Tattoo Stigma in Japan



In the Western world tattoos can be somewhat controversial; everyone has their opinion pro- or anti- tattoos, but the social stigma against them is slowly diminishing as tattoos are embraced as artwork and self-expression. While “Japanese-Style” tattoos and motifs including kanji, koi and sakura blossoms are hugely popular here in Britain, actually in Japan the stigma against tattoos is still widely held. But why is this, and is it likely to change?

Traditional Japanese tattoo art

Traditionally, Japanese culture was intertwined with that of the tattoo. Going back as far as the third century the Japanese people were known for their heavy tattoos covering most of their faces and bodies. The Edo period inspired Japanese creativity to delve into the artwork of the tattoo, creating spectacular, symbolic designs. Traditional Japanese tattoo artwork would cover most of the body with colour, known as irezumi. The popularity of body inking continued for centuries, until in the 19th Century Japan was faced with the need for rapid modernisation to keep itself safe from the imposing West. A number of things were banned in order to appear civilised and modern; particularly tattooing which the Japanese government were concerned would seem barbaric and tribal to the “sophisticated” Westerners.

Tattooing was driven underground by the ban, those seen breaking it by tattooing others or having tattoos on show faced arrest. When the ban was lifted in 1948, tattoos had become synonymous with this underground, illegal culture, and with gangs like the Yakuza sporting heavily-inked bodies, the stigma was firmly ingrained in many Japanese minds.

Decades on from this, the stigma is still held by many. In some places, such as Japanese Onsen, gyms and even some beaches and water parks, displaying tattoos can be reason enough to be asked to leave, and it is expected that you would not display a tattoo in public. A culture preoccupied with appearances, particularly when it comes to skin, encourages the notion that body art shows you are lower-class, ignorant, violent or dirty.

Ayumi Hamasaki showing off her iconic shoulder tattoo

Despite this, the tattoo industry in Japan is growing, particularly among younger generations who havent grown up fearing the Yakuza. Even some celebrities now proudly sport their own body art, such as Namie Amuro, Koda Kumi and Ayumi Hamasaki, although they have often been blurred or edited out of media appearances! Even idols with more restrictive dress codes will occasionally sport temporary tattoos, which shows that Japan is becoming more accepting of the concept of body art.

Hopefully in the future this trend will continue, with more Japanese people embracing body art and not stigmatising those who choose to decorate their bodies.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

Published by Chimocho

Sammi has been interested in Japanese culture and media since her early teen years and also enjoys a number of aspects of Korean culture and media. Her articles for JaK Wave are mostly centred around the innovative Japanese and Korean cosmetics market which continues to fascinate her with every new product release.

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