Japan’s solitary ode to ink

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

The only place in Japan dedicated to the history of body ink is the Yokohama Tattoo Museum.

Packed with venerable tools, prints and photographs, it catalogs the turbulent development of Japanese tattooing, including a large display of the numerous historic prohibitions against the art form. Other exhibits detail the inked cultures of Okinawa and Hokkaido, as well as Taiwan where, in the early 20th century with the island under Japanese rule, tribal tattooing was outlawed primarily to eradicate the associated custom of headhunting.

Featured in many international guidebooks, the museum is popular among overseas visitors. However, despite the government’s campaigns to tout Cool Japan, the museum — not to mention Japanese tattooing in general — remains missing from the official tourist trail.

“The authorities think tattooing is equated with the yakuza and so they believe tattooing is bad,” Horiyoshi III, the museum’s founder — and arguably the most famous tattooist in the nation — tells The Japan Times in an interview at his studio.

Although Horiyoshi respects the yakuza — citing their relief efforts for Tohoku communities following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami — he said the government’s assessment is out of touch with reality.

“In the past, a lot of yakuza used to get tattoos but nowadays that number has dropped significantly,” he says.

The stream of clients he worked on during this interview supported his assertion. Factory workers and construction laborers all addressed Horiyoshi in hyperpolite honorifics before bowing and lying down for him to ink another section of their works in progress — some of which can take more than 100 hours to complete.

After each 45-minute session was over, Horiyoshi swaddled his clients in cling film and began setting up for the next customer. The nonstop process — reminiscent of an assembly line — belied the true artistry of his work. Each one of Horiyoshi’s tattoos is as carefully constructed as a haiku poem, from the season of the flowers to the historical accuracy of the swords and kimonos, depicted in his designs.

During his four-decade career, Horiyoshi has tattooed around 7,000 people and witnessed countless changes in motifs and equipment; the one constant has been the authorities’ relentless hostility toward tattooing. However, Horiyoshi foresees a paradigm shift on the horizon.

“When the 2020 Olympics come to Tokyo, many tattooed athletes will visit from overseas. Will foreign (tattooed) swimmers be banned from training in pools? If they are allowed to enter but not (tattooed) Japanese people, that will be a form of discrimination,” he says. “How will the public react?”

Whatever changes the future brings, Horiyoshi is confident of one thing.

“No matter how many times the government tries to prohibit tattooing, it will never disappear,” he says. “To receive and to give tattoos is a human instinct.”

Yokohama Tattoo Museum Imai Bldg., 1-11-7 Hiranuma, Nishi-ku, Yokohama. Open 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., closed the first day of every month. For further information, please see: horiyoshi3tattoo.com/horiyoshi-iii-tattoo-museum.