National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Japan's vernacular press coverage tiptoes around tattoo controversy

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Before the Olympic Games come to Tokyo in the summer of 2020, Japan will get a chance to prove its mettle as an international sporting events host with the Rugby World Cup this fall. The games will be spread out among 12 stadiums nationwide, which means the whole country will be the focus rather than just cosmopolitan Tokyo. Consequently, omotenashi (Japanese-style hospitality) will be tested across a wider range of cultural sensibilities, since many of the host communities are not necessarily on the beaten foreign tourist path.

Take Beppu, Oita Prefecture. Five matches, including one of the quarterfinals, will take place at the Oita Stadium, which is in the city of Oita and, according to the Dec. 30 issue of the Nishinippon Shimbun, there is some concern in the local hospitality sector regarding what to do about foreign players and spectators with tattoos. It’s assumed that when in Beppu these visitors will want to partake of what makes the region famous — its onsen (hot-spring baths) — but, according to the newspaper, 70 percent of the area’s 400 onsen facilities do not allow bathers with tattoos because they are afraid inked guests “make other guests uncomfortable,” and by “other guests” they mean Japanese guests, who make up almost all of their business.

The local hoteliers association says it will survey member establishments for their opinions. As it stands, there are 100 facilities that say they will “accept” tattooed patrons, and the association is hoping to persuade others to relax their rules if only during the one-month period of the Rugby World Cup. A Dec. 25 article in the Sankei Shimbun features an English-language website that publicizes a map of 100 tattoo-friendly onsen, but it also implies that many of the accommodations in the area are resistant to the idea. A representative from an inn told the Sankei Shimbun that it’s “difficult” to try and distinguish whether someone sporting a tattoo is “antisocial,” while a city official said many facilities didn’t want to “disappoint” people who had come “so far” to take a bath, without really clarifying if those people were Japanese or foreign guests. The organization that designed the map said one option is for hot-spring facilities to set aside exclusive bathing times for tattooed patrons.

The cautious tone of these two articles suggests that most hot-spring resorts in Beppu will remain closed to tattoo-sporting visitors before, during and after the Rugby World Cup. The average Japanese person’s aversion to tattoos or, more precisely, to people who have voluntarily submitted themselves to tattooing — which describes a good number of foreign athletes — seems to be deeply ingrained.

In September, the Mainichi Shimbun ran a feature that attempted to explain this aversion as a means of addressing the recent internet trolling of popular TV personality Ryuchell, who in August posted images of himself on Instagram sporting tattoos with the names of his wife and newborn son. The Mainichi cited a 2014 survey by the Kanto Federation of Bar Associations that said only 1.6 percent of 1,000 respondents aged between 20 and 60 years old had ever had tattoos. Regarding the question, “Is it OK for a celebrity to have a tattoo?,” the answers were split evenly between the affirmative and the negative, but when asked if it was OK for a family member to get one, 81.4 percent replied “no.” The most commonly cited objection to Ryuchell’s tattoo was that it wasn’t something a father should have.

Cultural anthropologist Yoshimi Yamamoto told the Mainichi Shimbun that tattooing has a long history in Japan for reasons that were ritual in nature or symbolized membership in a group. However, it was used by the government to mark criminals during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and authorities only cracked down on tattoo artists in the Meiji Period, including those serving Ainu people and Okinawans, for whom tattoos are part of their respective cultures. While this policy did much to demonize tattoos among some members of the general public, tattooing continued to flourish as an indigenous art form until the 1960s, when movies about organized crime were popular. Although the gangsters in these movies often had noble intentions, the fact that they favored tattoos reinforced the notion that tattooed individuals were antisocial forces.

More to the point, Yamamoto’s research shows that modern Japanese homes included dedicated bathrooms, obviating the need to make regular trips to sentō (public baths), one of the few places where it was common to see tattoos. Closed off from public viewing, tattooed flesh acquired even more of a forbidden cachet and, whereas before the ’60s there was a dual outlook on tattoos, afterward that outlook shaded overwhelmingly toward the negative.

As in the Nishinippon Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun articles, most vernacular media coverage of the tattoo controversy avoids the question of whether banning tattooed visitors from onsen counts as improper discrimination, probably because the media would also have to mention the possibility that behind some of the bans is a fear of foreigners. The Mainichi Shimbun article partially addresses this matter, qualifying tattoos as merely a form of personalized decoration. The newspaper quotes Tomohiro Suzuki, a social psychology associate professor, who predicts that, as with pierced ears and dyed hair, Japanese society will eventually grow to tolerate tattoos as “fashion statements.” It may merely come down to terminology. Thanks to those yakuza movies, the Japanese word for tattoo, “irezumi,” carries with it the notion of rebellion. The English word, “tattoo,” is less loaded.

Since the mass media tends to sympathize with businesses that don’t wish to risk losing customers over a principle, it may take longer for society to accept tattoos, even if such prejudices contradict common sense. Unlike the hot-spring employee mentioned in the Sankei Shimbun article, most people can tell the difference between gangsters and foreign rugby players.