Search for work renders tattoos taboo

by Michiko Munakata

Kyodo

While tattoos have long been associated with the underworld, especially large elaborate motifs depicting dragons and other mythical creatures, more discreet designs have become fashionable among the young in recent years.

But Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s crackdown in May on tattooed municipal employees could be also helping to prompt many young job seekers to flock to cosmetic surgeons to have their body art removed, in fear the private sector may soon follow suit, even though removal is neither an easy nor a cheap process.

In June, a 21-year-old student at a university in Saitama Prefecture who was preparing to hunt for work visited a cosmetic surgery clinic in Tokyo to have a 4-cm-long tattoo on his right shoulder removed.

The student, who wished to remain anonymous, said he became concerned after hearing news of Hashimoto’s unprecedented move, which requires all city employees in Osaka to declare whether they have body art in a mandatory survey. The mayor additionally suggested those with tattoos should quit their jobs.

Hashimoto has other gripes with the city’s employees, including their union and political activities, but the tattoo crackdown is capturing most of the spotlight.

“Private companies might take similar action following Hashimoto’s crackdown. What would happen if my tattoo is discovered during (a corporate) physical exam?” the student said.

Hashimoto’s crusade against body art — which was said to have been triggered by a revelation in March that a municipal worker exposed a tattoo and alarmed kids at a children’s home — caused a major stir and was slammed by some as violating employees’ privacy and human rights.

According to the Takasu Clinic, some 120 first-time patients sought tattoo removals at its cosmetic surgery centers in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya from April to June — a 20 percent rise from the same period last year. Many of those treated were young people about to embark on job searches, it added.

An aesthetic dermatologist in Tokyo also remarked that the number of patients requesting procedures to eliminate body art has risen sharply since April, and said he “has his hands full” at present.

Tattoos are erased mainly using two techniques — laser treatment or surgery. Neither are covered by public health insurance and the costs therefore vary significantly depending on the medical institution, said Hiko Hyakusoku, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo who has over 30 years of experience with such procedures.

In the case of laser treatment, removing a 5-sq.-cm tattoo can cost about ¥100,000, but the figure can soar to as much as several million yen if a series of sessions is necessary.

“It is easy to order someone to get rid of a tattoo, but removal is very costly,” Hyakusoku said. “Those issuing (antitattoo) regulations should be aware of this factor.”

Another doctor in Tokyo described the technical challenges involved in removing tattoos: “Colorful tattoos cannot be erased by laser, while surgery can result in scars like those from burns. Complete removal is simply impossible.”

There appears to be little awareness of these issues, however, among many young Japanese, possibly because getting a tattoo can cost less than ¥20,000 for a modest design and the procedure is over in less than an hour.

An experienced tattoo artist in Tokyo who goes by the name Yuya said most of his customers request tattoos to imitate celebrities such as pop superstar Namie Amuro and soccer idol David Beckham.

“Others said they wanted to overcome some personal weakness” by undergoing the process, Yuya said. “In either case, young people nowadays are open to the idea of tattoos.”

In another example of how the young increasingly view them as a fashion accessory rather than a statement of rebellion, stockings featuring tattoolike patterns have become a big hit among young women this year.

“For young people, it’s part of fashion,” said Hyakusoku of Nippon Medical School. “In most cases, they are tattooed somewhere on their body that is covered by clothing and where even their parents wouldn’t notice.

“Tattoos to intimidate others such as those favored by yakuza are out of the question, of course. But it is not right to label all tattoos as antisocial and create an environment where (those with body art are) expelled from the workplace.”