February 2024 | Swadesh DeRoy Scholarship

Pen Category Winner

In Japan, tattoos have long been associated with the yakuza. But is body ink finally about to gain acceptance?

Tattoos have become increasingly prevalent in the young generation, with three in ten Americans having at least one tattoo, an increase from twenty-one per cent in 2012.

“I thought about getting tattoos for a long time because firstly, it’s more or less a permanent change to my body, and secondly, there’s the obvious taboo of getting one in Japanese culture,” says Yurina, a 19-year-old Japanese student. Yurina’s tattoos, resembling a lily flower as a homage to both her Japanese heritage and her name, seem distinct from their association with the Yakuza, and yet, she still is aware of the judgment that comes with them in Japan. 

From beach and onsen bans to companies prohibiting inked applicants from job admissions, tattoos have been intensively linked with organized crimes in Japan. Dating back to the Edo Period, tattoos, or irezumi, have been used for punitive purposes, ranging from a line on the forearm to engraved kanjis on the offender’s forehead. The recognizable inking practice was effective, as marked people would easily be ostracized from society, and Japanese society would start associating markings with criminal offenders. Despite the end of punitive tattooing in the 1870s, tattoos continue to have a negative connotation in Japan’s society.

“It really depends on the person and more so what generation and location they’re from, but I think in general, there’s definitely an unacceptable aura about it, especially in the countryside. But I do think Japanese people are getting more accepting of tattoos,” said Yurina, explaining her hopeful shift in acceptance in the years to come. 

Over the years, there is a general feeling that people have been more accepting of tattoos in Japan, with the introduction of fashion tattoos and foreigners. However, in reality, a 2021 survey suggests that only a mere three in one hundred Japanese people have tattoos and that over fifty people would not feel good if a professional worker had tattoos. 

Such public incentives have caused hot spring businesses to remain with their anti-tattoo policies, causing individuals like Yurina to conceal their tattoos to still practice onsen culture. “The bans impact me because I’m more self-conscious of myself. Most of the time I’m entering places where tattoos aren’t allowed, and although the location of my tattoos allows me to hide them, I still try and sit in places where I’m not seen or I try to go at times when there are fewer people,” she says, hesitantly. 

Despite the impact of western influences on Japan, the country remains indifferent to its perception of tattoos. The strong association between Yakuza and rebellious forces can explain this taboo. 

Yoshimi Yamamoto, a cultural anthropologist at Tsuru University, says that tattoos became associated with organized crime due to the portrayal of Yakuza in old movies. “Dating back to the 70s, it was common to see ordinary people such as craftsmen with tattoos in the bathhouses,” Yoshimi explains. “With the younger generation not going to the bathhouses as often, they began only seeing tattoos on video.” 

Yoshimi adds that Yakuza today no longer practice tattoos, to not stand out unnecessarily. In other words, tattoos have been an old association with organized crime due to cinema, which has lingering impacts on Japanese society today. 

In fact, in 2017, the Abe administration commented that solely refusing entry to hot springs due to tattoos is inappropriate. Most public bathhouses are liable to provide general access to the public, so refusing entry due to tattoos could be discriminatory, and if brought to court, lawyers say that bathhouses could even be held accountable. Even with such risks, many private bathhouses still uphold their policies. 

But some bathhouses defy such policies. 

“I’d say my onsen is pretty modern because it allows people with tattoos”, says Mayu, a 21-year-old university student working part-time at a bathhouse in Tokyo. According to Mayu, her onsen is one of the few bathhouses that allow those with tattoos. With the surge in Japanese tourism over the past year, some bathhouses have re-evaluated their bans, with some suggesting methods such as stickers to cover the tattoos, or even providing separating times for tattooed people to enter. 

“I don’t have any particular negative impressions as long as the tattoos are beautifully done,” Mayu comments, and claims that she does not associate tattoos with the Yakuza, but rather, views it as a pure art form. 

“I think in the future, more onsen will allow tattoos in the future, given the gradual change in public opinion regarding them, and from a business standpoint, onsen should allow those with tattoos in the future to accommodate the increase in fashion tattoos and foreigners,” Mayu says. 

And yet, tattoo-safe bathhouses like Mayu’s are still met with voices of criticism. “There was an individual with tattoos and I was scared. I was doing nothing and got stared at... Should regular people not go here?” one user wrote in a two-star review. In his blog post, another user wrote, “regarding tattoos, there are many opinions. I do not hate tattoos, because people should not be judged by their looks. With that being said, I was terrified being surrounded here by people covered in tattoos.” 

A state of complete tattoo acceptance in Japan seems far away. But some individuals like Yurina and Mayu remain hopeful for a tattoo-accepting future. 

“It’s a shame to hide people away from the beauty of onsen,” Mayu comments. “It’s our culture, and heritage, after all.” 

Eru Ishikawa is a recent graduate of Keio University and was awarded first prize in the pen category in the FCCJ’s Swadesh DeRoy Scholarships.