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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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