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. It’s a no-brainer.
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.
Regional differences existed. In what is now Hiroshima, those found guilty of their first crime received a line across their foreheads. Those convicted of a second crime received a line curving to the left down their foreheads, creating a lopsided cross. A third crime resulted in the addition of another two lines, one descending from the axis of the cross and another smaller line on the right above the horizontal line, completing the kanji character for dog.
It’s worth noting at this point that gangsters typically call informants “inu” (dog), sometimes referring to the police this way as well.
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.
It’s like a “Thug Life” T-shirt you can never take off.
Some gang members would even have the name of their syndicate and/or the name of their boss tattooed onto their body.
The intricate tattoos sought after by gangsters certainly aren’t cheap, so getting them was a way of flaunting one’s wealth. There’s even the issue of endurance, and the more tattoos a gangster has, the more likely they are to be respected by other yakuza.
“If you’re a man, your ability to stay still and silently endure pain shows itself at the tattoo parlor,” one retired gangster told me. “It can take a year or two years to get a full body tattoo, which shows you can handle pain, you can commit to a long-term goal and you can be trusted. It’s thought that if you get tattooed down to your ankles and wrists (both of which are highly sensitive), people know you’ll never snitch.”
There’s no doubt gangsters used tattoos to intimidate others. “There was a time when you could drink for free if you flashed your tattoos,” the gangster said. “Sometimes, you even got into the movies for free. They scared people. I guess they still do.”
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 begin hiding their identities. Of the roughly 30,000 gang members left in Japan, an estimated half of them are not “official members.” 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.
If Japan can legalize dancing after midnight, it can learn to live with a little ink.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.
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