Another kind of municipal link

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s demand this month that all city workers reveal in a survey whether they have tattoos followed an alleged incident in which a city worker showed off his tattoo to children at a welfare facility.

The city government concluded that a questionnaire compiled for the survey — to let the mayor know how many employees had tattoos — does not violate employees’ privacy. It said a new “ethics rule” banning tattoos and advocating removal of tattoos will be introduced. The survey asks employees to indicate the size and location of tattoos and whether the tattoo was done before or after they were hired by the city.

Initially, of the 33,000 employees surveyed, 110 responded that they have tattoos and another 513 workers refused to answer. Mayor Hashimoto said those who refused to answer could be denied promotion and that he would “reposition” personnel based on the survey. Those who answered yes to having tattoos were not fit for employment and should quit, he stated.

Making important decisions in hiring, firing and promotion should depend on better standards than on whether employees have what many now call “body art.” Osaka City’s personnel department has failed to explain the connection between having a tattoo and the ability to do the job. Meeting the mayor’s aesthetic standards is not likely to improve the quality of work or satisfaction of citizens. Most people would prefer a competent employee with a tattoo to an incompetent ink-free one.

Tattoos in Japan were historically considered a sign of belonging to an organized crime group. Most swimming pools, sports clubs, public baths and spas still refuse entry to anyone with a tattoo. Times change, however, and young Japanese are more influenced by Western fashion than in the past. U.S. polls have found that 24 percent of Americans between 18 and 50 have tattoos. Young Japanese have more tattoos, and more openly, than ever before.

For other people, with or without tattoos, the idea of turning over a report on their skin is surely unwelcome. Being forced to reveal the exact size and location of anything on one’s body would cause workers’ morale and motivation to deteriorate.

The issue of whether a mayor can impose such a ban on employees will surely be taken up in the courts as soon as Mr. Hashimoto denies a promotion to anyone with a tattoo or encourages them to quit. Freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, and personal privacy rights should be upheld in all workplaces.