Today’s post is provided by David Holloway, Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester. David specializes in contemporary Japanese fiction with focus on gender, sexuality, and issues of embodiment. I’ve known David for many years, initially as a student (he earned his PhD at Washington University in St. Louis) and more recently as a friend. David is an expert in tattooing, both as an admirer and a wearer. When writing The Kimono Tattoo, I sought David’s advice on a number of scenes. I’m delighted he has agreed to provide this guest post.

Tattoos in Japan: Innovation, Customization, Transformation

In 2015, Masuda Taiki’s tattoo shop was raided by the police. His crime? Tattooing. The police justified their raid on the grounds that Masuda was in violation the “Medical Practitioners’ Act,” which holds that only medical professionals are authorized to perform tattooing procedures. Masuda’s was not the only shop to be raided under this circumstance, or even this occasion. But the tattooer gained notoriety and international attention for refusing to pay the ¥300,000 (about $3,000 USD) fine handed down by the police and setting up a campaign called “Save Tattooing in Japan” that aims to promote a tolerant environment for tattoo culture. Masuda hired a team of lawyers and, two years later, was awarded a victory in court.

Masuda’s activism was catalyzed by his devotion to the art and aesthetic of tattooing. More than this, however, he also successfully protected, from the legal perspective, a practice that remains culturally fringe and suspect. There are approximately 5,000 tattoo artists in Japan today, many of whom work in nondescript, unmarked spaces, ever vigilant of the looming threat of persecution, surveillance, and punishment.

The Politics of Pain

To say that Japanese culture is uncomfortable with the tattooed body would be an understatement. A 2014 Bar Associations survey of 1000 men and women aged 20-60 found that nearly 90% of respondents indicated they felt fear or discomfort when they saw someone with tattoos. What is to account for this pervasive sense of unease?

On the surface, so to speak, social unease may be a backlash to the violent, traumatic experience of modifying the body. In other words, body modification – including tattoos and piercings – hurts. A lot. And the painful nature of the tattooing/piercing process is, or at least can be, part of its charm. The notion that pain is cathartic dances on the fringes of popular culture. In the US, rock band Nine Inch Nails made a name for itself with a song about the healing properties of self-harm, called “Hurt” (1995), as did pop artist Sia the following decade with her hit “Breathe Me” (2004). Even in Japan, author Kanehara Hitomi’s breakout novel Hebi ni Piasu (2003; translated by David Karashima as Snakes and Earrings, 2005) succeeded in giving its readers a chance to delve into the psychological draw of tattooing and tongue-splitting.

Epidermic Anxiety

But to manipulate the body in this way, to intentionally subject it to harm, is to tap into and exploit what we might call epidermic anxiety. The tattooed individual sets him or herself apart from a broad consensus of accepted bodily practices and experiences, including, but certainly not limited to, the pursuit of pain. Tattooing in Japan has been a historically marginalized practice. What began, in the seventh century, as a way to mark slaves and punish criminals evolved into a practice by and for those on the fringes. The eighteenth century saw the emergence of roaming bands of gamblers, peddlers, and ne’er-do-wells who embraced tattoos as a way to advertise their membership in alternative communities. Not unlike gangs in the US today, gambler groups used the tattooed body to signify a spirit of resistance to the status quo and glorify their criminality. However, in contrast to, say, Chicano gangs, Japanese gang tattoos have tended to eschew specificity. The tattoos that decorate the bodies of many Chicano gang members are a source of community and ethnic pride. Edo-era gamblers drew not from local heritage but rather myth, legend, the animal kingdom, and religious iconography when selecting their tattoos.

Tattooed Antecedents

The tattooed gamblers and peddlers of the 18th century are antecedents to the yakuza, the famed lords of Japan’s underground who seem to be responsible for shaping years of tattoo discourse within Japan and abroad. The yakuza embraced the decorated skin of their predecessors to express social disaffection and rebellion. The yakuza exploited the connection between criminality and tattoo that had been part of the Japanese social fabric since the 1800s.

Bodily Integrity & Corporeal Customization

Japanese public discourse surrounding tattoos feels, at times, to be stuck in the past. Stories about epidermic discrimination in Japan are common: public baths, gyms, capsule hotels, brothels, even beaches – these are some of the places that typically prohibit tattooed bodies. The popular rationale for this level of discrimination is that tattoos are the markings of criminals. However, I would suggest that the deep social anxiety regarding the tattooed body has little to do with the yakuza and more to do with philosophical, cultural, and even religious imperatives for bodily integrity, which is central to many aspects of Japanese culture.

For example, we see this in the medical field, where some Japanese oppose organ transplants for fear of disrupting the integrity and wholeness of the body of both donor and recipient. Similarly, invasive cosmetic surgery is unpopular in Japan. Tattoos, as we know, are defined by processes of opening up the body and forcing foreign substances into it. The same anxiety surrounding transplantation and cosmetic surgery may therefore extend to body modification as well.

Devotion to body modification as a process of personal identity construction is a foundational pillar upon which theories of tattoos are built. We should be wary, however, of seeing tattooing as a solely independent act, or a private search for individual identity. Individuality does not simply mean isolation and freedom from cultural norms, values, and beliefs. Individuality means sifting through the myriad forces that converge on the body. Brave indeed are the individuals who would turn their backs on expectation, who would embrace processes of corporeal customization, who would turn their bodies into something seemingly antithetical to being Japanese.

The Pain of Politics and the end of Epidermic Anxiety

These issues are especially visible today, given that contemporary Japan is in the grips of a conservative political agenda. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has talked openly about restoring patriotism and reviving a sense of national identity. Part of his campaign has been to promote a revisionist history that glorifies Japan’s past, while also actively seeking to step beyond the confines of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which prohibits military aggression. I wonder if this political turn is in some way related to the emergence of the “Save Tattooing in Japan” campaign. Political turns to the right often come with calls for self-sacrifice, diligence, and self-discipline on the part of the public.

Tattooing the Olympics

The timing of the “Save Tattooing in Japan” campaign is illuminating in this regard. Tokyo is scheduled to host the 2021 Summer Olympics, and Japanese national culture will be thrust into the global spotlight. This will be a time of increased contact with the world’s citizens, a time, perhaps, of heightened national anxiety and renewed questions about what it means to be Japanese. More than a few publications within Japan and abroad have publicly wondered how the Japanese cultural landscape will react to and accommodate a flood of tattooed foreign bodies. Perhaps it is in this context that we can reflect on the ethnocentric core of tattoo persecution in Japan. Perhaps political interest in prohibiting tattooing is a misguided attempt at preserving Japanese bodily integrity. In this light, Masuda’s court victory was not simply about the right to tattoo or get tattooed, but rather about the pursuit of physical exploration, self-actualization, and a new conceptualization of the integrity of the body. It is a response to a new conservativism in Japan today that has taken aim at the Japanese body. It is an attempt to start a conversation regarding nation, body, and physical, cultural, and social transformation.

David Holloway, Assistant Professor

University of Rochester


Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash