People with tattoos gather for group photos at the annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association) in Tokyo, in February. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
lifestyle

Japan Ink: Growing tribe proudly defies tattoo taboo

10 Comments
By Kim Kyung Hoon and Elaine Lies

Shodai Horiren got her first tattoo as a lark on a trip to Australia nearly three decades ago. Now, tattooed head to foot, even on her shaven scalp, she is one of Japan's most renowned traditional tattoo artists.

"Your house gets old, your parents die, you break up with a lover, kids grow and go," said Horiren, 52, at her studio just north of Tokyo. "But a tattoo is with you until you're cremated and in your grave. That's the appeal."

Horiren belongs to a proud, growing tribe of Japanese ink aficionados who defy deeply-rooted taboos associating tattoos with crime, turning their skin into vivid palettes of color with elaborate full-body designs, often featuring characters from traditional legends.

(Click https://reut.rs/2HtXVfI to view a picture package of Japan's tattoo aficionados.)

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Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren prays in front of an altar before tattooing a customer at her studio in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Banned from spas, hot spring resorts, some beaches and many gyms and pools, the enthusiasts hope the presence of tattooed foreign athletes at last year's Rugby World Cup and next year's Tokyo Olympic Games - postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic - will help sweep away suspicion.

"If you watch the All Blacks do the haka with all their tattoos, it makes your heart beat faster," said Horiren, referring to New Zealand's national rugby team and their pre-game ceremony. "Basketball players are really stylish, too. But here, even boxers cover up with foundation."

Tattoos have been linked to criminals for as long as 400 years, most recently to yakuza gang members, whose full-body ink-work stops short of hands and neck, allowing concealment under regular clothes.

The popularity of Western rock music, though, with musicians increasingly sporting tattoos, has eaten away at this bias.

A court decision last year that tattoos were for decoration, and were not medical procedures, helped clarify their murky legal status and may signal a shift in attitude - perhaps leading the industry to regulate itself, giving it a more mainstream image.

Referring to them as tattoos rather than irezumi - literally meaning "inserting ink" - as is becoming more common, may also help give them a stylish, fashionable veneer.

"Some people get tattoos for deep reasons, but I do it because they're cute, the same way I might buy a nice blouse," said Mari Okasaka, 48, a part-time worker who got her first tattoo at 28. Her 24-year-old son, Tenji, is working towards having his whole body covered in ink and color.

Tattoo devotees are edging into the open as well, meeting at large parties to bare and share their designs.

"We may have tattoos but we are happy and bright people," said party organizer and scrapyard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto.

Surfer and TV set-maker Takashi Mikajiri, though, is still stopped on some beaches and ordered to cover up.

Rie Yoshihara, who works in a shop dressing tourists in kimonos, said her shocked father has still not seen her full back tattoo, while Okasaka wears long sleeves to take out the garbage so her neighbors won't talk.

"In America, if you have a tattoo, people don't really care. There's not really any reaction," said Mikajiri. "That's the ideal. It'd be really good to just be taken for granted."

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

10 Comments
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Not a fan of ink, but to each their own.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

They could have at least posted more photos on non-Yakuza people as well with ink. Like at beaches, famous touring spots and so on.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Look like a bunch of Yaks getting wasted. No thanks. Stay classy Japan, tattoos are degenerate.

-7 ( +4 / -11 )

Some of the nicest and best people I know and have ever met have tattoos.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

"But a tattoo is with you until you're cremated and in your grave. That's the appeal."

That's EXACTLY why I don't want one.

They could have at least posted more photos on non-Yakuza people as well with ink.

Exactly! That photo does absolutely nothing to combat the myth that many people with tattoos have nothing to do with the yakuza. How about that Mickey Mouse tattoo? Or that tattoo written in wrong Chinese characters? Or Ariana Grande with that charcoal grill tattoo?

Is that a gaijin at the front, bottom?

4 ( +5 / -1 )

I have a celtic tattoo and i just tell staff at onsen that it is a birth mark... of course they don't believe me but they are often left unable to come back with anything so i walk away.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Not a fan of tattoos. Can't help but notice that a lot of people who complain about how poor they are still find the dough to pay for tattoos. Most tattoos are not cheap.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Great, I love it !!..

Look like a bunch of Yaks getting wasted. No thanks. Stay classy Japan, tattoos are degenerate.

Don't judge people by its appearance, know people first before be judgemental, cut that medieval mindset.. Live and let live..

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Kentarogaijin

Don't judge people by its appearance, know people first before be judgemental

Unfortunately, Japan has KNOWN already who they are. And the long experience with them has not been a good one.

It's a smart move for citizen in Japan to stay away from them to avoid troubles.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Injections with ink ?

Not a healthy idea

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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