Tattoo flap escalates as dissenters face penalty

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The Osaka Municipal Government was preparing Thursday to take disciplinary action against civil servants who refused to answer a survey on whether they have tattoos, as concern in and out of the city was growing that the questionnaire constituted a human rights violation.

Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who ordered the survey, has already threatened to deny promotions to any of the 33,500 municipal employees who refused to answer it. So far, 110 employees, including over 70 in the environmental department who work as garbage collectors, have admitted to having tattoos.

In the past, municipal sanitation workers typically had backgrounds as day laborers. During the 1970s, large numbers of city sanitation workers were also affiliated with yakuza in Nishinari Ward, a noted day laborer area. Many had tattoos and their successors today appear to be carrying on the tradition.

City officials said Thursday they were still tallying the workers who refused to answer the survey. Local media, however, said it was anywhere from a few dozen to as many as 500. By next week, workers officially judged to have refused to answer will face possible pay cuts or suspensions.

Hashimoto’s decision to go after tattooed workers drew criticism Wednesday from Social Democratic Party chief Mizuho Fukushima, who said it was nothing more than bullying. “The tattoo survey is a form of power harassment by Hashimoto. As a lawyer, he has no sense of human rights,” she said.

The survey has created unease among some of Hashimoto’s allies in the area. Sakai Mayor Osami Takeyama, who won his office with Hashimoto’s support, said earlier this month the survey covered a topic unrelated to work and if he were in Hashimoto’s shoes he wouldn’t have ordered it carried out.

Others who support Hashimoto have taken to the Internet to express their doubts, noting there is no law against tattoos and in other countries, like the U.S., government employees, be they in the military or federal or local civil servants, often have tattoos.

“There’s even the famous story of former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz having a tattoo of the Princeton University tiger mascot on his hindquarters,” blogger Ryuji Kitamura wrote on the Agora blog in early March.