Tattooing is the most misunderstood form of art in contemporary Japan. Demonized by centuries of prohibitions and rarely discussed today in civilized circles, people with tattoos are outcasts in their own country — banned from many beaches, pools and public baths. Ask anyone to explain the reason for this vilification and most will blame the yakuza and their penchant for body ink; better-informed citizens may even trace the roots of negative attitudes to the 17th century, when criminals were tattooed as a form of punishment.

However, such explanations for Japan’s longstanding animosity toward tattoos are, at best, an oversimplification — and, at worst, downright incorrect. Instead of targeting wrongdoers, Japanese prohibitions against tattoos have historically been aimed at the working classes, women and ethnic minorities, and today the bearer of a full-back tattoo is increasingly likely to be a sensitive salaryman rather than a punch-permed thug.

The history of body modification in Japan is long and vibrant, dating back to the Jomon Period (roughly 10,500 B.C. to 300 B.C.), when clay figurines were molded with marks that modern historians interpret as either tattoos or scarification. Later in the third century, Chinese records noted that all Japanese males bore heavy tattoos on their faces and bodies.

The end of the Edo Period (1603-1867) was the golden age of tattooing. During this time, Japan was a military dictatorship governed by a corrupt samurai elite who had barricaded the country from the outside world and imposed a strict social hierarchy on the population.

These leaders kept a tight lid on both the rights and artistic expressions of the lower classes, particularly merchants whose emerging wealth threatened to upset the status quo. Tensions were most evident in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), where they helped to give birth to some of Japan’s best-known arts: kabuki, ukiyo-e woodblock prints and, the black sheep of Edo pop culture, tattooing.

All three of these arts developed alongside one another and they often overlapped. Kabuki regularly featured renegade heroes with large makeup tattoos — characters who were then depicted by woodblock artists in their portraits and advertisements for these dramas. Such images were copied and exaggerated by tattooists themselves and their work, in turn, was reinterpreted by kabuki makeup artists.

This interplay of skills — combined with a cycle of one-upmanship — elevated the art of tattooing to new highs. Among Edo residents keenest to be inked with large tattoos were firefighters seeking protective symbols of carp or water dragons and those working near-nude in the city’s humid summers — carpenters, delivery men and palanquin bearers.

At this time, both tattooists and woodblock artists adopted the title hori, or “to carve.” They based some of their most famous designs on the 12th-century Chinese story of Suikoden — as told in “The Water Margin” — whose underdog heroes’ battles with authority struck a chord with Edo-ites struggling against their own oppressive masters.

It was difficult for the samurai to ignore these indelible critiques so they imposed bans on tattooing. However, its popularity rendered such laws almost impossible to enforce.

It took a cataclysmic event to end this boom in tattooing: the uninvited arrival of foreign ships to Japan in the middle of the 19th century. At this time, Western powers were colonizing large parts of Asia, subjugating local populations through force and/or opium, stripping their natural resources and demanding they sign unfair trade deals. Isolated for more than 200 years, Japan lacked modern technologies such as steam power, telegraphs and heavy weapons, and so the risk of conquest was very real. It had to modernize — and modernize fast.

“To avoid occupation by Western countries, Japan needed to appear civilized,” says Yoshimi Yamamoto, author of the 2005 book, “Irezumi no Sekai” (“Tattoo: The Anthropology of Body Decoration”). “One of the ways to project this image was to ban tattooing, which the Japanese government thought foreigners would regard as backwards or barbaric.”

The first of these national bans on tattooing was introduced in 1872, with further prohibitions in the following years. According to Yamamoto, these policies were experienced most harshly by those on the nation’s periphery, where Japan’s newly-formed Meiji government felt more vulnerable to foreign incursions: in the north, Hokkaido, and Okinawa to the south. Here, anti-tattooing ordinances were designed both to demonstrate to Western powers that these people were under Japanese rule and to homogenize them into the Japanese Empire.

