Japan's Love-Hate Relationship With Tattoos

Yakuza showing off tattoos at the Sanja Shrine festival in Tokyo
Yakuza showing off tattoos at the Sanja Shrine festival in Tokyo
Philippe Pons

TOKYO - Toru Hashimoto, the young and often controversial mayor of Osaka who shot to fame for his attacks on Japan’s central government and bureaucrats, has chosen a new target -- but this time, attracting little sympathy from the Japanese youth.

Last March, Hashimoto decided to take disciplinary action against government employees who did not answer a rather surprising questionnaire that included questions such as: "Do you have body art?" "What size and where?" The mayor also suggested those with tattoos should quit their jobs.

Of the 33,500 public servants who answered the survey, about 100 admitted to having tattoos. The 500 or so who refused to answer the question could face a job transfer or be denied promotion. They are not the only ones who should start to worry if such a "tattoo witch-hunt" is implemented.

Without being as mainstream as in Los Angeles or New York, tattoos are popular among young Japanese. But now those looking for a job fear that, following in the footsteps of Osaka’s mayor, companies might start thinking twice before hiring a body art aficionado.

As a consequence, an increasing number of Japanese are trying to erase their ink: over the past three months, the number of such interventions has gone up 20 percent in cosmetic surgery clinics.

The crackdown in Osaka was initiated by a small incident: a municipal worker working in a children’s home showed his tattoo to a child. The affair caused much uproar that the mayor decided to take action. "It is a form of harassment from the government and a violation of human rights," says Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Japanese Social Democratic Party. No law prohibits tattoos in Japan. But many facilities (swimming pools, sports clubs, public baths, hot springs etc.) refuse to let the inked in.

Traditional art

In Japan, tattoos are still assimilated to the underworld. Many yakuza (members of organized crime syndicates) are tattooed. But so are ordinary people, like employees, manual workers, truck drivers ... men and women who have no link whatsoever with the Japanese mafia.

Japan’s traditional tattooing is a minor art that was once closely linked to the world of woodblock print (ukiyo-e). Its iconographic richness, aesthetics and techniques date back to the 18th century. Body art became ornamental. At the beginning of the next century, it matured into a genuine social phenomenon, taking on the expression of non-conformity, of an individual identity: from porters to rickshaw pullers, from blue-collar workers to carpenters, from firefighters to mobsters, everybody had a tattoo.

The first real tattoo artists were wood engravers who worked for the country’s great painters. Tattooed pictures were at that time still called horimono ("engraved thing") and not yet called irezumi ("injecting ink"), more commonly used today. They drew their inspiration from traditional images: mythical figures, dragons, carps or flowers – symbols pregnant with meaning.

A magnificent trend was born, with sumptuous tattoos that would sometimes cover the entire body, characteristic of a time when "man honored the noble virtue of frivolity," as Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in his 1910 short story The Tattooer.

The threat of a tattoo

Such "brocaded skins" were a fascination for the first foreigners to land on the island. Some of them even chose to get a tattoo on their own, like French writer Pierre Loti, Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, the Duke of York (future King George V), and Queen Olga of Greece. But for most Japanese people, tattoos remain the prerogative of disreputable mobsters. Getting inked was part of a traditional initiation rite: tattoos were a proof of resistance to pain and a sign of belonging to a group. As for criminals, body art could even become a threat: unveiling it was enough to instill terror -- a recurrent image in yakuza movies.

Not everybody gets their "engraved" bodies celebrated in fiction – it remains the prerogative of a small minority of tattooed people, who are proud to belong to a 200 year-old tradition. This is not the legacy claimed by the Japanese youth, who usually opt for more discreet tattoos. Long ostracized for being a mark of the underworld, tattoos have managed to break the barriers over the past 10 years -- with the help of the tattoo craze that came from the United States.

Following the example of show-biz idols like Ayumi Hamasaki and Namie Amuro – the queens of J-pop (Japanese pop) in the first ten years of the new millennium --, many young Japanese got a tattoo. Tattoo parlors are no longer hiding in back alleys, and now they can be found in Tokyo’s trendiest neighborhoods (Shibuya, Takeshita Street).

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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