Tattoo Stigma in Japan and Its Origins

It’s common knowledge to many that tattoos aren’t generally looked upon with favor in Japan. Mind you it would be a bit of a stretch to claim tattoo stigma doesn’t exist abroad.  Saying that inked skin doesn’t still carry some negative perceptions in the West doesn’t hold up. This is despite the high prevalence of tattoos among younger generations: numbers in the U.S. indicate that over one third of those aged 18-25 have at least one tattoo.  And that statistic is even higher at near %40 for those aged 26-40. This would be almost double the percentage of those reporting one or more tattoos amongst the Baby Boomer generation (Pew Survey).

Yet despite these numbers, research and statistics can be confounding. Higher prevalence amongst the American population at large hasn’t necessarily resulted in total acceptance.  Health care professionals with tattoos were rated with lower confidence levels than non-tattooed health care providers in one recent study. This can largely be considered due to the indelible legacy of tattoos being mostly restricted to sailors, criminals, and circus workers. To be fair, whether or not tattoos correlate specifically with populations more likely to commit crime, abuse alcohol or drugs, or earn less income has neither been proven nor disproven by any current studies.

It is still difficult today to find scientifically sound surveys or research regarding stereotypes towards tattoos in Western culture. But it is generally safe to assume that no matter how good or bad you consider Western society’s current perception of ink on skin, it’s likely not as harsh as the attitude in Japan.

A sign indicating tattoos are not allowed in the facility. There is a cartoon figure with a tattoo on his arm covered in a red crossed out sign.

These signs prohibiting tattoos are somewhat common in Japan. Especially in onsets and hotels. The cartoon character looks pretty broken up about it…

Tattoo Stigma in Japan

Stories abound of the negative perception towards tattoos in Japan. You don’t have to look far to read stories of tattoo bans at hotels or onsens. In fact a recent poll conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency found that 56% percent of ryokan (traditional style Japanese inns) and hotel respondents indicated they would not allow guests with tattoos.  Make what you will of the 15% response rate in this targeted survey. The majority of those with bans indicated it was due to ‘hygiene’.  Whatever that means… Maybe they think the ink rubs off on the sheets?

This is mild compared to the witch-hunt Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto launched against city employees in 2012. All 34,000 Osaka city employees were required to officially indicate if and where they had any tattoos. It was indicated that any visible tattoos could be ground for dismissal or being passed over for promotion. This may seem ridiculous for one of the largest and most advanced cities of the world.  But it’s worth noting that this is probably the least offensive controversy Hashimoto has caused during his time in office. Fortunately in 2014 the Osaka District Court ruled that these searches were illegal invasions of privacy.  Almost the very definition of tattoo stigma.

More recently Osaka has again become the epicenter for anti-tattoo sentiment. There was the sudden cancellation of the Osaka Tattoo Convention a week before opening in April 2015, ostensibly due to police intervention. Police have also been reported arresting tattoo artists in both Osaka and Nagoya. They arrested and subsequently fined seven artists for violating a law stating that only licensed medical practitioners were allowed to apply ink under the skin.  This law was initially enacted to regulate the cosmetic industry. This seemingly random enforcement violates the spirit of the law in question and there has been a movement by one of the arrested artists to counter this discrimination.

A black and white photo of an Ainu woman with traditional lip tattoos.  Tattoo stigma, amongst other factors, likely contributed to the demise of this practice.

A black and white photo of an Ainu woman with traditional lip tattoos. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Northern Japan. The prohibition and stigma towards tattooing in Japan largely contributed to the end of this ancient tradition.

Where Does Tattoo Stigma Come From?

Many people often trace this longstanding antipathy back to the yakuza – especially during the 80’s and early 90’s. These gangsters were often covered in large traditional Japanese tattoos and sporting a distinct fashion sense.  And they lived larger than life after the Second World War.  They quickly made their way into mainstream media and movies as early as the 60’s.

Rebellious, outspoken, and overtly aggressive by Japanese standards, an infamous gang war in the latter half of the 80’s cemented their reputation as dangerous elements of society. This association was so strong that even years after a heavy police crackdown, a 2014 Kanto Federation of Bar Associations survey of 1000 men and women spanning 20-60 years old found that 87.7% of respondents indicated they felt fear or discomfort when they saw someone with tattoos. 55.7% said they envisioned gangsters when they saw people with tattoos.

However tattoos in Japan go back much further than that. Long before the Meiji period ban enacted in 1876, tattoos were commonly associated with the working commoner segment of the population. So the tattoo stigma goes back further than the relationships with organized crime.  There is the somewhat long standing idea that tattoos are dirty, vulgar, and lower class.

This notion belies the long-standing history Japanese tattoos share with traditional art (ukiyo-e), religion, literature, and folklore. The relationship can be seen in the beautiful imagery and motifs that form the basis of traditional Japanese tattoo art.

But this art and cultural history could be in jeopardy in its native land according to stories we see in the news.  And the signs posted in hot springs.