This week’s featured article


With the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games a little more than a year away, it’s time for Japan to turn the page on tattoos. It’s hard to argue with a straight face in this day and age that tattoos are exclusively used by members of the yakuza and ex-criminals.

Many of the foreign athletes and spectators who are expected to come to Japan for the games have tattoos of various shades, and operators of the country’s numerous hot springs, swimming pools and gyms are facing increasing pressure to welcome them with open arms.

Why does Japan fear tattoos so much? According to “Modern Encyclopedia of the Yakuza” (2004), the government in 1720 decided to reduce the punishment on some criminal offenses. Criminals would no longer have their noses or ears removed. Instead, their crimes would be identified with tattoos on the skin, usually the arms.

Tattoos were popular with gangsters before and after the war for a number of reasons. Symbolically speaking, however, the act of being tattooed once showed a resolve to sever ties with ordinary society and live in the underworld.

According to a National Police Agency study in the early 1990s, 73 percent of all gang members had a tattoo. It’s likely this number has decreased since 1992, when the first anti-gang laws went into effect and gangsters began hiding their identities. Obviously, if you want to blend in and pass yourself off as an ordinary businessman, tattoos aren’t a plus.

The new generation of gang members doesn’t get tattoos. Criminals are increasingly declining to get tattoos, while the rest of the world is embracing them as body art. Does anyone think U.S. pop star Ariana Grande is a menace to society?

There may have been a time when keeping gang members out of the country’s hot springs, swimming pools and gyms was a deterrent and a way of encouraging people to leave the yakuza. It no longer has much of a deterrent effect and if Japan hopes to integrate the roughly 50,000 yakuza that have gone straight since 2011 into society, it needs to allow them to mix with the general population.

The forthcoming 2020 Games offers Japan the perfect timing to remove the arbitrary bans that are currently being enforced across the country.

First published in The Japan Times on June 1.

Warm up

One minute chat about culture.


Collect words related to tattoos:

e.g., body, ink, needle, gangs, expression.

New words

1) menace: a threat, e.g., “The new computer virus is a menace to privacy.”

2) deterrent: a thing that discourages people from doing something, e.g., “Security cameras are a deterrent to crime.”

3) integrate: to combine one thing into another, e.g. “The school plans to integrate 5- and 6-year-old kids into one art class.”

Guess the headline

Historical justification for Japan’s t_ _ _ _ _ b_ _ is no longer relevant


1) How did tattoos start in Japan?

2) What seems to be pressuring Japan to rethink its attitudes on tattoos?

3) How many gang members in Japan have tattoos?

Let’s discuss the article

1) What is your image of tattoos?

2) Do you think people with tattoos should be allowed at pools, sports clubs and so on?






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