Tue, Dec 18, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Tattoos still give Japan the needle as Olympics loom


Japanese model Yuki displays her tattoos at a park in Tokyo on June 12.

Photo: AFP

When former porn star Mana Izumi got her first tattoo at 18, she was not trying to rebel or shatter any taboos — just trying to copy Japanese pop diva Namie Amuro’s beach-bronze “surfer chick” look.

In Japan, where tattoos have for centuries been demonized for their association with criminals, Izumi, 29, turns heads with her copper tan, bleach-blonde bob and array of designs inked across half of her body.

“I wasn’t really an Amuro fan, but I thought her tattoos were cute,” Izumi said. “When my mom first saw my tattoo she burst into tears and I thought my dad was going to kill me. But I like being a bit different.”

Tattoos still provoke deep-rooted suspicion in Japan as the country prepares to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. People with body ink are refused entry to public swimming pools, bathing spots, beaches and often gyms, while visible body art can be harmful to job prospects.

“It’s pathetic the way people discriminate against tattoos,” Izumi said while getting a US$500 Aztec skull inked onto her leg.

“People might think I look a little scary,” she added, taking a drag on her cigarette. “But I don’t regret getting inked.”

Japan has long had a prickly relationship with tattoos.

In the 17th century, criminals were branded as a form of punishment, while today Japan’s yakuza mobsters pledge their loyalty with traditional, full-body irezumi tattoos.

As Japan opened up to the outside world in the 1800s, tattoos were outlawed — along with snake-charming and public nudity — because the Japanese feared that outsiders would think they were “primitive,” said Brian Ashcraft, author of Japanese Tattoos: History, Culture, Design.

At the same time, European royalty would come to Japan to secretly get inked, so coveted were the country’s tattoo artists.

The ban lasted until 1948, when the occupying US forces lifted it, but the stigma remains in Japan.

“They look at tattoos and they think ‘yakuza’ — instead of admiring the beauty of the art form,” Ashcraft said. “Until that changes, tattooing will continue to exist in a gray zone.”

Authorities turn a blind eye to the ban for the most part, but a recent crackdown involving several police raids and fines has plunged Japan’s tattoo industry into confusion.

Meanwhile, a potentially game-changing legal battle recently ended after Osaka tattooist Taiki Masuda was arrested in 2015 for violating an obscure law that dates back almost 70 years.

The 30-year-old was fined ¥300,000 (US$2,648) under the Medical Practitioners’ Act, which forbids anyone other than a doctor from performing medical procedures.

A 2001 Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare notice ruled that tattooing was medical work, as it involves needles, technically criminalizing Masuda’s job.

He decided to fight the law and last month, a court overturned his previous guilty verdict after a lengthy and controversial appeal process.

“There’s no legal framework regulating the tattoo industry in Japan,” Masuda said. “Livelihoods are at stake — that’s why I had to fight it, to hopefully help legalize tattooing.”

Masuda’s struggle polarized opinion among Japanese tattooists, who are estimated to number as many as 3,000.

Noriyuki Katsuta, a member of “Save Tattooing in Japan,” a non-profit cofounded by Masuda, called his arrest “a human rights violation.”

However, many older artists are fiercely protective of tattooing’s underground roots and resist the idea that it should become a legitimate profession.

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