Tattoo Artists in Japan No Longer Need Medical Licenses, Landmark Ruling Says

Body art in Japan has been negatively linked to crime syndicate culture, but mindsets could be slowly changing.
September 18, 2020, 10:20am
Japan, tattoo
A tattoo artist doing a traditional horimono tattoo in Tokyo. Photo: Michael Crommett

Japanese tattoo artists no longer need medical licenses to legally run their business, according to a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, in what could be a huge first step towards making tattooing easier to practice.

The top court dismissed an appeal Wednesday in a landmark case involving 32-year old Osaka-based tattoo artist Taiki Masuda, who refused to pay a 150,000 yen fine (around $1,435 USD) for tattooing three female customers between 2014 and 2015.

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In 2001, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare sent a notice to all of Japan’s 47 prefectures notifying them that tattooing fell under the Medical Practitioners act and that they should cooperate with criminal prosecution of offenders. Violating the act could bring a tattoo artist up to one million yen in fines (over $9,500), up to three years imprisonment, or both.

Tattoos in Japan have strong negative stereotypes associated with organized crime. But critics say the government attempt to whitewash tattoo subculture was a way to hide the existence of the crime underworld they were associated with.

In his supplementary opinion for the case, Supreme Court Justice Koichi Kusano said tattoos are a social custom with artistic significance, not a medical practice.

Traditional hand-poked tattoos in Japan, known as horimono or wabori, have histories stretching back centuries and are an artform linked to traditional Japanese woodblock prints, called ukiyoe.

When horimono first became popularized in the 1800s, they did not carry the same negative reputation they do today and were instead something to be proud of. The ruling in the Matsuda case seemed to recognize this cultural history.

"Tattoos have been practiced as a Japanese custom since ancient times,” noted Justice Kusano in his supplementary opinion. “There is room for debate about whether or not to expose tattoos in public, but people get tattooed. The demand for tattoos should not be denied. "

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The definitive link between tattoos and organized crime in Japan is also slowly declining as the groups lose influence and power. Recent laws prevent crime syndicate members from renting apartments and opening bank accounts, while the total number of these syndicates has declined increasingly for 15 consecutive years.

Meanwhile, more ordinary people are getting inked. There are also athletes expected to take part in Japan’s Olympic Games who have tattoos, a further normalization of the practice, though the contest was postponed to 2021 because of COVID-19.

But despite the good news, tattoo artists in Japan argue that the decision still leaves the industry in a legal gray area.

“Before we can say tattooing is entirely legal and accepted, there will be other laws and regulations that need to be created to regulate our industry,” the owner of one of Tokyo’s prominent tattoo shops told VICE News, requesting anonymity for this very reason.

“These could be equally difficult hurdles.”