Quietly, young people in Japan are shaking a taboo on tattoos | Seattle Times

TOKYO — Ayaka Kizu, a web designer in Tokyo, stood by her desk on a recent day, removing bandages from an apple-sized portion of her right arm. A meeting with clients had ended, so she was free to reveal what was underneath: a tattoo of a multicolored unicorn.

Kizu, 28, is among a growing number of young people who oppose Japan’s longstanding taboos against tattoos, who remain identified with organized crime even as the Japanese mafia has faded and the art body has become very popular in the West.

Inspired by Japanese influencers and foreign celebrities, Kizu decided at 19 to get a crescent moon tattoo on her right thigh, a tribute to her favorite manga series, Sugar Sugar Rune. Since then, she has had five more.

As she cycled through jobs since college, including public relations at a large traditional company and sales work at a department store, she had to get creative with concealing her tattoos, including the posting remains essentially banned in all but the most liberal workplaces. This means, for example, that she has to let her hair down to cover the ink behind her ears.

“It’s a pain, but as long as I hide them when doing business, I don’t mind,” she said. “I wanted to be fashionable. I just decided to go. »

With each scroll through their phones, young Japanese are increasingly exposed to tattoos worn by famous singers and models, eliminating the stigma against body art and encouraging them to challenge entrenched social expectations regarding their appearance.

About 1.4 million Japanese adults have tattoos, nearly double the number in 2014, according to Yoshimi Yamamoto, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Tsuru who studies traditional “hajichi” tattoos worn on people’s faces. hands of Okinawan women.

In 2020, tattooing took a big step towards wider acceptance when the Supreme Court of Japan ruled that it could be performed by people other than licensed medical professionals. Sixty percent of people in their twenties and younger think general rules around tattoos should be relaxed, according to a survey conducted last year by an information technology company.

In major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, visible tattoos are increasingly common among restaurant workers, retail employees, and those in the fashion industry. In the alleys of Shinjuku, a bustling district of Tokyo, Takafumi Seto, 34, wears a T-shirt that shows off his red and black inked sleeve as he works as a barista at a trendy cafe.

Seto got most of his tattoos after moving to Tokyo 10 years ago from suburban western Japan, where he still gets stares when he visits family. Her grandmother doesn’t know her tattoos, so he only sees her in the winter, when he can wear long sleeves.

“I think the hurdle to get a tattoo has been removed,” he said. “On Instagram, people are showing off their ink. Tattoos are OK now. It’s that kind of generation.

Hiroki Kakehashi, 44, a tattoo artist who became cult among women in her twenties for his coin-sized fine line tattoos, said his clients now come from a wider range of professions: civil servants, secondary school teachers, nurses.

“They’re often in places that can be hidden, but more people have tattoos than you might imagine,” Kakehashi said.

Tattoos have a long history in Japan, and they were important to women in the indigenous Okinawa and Ainu communities. Their association with organized crime dates back approximately 400 years. They were used to brand criminals on their arms or foreheads with markings that varied by region and crime: for example, a circle, a large X, or the Chinese character for dog.

After Japan ended more than two centuries of isolation in 1868, the country began to promote Western-style modernization policies. Among them: a law prohibiting tattoos, deemed “barbaric”.

Although this ban was lifted in 1948, the stigma remained. Yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, often have neck-to-ankle “wabori,” a traditional Japanese-style tattoo done by hand using needles. Because of this gangster association, many spas, beaches, and gyms ban people with tattoos. Office jobs that allow tattoos are still rare to non-existent, with many companies expressly banning applicants who have them.

Tattoos are also frowned upon as a violation of communal codes on how Japanese people look – codes that can carry stiff penalties for anyone who deviates from them.

Two subway drivers made headlines when they received a negative review after refusing to shave their facial hair. A naturally brown-haired high school student from Osaka did the same after being punished for not dying her hair black. (When Kizu, the web designer, was in elementary school, her parents had to tell her principal about her own naturally brown hair, telling her that under no circumstances would she dye it black.)

But after protests from students, workers and school administrators, there were a few steps to relax.

In 2019, Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan announced that it would allow workers to wear jeans and sneakers in order to “encourage individuality”. Last month, the Tokyo Government Board of Education announced that nearly 200 public schools would drop five rules on appearance, including requiring students to have black hair or wear certain types of underwear.

The case that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark tattoo ruling began in 2015, when Taiki Masuda, 34, a tattoo artist in Osaka, had his home studio raided and was fined. Instead of paying him – as many veteran tattoo artists who had deals with the police advised him to do – he went to court.

The lawsuit, Masuda said, “changed the image of the tattoo industry in Japan.”

During the lawsuit, a group of veteran tattoo artists, suppliers, and attorneys came together to form the Japan Tattooist Organization. In consultation with two doctors, they created an online health and safety course. Tattoo artists can now receive certification to exhibit in their studios, modeled on practices abroad. The organization is currently in talks with the Department of Health, in hopes that the government will eventually recommend that all tattoo artists take the course.

Last year, around 100 artists took the course. Currently, at least 3,000 are working in Japan, and with more legitimacy, it is hoped that greater acceptance by society will follow.

Some veteran tattoo artists advocate a step-by-step approach, worrying about some members of the younger generation who ignore no-tattoo signs or take newly acquired privileges for granted.

“We have to be very well behaved and follow the rules,” said a 50-year-old performer, who goes by the name Asami. “Although a good impression takes time to make, a bad impression is created in a second.” Asami joined his local gym just two years ago.

Among the new insiders to the world of tattoos is 19-year-old Rion Sanada, who one recent afternoon lay nervously on a studio bed in Tokyo’s Setagaya district, eager to get her first tattoo.

Although she was about to start looking for a full-time job, she said she was not worried about her job prospects.

“I’m just going to find work where I can cover my arms and legs with loose clothing,” she said. “Nowadays, tattoos are so much more common.”

Three-quarters of an hour later, Sanada looked down at his forearm, where the silhouette of a mouse now lay, lying face down with small heart-shaped wings.

“I will work where I can until society catches up with me and I can be free,” she said.