Tattoo artists in Japan lobbied Tuesday for better legal protection of a profession that has long been associated with organized crime, seeking to end a decades-old prejudice as the nation braces for an influx of tourists and athletes sporting body art ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
While Japan seeks to attract 40 million tourists a year by 2020, the notion that tattoos are a symbol of the yakuza instead of a fashion statement still runs as deeply in society as it does in the underworld.
At the heart of Tuesday’s campaign was 29-year-old Taiki Masuda, an Osaka-based tattoo artist who is fighting what is expected to become a drawn-out court battle over the legality of what he does for a living.
In 2015, Masuda became one of a growing number of tattooists in Osaka Prefecture to face a police raid and court order demanding they pay fines for allegedly breaking the Medical Practitioner’s Law, which bans unlicensed doctors from engaging in medical practice. The rationale behind the crackdown is that the act of engraving an inked image onto someone’s skin constitutes a medical practice, which means tattooists are violating the law. It’s unclear how many tattooists are actually licensed doctors.
Masuda refused to follow the court order and took his case to the Osaka District Court, claiming that tattooing is not a medical practice and his profession should not be regarded as illegal.
Japan doesn’t outlaw tattooing per se, but the police assertion that it requires a medical license, if supported by the judiciary, would result in an estimated 3,000 tattooists nationwide losing their jobs and perhaps opting to go abroad, experts say.
“Given the time and effort needed, I think it’s next to impossible for tattooists to get a doctors’ license,” Masuda told The Japan Times during his Tuesday visit to Tokyo, where his advocacy group, Save Tattooing, held its first-ever gathering near the Diet.
“Instead, I think we should create a separate accreditation or licensing system that recognizes our profession for what it is,” he said.
Doing so, Masuda says, will help put an end to the industry’s shady standing in Japan and pave the way for its foray into the mainstream. Although the 1948 abolition of an archaic law banning the act of inking bodies technically made tattooing legal, the nation’s tattooists have largely remained underground nonetheless due to their perceived ties with the yakuza.
This unsavory image is what typically makes politicians hesitant to fight for the profession, said Democratic Party member Akihiro Hatsushika, the only Diet member to show up at Save Tattooing’s meeting in Tokyo.
“Many foreign athletes expected to visit Japan in 2020 have their bodies inked. At a time like this, how could Japan still insist that those with tattoos are not welcome to public baths or beaches?” he said.
“Eventually I’d like to see Japan give better legal endorsement to tattooing so that Olympic athletes can openly enjoy being tattooed here as some form of souvenir for themselves,” he said.
In March last year, Hatsushika became the first lawmaker to ask the Diet whether tattooing is medicine or art.
In response, health minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a Lower House committee that it is possible that tattooists who are not licensed doctors could be breaking the Medical Practitioners’ Law because injecting ink into layers of skin inevitably raises the risk of infection and inflammation. But he also admitted there are “cultural aspects” to tattooing and said the matter merits more active discussion.
Industry veteran Masahiro Kishi, 54, thinks that eradicating the discrimination hinges on how he and his lot behave in daily life.
“Whenever I walk outside, I make sure I don’t get in the way of people around me, or I always apologize should I bump into someone. I never fail to say thank you when I get a glass of beer at an izakaya (traditional pub),” said Kishi, who also attended Tuesday’s event.
“As long as society continues to frown upon people with tattoos, we’re handicapped, in a way. What I mean by this is we need to be extra well-mannered and gentlemanly as we go about our lives, otherwise our image will never improve,” he said.
The case initiated by Masuda is near its climax, with only a few sessions left. The much-anticipated ruling by the Osaka District Court is due in September. With no compromise expected, the case is all but certain to go to the Supreme Court, said Michiko Kameishi, one of Masuda’s chief lawyers.
If the top court agrees that tattooing is not a medical practice, it could embolden practitioners of other quasi-medical services, such as semi-permanent makeup application and piercing, she said. Currently, the Medical Practitioner’s Law is widely interpreted as banning unlicensed doctors from performing these services as well, leading to arrests.
At the same time, Masuda’s win would ignite momentum for rethinking his profession’s shady status and creating a separate licensing system for tattooists to prove their skills or hygiene knowledge — a move that would go a long way toward making the profession less taboo, Kameishi said.
Losing the case would practically ruin the Japanese tattooing community because those without doctor’s licenses would be disqualified from doing it, the lawyer said.
Unlike makeup application or piercing, the drawing techniques used by professional tattooists are so unique and complicated that few doctors can immediately replace them, Kameishi said, noting they would likely be forced underground or overseas to make a living.
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