Over his 11 years’ boxing career, flyweight world champion Kazuto Ioka has had a fair share of battles. But the 31-year-old Japanese boxer may be fighting his most tenacious opponent yet—Japan’s 400-year taboo against tattoos.
Ioka is bracing for punishment from the country’s boxing authority after he bared his arm tattoos in a recent match against Kosei Tanaka. Their fight has reignited discussion over Japan’s longstanding limits on the display of body markings, owing to their association with organized crime.
Rules of the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC) ban boxers with “long hair, beards, infectious diseases, and tattoos that can make the audience feel uncomfortable.”
Though most restrictions on the list can be put down to good hygiene, how “uncomfortable” viewers feel about a boxer’s skin sounds a bit more personal.
In a YouTube video last year, Ioka complained about the restrictions and said he would leave Japan if he could no longer fight in the country because of his tattoos.
“My performance should be the only thing that matters. I think it’s about time we break these outdated rules,” the boxer said in the video.
The commission justifies this rule by claiming it’s “difficult to differentiate which tattoos are meant for fashion.”
“Tattoos’ association with criminality hasn’t disappeared from Japanese society yet,” JBC said last week, according to the Japanese digital news outlet The Page.
The tattoos in question are of a lion and Ioka’s son’s name, which the boxer said represent determination and loyalty.
To determine Ioka’s penalty, the JBC is expected to hold an ethics committee meeting this week. JBC Executive Director Tsuyoshi Yasukouchi last week said that the fighter “is not going to get special treatment just because he’s a world champion,” Daily Shincho reported.
“He clearly violated the rules and we’re determining what our next steps will be,” Yasukouchi was quoted as saying.
In response to Yasukouchi’s declaration, the Japanese Tattooist Association issued a statement on Friday that criticized the organization for its evident double standard.
Though the JBC prohibits Japanese boxers from competing with their tattoos showing, this same rule doesn’t apply to foreign athletes. “This is highly disrespectful to the personal dignity of each boxer,” the tattooist group said. “Boxers fight their battles on their own and therefore should be treated as individuals. An athlete’s nationality should not determine their eligibility to compete.”
Recent fashion trends have encouraged younger generations to embrace tattoos, but inking in Japan is still widely regarded as taboo. Before they became an Instagram trend, tattoos were associated with the yakuza, Japanese gangsters. Its historical association with criminality spans over 400 years. Yet some experts argue that the tattoo taboo only really emerged when Westerners began colonizing Asian countries in the 19th century.
Over 200 years of isolation left Japan under-equipped to fight Western powers armed with modern technology. In an effort to fend off occupation, the Japanese government felt it needed to convince colonizers that its nation was civilized. Officials worried tattoos would make the Japanese look barbaric. To impress Western imperialists, Japan’s authorities decreed the first national ban on tattoos in 1872.
Formal national bans on tattoos have disappeared, but social prejudice dies hard. Many pools, onsen (hot springs), gyms, hotels and beaches in Japan still restrict inked guests. Famous athletes, such as Ioka, are not exempt from these bans either.
While Ioka awaits punishment, some fans have suggested ways to prevent future mishaps, such as by covering up the tattoos using arm sleeves and foundation. The JBC, in fact, has recommended that Japanese boxers conceal their tattoos with body painting, in case sweat washes away the make-up.