tattoo studios specializing in American tattoos began to open in Japan. Suddenly you could get tattoos of musical icons and heroes like Red Hot Chili Peppers and 2Pac. Through the 1990s, Japanese youth became more free to choose from non-Japanese tattoo styles.
Young Japanese always catch on to new fashions and trends, and soon considered Japanese-style tattoos old-fashioned. However, seeing Japanese-style tattoos on musicians like Motley Crue and Lenny Kravitz who got tattooed in Japan on tour made them re-evaluate their thinking.
When the yakuza was thriving, it was certain that tattoo artists had many customers who were gang members, but that was the same for every business. In Japan today, the majority of clients are ordinary people who want Japanese-style tattoos not to look menacing, but because they are proud of their own culture.
Tattoo culture has evolved globally. Why do you think Japan still discriminates against tattoos?
In the 2000s when the worldwide tattoo movement that took place in the late 90s reached its maturity, a program called Miami Ink was broadcast on American cable TV. It was a reality program where real tattoo artists appear in a tattoo studio. This had great impact and was broadcast around the world. People who didn't know what was going on behind the door of tattoo studios witnessed the real experience, including the process of creating tattoo designs and the skills and techniques in actual tattooing. Tattoo artists who appeared on the show became as popular as rock stars and gained a huge following. With the advent of Miami Ink, tattoos became widely recognized as a body art that symbolizes personal history. Although it was not broadcast in Japan, the influence of this program led to better understanding of tattoo culture globally.
Miami Ink was not broadcast in Japan?
That's right. I think mass media is responsible for the perception that has not changed since the 1960s, that tattoos signify yakuza.
Musicians and fighters practice self-censorship to avoid revealing their tattoos on Japanese TV, and the only people with tattoos appearing in movies are stereotypical gangsters who are causing trouble or committing violent criminal acts.
Because viewers are terrified of tattoos, it's no wonder that they are always associated with bad people. Even worse, if a criminal has a tattoo, it makes a good news report. Regardless of whether it’s for a dramatised or a factual report, there should be fair representation. If you want to use the image of tattoos commercially to depict a violent person, they should also broadcast a program that recognizes the cultural value of tattoos. Otherwise, society will only remain confused, and the disgust caused by ignorance won’t be resolved.
There was a case in Osaka, where a tattooist was charged with a crime for tattooing without a doctor’s license, but the Osaka High Court eventually ruled that it was not illegal. What are your thoughts on this?
In the US, there are mandatory sanitation courses. In the EU, there are original ink component screening standards. Since there are no rules in Japan, the tattooists are voluntarily working in accordance with global standards. Tattooists travel often and the world's tattoo community is connected.
I personally thought it was so Japanese to pin down a tattooist for not having a doctor’s license, but also that the time [for discussions] has come. It’s certainly ridiculous to expect a doctor’s license, but we have clearly reached a point where Japanese society cannot ignore the existence of tattoos and need to know how to deal with them. Japanese tattooists should expect and welcome improvements to regulations in the tattoo industry.
Why did you launch Tattoo Friendly?
I think it was 2015 when I received a message from a foreign friend: “I'm in Japan right now, and they refused to let me use the communal bath at my accommodation. What should I do?” I got the address of his hotel and sent him information about a more welcoming onsen (one-day hot springs) within walking distance as soon as I could. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s going on holiday and being denied permission to take a bath. It’s shocking. It might not affect you much if it happened to a stranger, but imagine if it happened to your friends, lovers or family. Based on these experiences, Tattoo Friendly was launched on May 28, 2018 as an English and Japanese bilingual site.
What kind of information was available to those with tattoos at that time?
For example, that you cannot enter a public bath with a tattoo, or that you cannot get an MRI exam. I have a tattoo and I’ve had an MRI exam. Even tattooists with full-body tattoos have gone through MRIs with no problems.
There’s a fear that iron oxide in tattoo ink might cause burns, so some hospitals think they can bypass the risk altogether by excluding people with tattoos. Recently it has become common to ask patients to sign a consent form after explaining the risks. Self-regulation is better than saying “Yeah, you can’t do this.” After all, many injured athletes also have tattoos, and it is not possible that they will be restricted from MRIs only in Japan.
Tattoo Burst was a specialized magazine for those interested in tattooing. In Tattoo Friendly, you also hear the voices of owners who run inns and hotels. Why is that?
Tattoo Friendly is a point of contact between tattoo culture and people who have nothing to do with it. We focus on six types of places where there are restrictions on tattoos: onsens, sento (public baths), hotels and ryokan (traditional inns), swimming pools, gyms, and beaches. Most people overseas know about restrictions on onsen, but surprisingly not about gyms and beaches.
It’s not just whether a place accepts or rejects people with tattoos. We specify whether small tattoos are okay, and if the big ones are not. Some onsen yado (hot spring inn) have their own particular rules, such as private baths for tattooed people, or “Western-style tattoos are fine, but Japanese-style are not.” We give the full details on each facility.
Is it possible to use stickers to cover tattoos at some hot spring facilities?
Compared to Japanese people, there are many foreigners with larger bodies. The area of the tattoo is inevitably large, and it is a little impossible to cover it with a seal (skin-toned tattoo sticker). Tattoos were originally not so small in size, as they were seen as art using the whole body. Tattoos might extend the full back and be hard to reach, or might even cover the face as in Maori practices.
Seals are very convenient for people who have small tattoos, for example, to take their children to the pool. However, if you put a sticker on your whole body in a hot spring, you probably will not be washing away sweat and dirt, but will instead become sticky.
If you are Japanese, seals are easy to purchase online, but tourists might find it strange that this product even exists, and will not know where it’s sold. I would like bathing facilities to consider selling seals or distributing them free of charge.
How important is it that the publication is bilingual?
Looking at statistics, 10% of people in France have tattoos, 20% in Germany, 25% in the US and Italy, and 33% in the UK. It is about 1-2% in Japan.
Furthermore, the tattoo movement is moving into the Asian market. It is estimated that there are about 200,000 tattoo artists all over China, and tattoo studios are rapidly increasing in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal and India. Japanese tattoos are a very popular style, and have a lot of influence in Asian countries.
The world's tattoo population is always increasing. Japan will hurt its future national interest by confounding tattoo with yakuza and refusing to accept tattoo culture. The Japanese government has set a goal of 60 million tourists visiting Japan in 2030, 10 years after the opening of the Olympic Park. Assuming just 30% of them have tattoos, it was inevitable to operate a bilingual site.
What can those with tattoos do to help change the stigma?
People with tattoos should also communicate more actively with others. At the hot spring facility for example, even if a place is marked as tattoo-friendly, it’s important to understand that we are still in the midst of change. For example, if you have Japanese-style tattoos, inform staff before bathing. You could say, “I’m not a yakuza, but I have Japanese tattoos as a hobby. I don't intend to bother anyone, but if anyone complains, it would be helpful if you could explain the circumstances.” Simply claiming consumer rights is not a solution.
What is your goal in all this?
I don't intend to spread tattoos. I don't want people who don't like them to like them. Now is a time when people who have lived without thinking about tattoos suddenly have to think about them. I'll provide information, and I just need it to help.
Before insisting on the rights of people with tattoos, you must make an effort to remove the anxiety of those who don’t, it is important to act with awareness. I hope I can gradually enlighten people on these matters.
What role do you think Tattoo Friendly should play in the future?
As long as the knowledge helps someone, it’s worth it. If people start to have tattoos everywhere and it is no longer regulated, this site is no longer required.