For many generations, Ainu women in Hokkaido had marked their faces and arms with tattoos made of soot from the family hearth. These tattoos were believed to ward off evil spirits and ensure safe passage to the afterlife. The Japanese government had first tried to outlaw Ainu tattooing in 1799 but following the arrival of Western powers, it passed a stronger ordinance in 1871. Given the spiritual importance of the custom, Ainu reacted angrily to the ban and many women continued to tattoo in secret.

In Okinawa, too, tattooing was primarily a female custom — all adult women bore hand tattoos called hajichi that were made from awamori alcohol and ink. These markings served as talismans and were often connected to the practice of female shamanism; a number of female tattooists held important roles in Okinawan communities that tended to be more matriarchal than those on the mainland.

As part of a swath of measures to suppress Okinawan identity, Tokyo prohibited tattooing on the islands in 1899. According to Yamamoto’s research, almost 700 women were arrested for breaking the ban over the following five years. The severity with which the policy was enforced suggests it was an attempt to reduce women’s status and secure authority for male bureaucrats appointed by the central government.

In contrast, on mainland Japan itself, officials were more lax in their enforcement of anti-tattoo prohibitions; for example, only about 500 arrests took place in the 70-year period starting in 1876. The ban did, however, succeed in driving tattooing underground. The police discouraged overt displays of body ink and raided studios, seizing tools and artwork as well as criminalizing the traditional master-apprentice relationships upon which the art depended.

Official prohibitions against tattooing remained until 1948 when they were lifted by U.S. occupation forces. Once again, Japanese tattooists were allowed to work without fear of prosecution and, in the following decades, a number of exchanges developed between Japanese tattooists and their U.S. counterparts.

These exchanges included those of Hawaii-based Sailor Jerry (who traded hard-to-obtain U.S. ink for Japanese tattoo designs) and Don Ed Hardy, the artist often credited for popularizing tattoos in the United States, where today approximately one-fifth of the population is inked.

Ironically, at the same time that Japanese tattooing was gaining acclaim in the West, people on its home turf were becoming further alienated from the custom.

“Japanese people have forgotten their tattoo history,” says Yamamoto, who blames this amnesia on an unlikely double-punch: modern plumbing and gangster movies.

“In the 1960s, more and more people began living in homes with indoor bathrooms so they stopped going to public baths where, in the past, they would have seen ordinary people — like carpenters and laborers — with tattoos. Also during this period, yakuza films became popular,” Yamamoto says.

With heavily-inked anti-heroes and titles such as “Brutal Tales of Chivalry” and “Kanto Wanderer,” these violent movies sealed baby boomers’ prejudices that tattoos were synonymous with gangsterism. In a case of life imitating art, many young yakuza also fed into this belief and rushed out to get themselves inked. This trend has since reversed and large tattoos have fallen out of favor among gangsters who, following strict anti-gang laws introduced during the past two decades, are trying to keep a lower profile.

For many Japanese people, though, the association of tattoos to thuggery is stronger than ever; bans on ink at swimming pools, hot springs and even some beaches are increasingly widespread. These misguided regulations often inflict collateral damage. Last year, for example, a Maori woman from New Zealand with a traditional facial tattoo was refused entry to a hot spring in Hokkaido — the owners seemingly ignorant of their own island’s long history of female tattooing.

Despite such discrimination, increasing numbers of Japanese people are going under the needle. Today there are an estimated 3,000 tattoo artists working in Japan, compared to approximately 200 in 1990.

Tattooists interviewed for this article confirmed the waning popularity of tattoos among yakuza. They cited a diverse new clientele that includes businessmen getting tattoos of their newborns, female executives requesting climbing carps to inspire their struggles versus corporate sexism and relatives seeking memorials for those they had lost to the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The work of 3,000 artists constitutes many hectares of ink, representing a resurgence in tattooing that suggests it is as widespread today as it was in its Edo-era heyday. Perhaps the current impetus is the same as back then — unprecedented frustration with an entrenched governing class that stifles the majority into stiff social molds.

As of yet, Japanese people’s tattoos remain largely out of sight. However, a day may come soon when a great wave of ink washes aside outdated discrimination and people can embrace again one of their oldest — and most persistent — forms of art.

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