Japanese authorities wage war on tattoos

Taiki Masura with a poster for the Save Tattooing campaign, and tattooing a customer. Photos from Save Tattooing Facebook page.
Taiki Masura with a poster for the Save Tattooing campaign, and tattooing a customer. Photos from Save Tattooing Facebook page.

One tattoo artist in Japan is going head-to-head with the authorities in a landmark trial that could change the tattooing industry in the country. His campaign, ‘Save Tattooing’, is trying to dredge up support for a practice historically associated with organised violent crime – and heavily frowned upon in Japan.

Tattooist Taiki Masuda is taking the authorities to court over a 2015 fine he was handed after the police raided his tattoo parlour. The police exploited the vagueness of a 2001 law that says that only medical professionals can perform tattooing procedures, and used it to clamp down on a dozen tattoo businesses in Osaka, Japan’s second city. Osaka's former mayor Toru Hashimoto (who left office at the end of 2015) took a hardline stance on tattoos. In a controversial move in 2012, he demanded that all city workers disclose their tattoos -- and potentially lose their jobs as a result.

Supporters of the campaign take a picture with the poster, which reads, "Doctor? Or artists? Save Tattooing in Japan". Photos from Save Tattooing Facebook page.

While other business owners paid their fines and either continued to work in secret or shut down their businesses, Masuda refused to give in. He decided to set up the Save Tattooing campaign to support his case. Two years later, the trial has only just begun. The first hearing took place on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, and there are at least six more trial dates set for throughout May and June.

The campaign poster. Copyright: Vesuvius, LLC, Criminal Engravement

Tattooing is not a regulated industry in Japan. There are no government-mandated health and safety standards, and no tattoo licenses. Tattoo artists have operated in a grey area up til now – a thriving industry helping to drive tourism, tolerated by the authorities, and yet operating half underground. This trial could finally make the industry a clear black-and-white issue.

Taiki Masuda while tattooing a client. Photo: Taiki Masuda

“If they lose, they would have to go completely underground”

Hyoe Yamamoto is a Japanese filmmaker producing a documentary on the Save Tattooing campaign. He and his team have been following the case for a year and a half.

They should be able to win this case but there are so many other elements at work here. The team is expecting that the case will go to the Supreme Court and that if there’s a positive ruling for Taiki, the authorities will appeal.

If they lose, the impact would be significant for tattoo artists. They would have to go completely underground. It would be like South Korea [Editor’s note: tattooing is illegal in South Korea]. It’s not going to disappear, but a lot of the younger generation will give up. They feel like there’s not much room to continue operating in Japan. Seventy to eighty percent of customers are international anyway, so some artists are already thinking of leaving.

Taiki Masuda tattooing a client. Photo: Taiki Masuda

Historically associated with crime

Tattoos are weighed down with a host of negative associations in Japan. In the 17th century, tattoos were a punitive measure used to permanently mark criminals. Later, organised crime syndicates, or Yakuza, gave their members full-body tattoos called irezumi. Tattoos were now indelibly associated with violence and criminal activity, and tattooing was banned in the 19th century. After World War II, the practice was legalised again – but the connotations remain.

Gyms, pools, baths and Japan’s famous hot springs (a huge draw for tourists) either ban people with tattoos or ask them to be covered up with a plaster or a bandage. The country has had some embarrassing situations as it tries to reconcile its growing tourism industry with its aversion to tattoos.

A group of supporters of the campaign who turned up at the public trial. Photo: Chelsey McGovern

In 2013, the country was left red-faced and accused of cultural discrimination after a New Zealand Maori woman was turned away from a Japanese bathhouse in Hokkaido because of her traditional face tattoo. More recently, advertising in Japan for the Disney animated film Moana happened to cut the heavily tattooed character Maui from the posters.

The Japanese advertising for Disney's Moana cut the tattooed character. On the right, the American version of the poster.

“I’ve been kicked out of gyms and baths – I’m now on my fifth gym”

Meghan Carroll is a Canadian who has been living in Japan for 10 years. She says that she has experienced the prejudice against tattoos first-hand.

I have four tattoos right now and there are a dozen I want to get but I haven’t got any of them because I know that it will really limit what I can do in Japan.

The Save Tattooing campaign has been selling merchandise and collecting signatures for both Japanese and English petitions. Photo from Save Tattooing Facebook page.

I’ve been kicked out of gyms before. I have a sun tattoo on my back and that was the one that always got me kicked out, because I couldn’t see to cover it with a plaster. If I used the shower after I worked out, I used to try to hide myself with a towel, but there would be one or two times I would have my back turned, and someone else in the changing rooms would see the tattoo on my back and go and complain. Then when I checked out of the gym they would tell me I wasn’t allowed to come back. I’m on my fifth gym now.

The real test of the country's stomach for tattoos lies ahead in 2020, when Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics, and tattooed athletes and tourists will descend upon the country.

Taiki Masuda with his tattoo designs. Photo: Save Tattooing

Hori Benny is a tattoo artist in Osaka [Note: ‘Hori’, Benny explained, is a Japanese honorific for tattoo artists. The word means ‘to carve’]. Originally from Minnesota, United States, he has lived in Japan for 15 years. He was one of the tattoo artists investigated as part of the crackdown in August 2015.

“It’s like abortion – when it’s illegal, it’s driven to the back alleys”

There’s been a talent drain out of Japan. All of the good tattooers are leaving for Europe – they can afford to, and don’t want to deal with this hassle. Why stay here when you’re treated like dirt?

Japan is squelching its own tattoo culture. It’s thriving anywhere else in Asia but not here. Given Japan’s tattoo history, that’s just gut-wrenching.

It’s like abortion, right? When it’s illegal, it’s driven to the back alleys.

Some of Hori Benny's tattoo designs. Photo: Instagram, his website

I always kept my studio pretty private anyway, but now I have no advertising – it’s word-of-mouth only. I’ve had to branch out — I started a clothing brand last year, working on anything that isn’t going to draw the ire of authorities.

It’s hard for tattoo artists to support the Save Tattooing campaign. It’s openly flouting the police. It’s like putting a target on your back.

Taiki Masuda with a campaign poster. Photo: Save Tattooing

I don’t know if the Save Tattooing movement is going to win — and if it does, if that will change things.

I would say the Olympics is a wave that is going to come cresting down on this country. That will be a bigger force for change than this campaign. Foreigners are going to come to the country with all of their tattoos — how are the authorities going to deal with that?