Japan: What my tattoo means to me
Japanese people explore their country’s historical and cultural relationship with tattoos and the controversy today.
Tokyo, Japan – Three years ago, 25-year-old Rui Tanaka got her first tattoo.
“I’d wanted to get tattooed for many, many years,” she says, showing one at the top of her right arm.
She now has seven.
“First of all, my tattoos are for me,” Rui, who works in a live music club, explains. “That’s why I had all of them … [written backwards] so that I can read them whenever I look in a mirror.”
But in a country where tattoos are widely frowned upon, they also help her to screen people with prejudices, she says.
“For a long time, I’ve been hurt by society’s lack of sympathy for minorities, but after I got tattoos, I stopped hearing such prejudicial opinions. Because it’s obvious that I’m [now] a minority, so people surrounding me are cautious [about expressing such views].”
Tattooing has a long, rich and complicated history in Japan, with clay figurines dating from around 5,000 BCE thought to depict facial tattoos, and the first written record of Japanese tattooing appearing in 297 AD.
But over time the practice of decorative tattooing – often used by ethnic minorities, the working class, and women – fell out of favour with Japan’s rulers who by the 17th century began using tattoos as a form of punishment for criminals.
Despite – or perhaps in part because of this – members of Japan’s organised crime syndicates, known as the yakuza, embraced tattoos, often opting for full body suits that could take years to complete, but which remained concealed when fully dressed.
It was this association with criminal activity that was used in the 18th century to justify outlawing tattooing, and which is often echoed today to explain the stigma that continues to surround tattoos.
The ban was lifted by the occupying US forces in 1948, but tattoos and tattooing remain a controversial and divisive issue in Japan, with many public swimming pools, beaches and hot springs imposing bans on people with tattoos – and a landmark legal battle hanging over the future of the country’s tattoo artists.
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