Japan is one of the most iconic regions when it comes to tattoos. However, the country has a  complicated relationship with the art form.

It’s not exactly illegal to have a tattoo in the country but it may deny you access to hot springs, public baths, swimming pools and gyms. To understand the country’s unique outlook on japanese tattoos, let’s go back in time.

Early Japanese Tattoos

Traditional Japanese tattoos date as far back as 10,000 BC. Irezumi, traditional Japanese tattoos, were etched on the skin using metal needles and wooden handles. The tattoos had simple, unique styles that featured circles, lines and dots.

In that era, the patterns served decorative purposes. Moreover, some tattoos served as symbolism.

Ainu women from ancient Japan got tattoos around their hands and mouths at the age of 10 through to their marriage. The tattoos served a symbol that a woman could tolerate the pain of marriage since she can put up with the pain of a tattoo.

Japanese Tattoo Tradition

The Edo Period

The Edo period ran from 1603-1868 and marked the beginning of the era where tattoos served as punishment for criminals. Unlike today where we have prisons, there were no prisons in Japan at that time and face tattoos served as identification for criminals.

The pain of the tattoos and their permanent status were considered punishment for minor crimes. It was a better bargain than the other alternative, the death penalty. However, a strong association developed between crime and tattoos.

Tattoos and Gangs

Within crime syndicates, tattoos were revered. The Yakuza, an organised criminal gang from the Edo period, used tattooing as an indoctrination ritual. If you could tolerate the pain of getting the irezumi tattoo, you were ready for the gang.

Although this seems like a low bar for the modern tattoo enthusiast, it’s important to remember tattoos were more painful back then. The strong link between crime and tattoos led to a nationwide ban. Getting a tattoo was a punishable offence.

The 20th Century

As Japan welcomed modernisation at the start of the 20th century, the country sought to appear more sophisticated and cultured. Tattoos were prohibited and the art form was associated with low social status and lack of education.

As a result, tattoos were unpopular until the end of the Second World War when the Yakuza gained an unprecedented reputation.

Movies about the Yakuza popularised the gang and its unique tattoos. As a result, wealthy, fascinated foreigners travelled to Japan to get the traditional tattoos. These foreigners were able to work around the ban and get ink to their skin.

Although tattoos are technically not illegal in Japan today, there are several laws covering tattoos and tattoo artists. Until 2020, it was mandatory for tattoo artists in Japan to have a medical license. Tattooing was classified as a medical procedure due to the risks involved.

As a result, tattoo artists either operated illegally or pursued a medical degree. Fortunately, Japan’s Supreme Court recently ruled that it’s no longer mandatory for tattoo artists to have a medical license to practice. This has opened new doors for the practice.

Japan Now

Even now, the social norms surrounding tattoos in Japan are still restrictive and as a foreigner it’s important to be aware of this. Generally, people in Japan cover tattoos while occupying public spaces.

Unfortunately, being a foreigner won’t give you a free pass especially in pools, bath houses and gyms. Therefore, if you are planning a trip to Japan, ensure you are sensitive to their cultural norms.

Securing a job in Japan may also be difficult if you have a tattoo. Some employers openly ban employees from getting tattoos.

Public offices have also experienced a similar push with the Mayor of Osaka making news a few years ago for demanding to know about government workers with tattoos. Clearly the stigma surrounding tattoos is ingrained in society.

However, change is inevitable and as globalisation sweeps societies, the Japanese are beginning to accommodate the tattoo culture again.

Despite the long standing bans and stigma, tattoos have a home in Japan. The country’s culture has had global influence on tattooing serving as inspiration for new styles and various artists.

The complex tattoo culture in Japan is an indication that tattoos are more than markings on the skin. They mean different things to different people and this warrants respect.

So, what does a tattoo mean to you? Before seeing your tattoo artists, Sydney residents should think about their answer.