Reader PP is arriving in Japan soon to begin a stint as an assistant language teacher (ALT). He writes: “I am very interested in getting an irezumi (traditional tattoo) in Japan. Are there any artists that will tattoo a foreigner? If so, who and where? My interviewer for the teaching position tried to warn me that tattoos are a ‘no-no’. ”
He goes on to describe a story he heard about another ALT: The man had taken off his shirt to water some plants on his balcony, when a student’s parent happened to walk by and saw his tattoo-riddled back. The parent apparently called the school, claiming that they had hired a member of the yakuza — the Japanese mafia, who traditionally have tattoos. The ALT had to change jobs and cities as a result.
It’s true that many Japanese people, particularly the older generations, still associate tattoos with yakuza, and that many in mainstream society shy away from being inked. However, partly fueled by growing interest from overseas, tattoos seem to be gaining a modicum of acceptance among younger people. Just the other day in downtown Tokyo I saw a Japanese woman with a toddler on one arm and a full “sleeve” tattoo on the other.
Having said that, since PP is going to be working with schoolchildren, it is advisable not get a tattoo in a place that is likely to be seen by his charges — or their parents, for that matter. It is guaranteed that his fellow teachers and the local board of education will also take a dim view of an ALT with a visible tattoo.
Our reader expressed interest in the traditional style of irezumi tattooing. Unlike modern tattoos, which are done with an electric gun, irezumi tattoos are created by hand using traditional tools. This makes them far more painful, time-consuming and expensive to obtain. Irezumi tattoo artists train for years in their craft and may be picky about whom they work with. Some will only accept clients via introduction from a mutual acquaintance, making it particularly hard for a foreigner to get a foot in the door.
Horiyasu is one irezumi artist in Tokyo prepared to work with the international community, with a website in both English and Japanese (horiyasu.com). Note that he doesn’t accept reservations from overseas, so PP should contact him after arriving in Japan if interested.
Finally, foreign nationals coming to Japan with tattoos already in place are sometimes concerned about being turned away from swimming pools and sentō (public baths). While this may be true in many cases, a previous Lifelines column contains tips and stories from readers, suggesting that tattoos at the sento isn’t necessarily a big problem (“Ink doesnt always cause a stink at the onsen,” Nov. 27, 2012).
Good luck to PP, both with his new job and with his pursuit of an irezumi tattoo.
Send your comments and questions to email@example.com. Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for the NHK “Nodo Jiman show,” among other things.