A Very Brief History of Tattoos in Japan
|Irezumi, or tattoos, have a long, interesting, and at times confusing history in Japan. Way back when, tattoos were quite common in Japan, but that changed in the latter part of the 19th century when Japan began interacting more with the West. Realizing that Europe and the U.S. were militarily, technologically, economically, and politically more developed, many in Japan--including those in authority--decided it was time to start competing with the West. Sometimes competing meant copying the West, and other times it meant trying to impress them. It was in this spirit that Japan began casting aside many of its traditions, including irezumi. From that time forward, having one indicated that you were likely old, a gangster, or both.
Ironically--or perhaps predictably--many Westerners who visited Japan took a liking to irezumi. Soon, European and American sailors began returning to their homelands, proudly flaunting their brand new tattoos. (At this point, I must give a little shout out to Jimmy Buffet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CICf8xoLyG8.) Westerners prized Japanese tattoos for their beauty, unique style, and high quality. That's right; while the Japanese government was banning tattoos for their trashiness, Westerners were embracing them for their classiness. And while the Japanese were banning tattoos in hopes of impressing the West, the West was impressed with Japanese tattoos. Is it any wonder we wound up going to war with each other?
And appreciation for Japanese tattoos was not limited to sailors. Irezumi aficionados also included members of European royalty. From England to Russia, princes, czars and other blue bloods began sporting a bit of Oriental flair. Perhaps most notably, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand--yeah, the guy whose assassination kicked off World War I--went to his grave with a permanent reminder of his trip to Japan; maybe he should have stayed.
Despite the international popularity of "body art", the stigma attached to tattoos remains in Japan. In 2002, NHK banned celebrities from showing tattoos on air, after a pop star appeared with a tattoo on her arm and the network was inundated with viewer complaints. Interestingly, NHK has long had a very popular samurai drama that features a tattoo-clad hero. It would seem pop stars and television samurai are held to different standards.
Back in the late 1990's, I introduced an Australian friend of mine to a bathhouse in Kumamoto, and shortly after we entered, the manager came in and told us we would have to leave because my Aussie friend had tattoos. I have read that in 2010 a man was sentenced to 7 months in prison for ignoring the "No Tattoos" sign at another bathhouse; I guess my friend got off easy.
But perceptions may be changing. Many of the foreigners I see in Japan these days look like they fell in a barrel of ink, and on those few occasions when I see a Japanese person with a tattoo, Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, does not come to mind. Even some of the bathhouses are now opening their doors to the tattooed though some require them to cover their tattoos with a bandage. And so the evolution of a nation continues.