Five years ago, Japan Times contributor and author Brian Ashcraft, writing for Kotaku East, noted how many athletes at the Rio Olympics had tattoos and speculated that the 2020 Games might change Japanese attitudes toward them.
“Over the past few decades, tattooing’s image in Japan has slowly been softening and evolving,” he wrote. “Tokyo 2020 will bring competitors, fans and money into the country. But we’ll have to see if it brings changed attitudes.”
If these changed attitudes included tattoos on Japan’s own team of athletes, then Ashcraft’s hopes were premature. At least for events in which extensive amounts of an athletes’ skin were exposed — swimming, diving, track and so on — scant evidence of tattooing could be found.
Tattooing in Japan has long been associated with a subculture of gamblers and other members of the criminal underworld, and biases remain deep-seated.
In any event, Japan’s media remained mostly silent on the stark contrast between unadorned Japanese athletes and their flamboyantly tattooed Western peers.
In its Aug. 5 issue, though, Shukan Shincho paid homage to this apparent taboo by featuring three pages of color photos of tattooed Olympic athletes under the headline, “North American and European athletes like tattoos. Six Olympic athletes with cool tattoos.”
“In Japan, tattoos leave a somewhat dark impression,” went the opening. “However, among the athletes appearing at the current Tokyo Olympics, perhaps due to cultural differences, gold medal candidates with elaborate tattoos can be seen. Here, we introduce the tattoo art with which they adorn their bodies.”
Shincho showcased American swimmer Caeleb Dressel (24), British swimmer Adam Peaty (26), American volleyball player Matt Anderson (34), Brazilian skateboarder Leticia Bufoni (28), American gymnast Sam Mikulak (28) and British diver Grace Reid (25).
At the end of the Games, Nikkan Gendai ran a three-page special of the “Beautiful athletes of the Tokyo Olympics,” in which Bufoni was described as “yabasugiru,” a colloquialism that can be alternatively translated as “too dangerous” and “awesome.”
It is unclear whether or not the Japanese Olympic Committee specifically bans tattoos on athletes here, but that is probably moot since tattoos, scarification, piercing and other enhancements are typically prohibited by the respective amateur athletic federations at the prefectural and regional levels that send competitors to the national teams.
For instance, the posted regulations for the Iwate Swimming Federation specifically ban “intentional body ornamentation,” which includes chapatsu (hair dyed light brown), piercing, irezumi and tattoos (both the Japanese and English styles are noted here), “gaudy” nail art and so on.
Still, tattooing has its defenders. One of its most vociferous has been 58-year-old neuroscientist Kenichiro Mogi, who, for the past decade, has frequently expressed the belief that the “strange rules” banning tattoos at baths and swimming pools is “a manifestation of the more general problem of the lack of a culture of critical thinking in Japan.”
On Aug. 1, Mogi tweeted his latest defense of tattooing, using the argument that since non-Japanese competitors could openly flash their tattoos, Japanese with tattoos should not face discrimination in their own country.
“I have long believed that the prejudice of Japanese society toward tattoos cannot be justified,” Mogi tweeted. “Many people will recognize that many athletes from overseas at the Tokyo Olympics have tattoos. So at this time, why not abolish the meaningless tattoo ban enforced by hot springs and swimming pools?”
“Nobody is making an issue of it,” Chicago-born TV commentator Dave Spector told The Japan Times midway through the Games. “Maybe around last year or earlier some people were asking, ‘What should we do about all the tattooed athletes? What if one wants to enter a sentō (public bath) or public pool and gets turned away?’ They raised these questions, but nothing really came of it.”
In Spector’s view, as society becomes more politicized less attention is being paid to tattooing.
“Nowadays there’s much more focus by the media on political statements or actions taken by athletes, like those Black Lives Matter masks or Chairman Mao badges, or all the kneeling or other types of protests, to the extent that tattoos are the least of anyone’s problems,” he added.
At least a few writers were allowed to have fun. Writing for Nikkan Gendai Digital, entertainer Kuniko Yamada went so far as to predict that tattooed athletes at this year’s Olympics will be “something of a game-changer.”
Initially Yamada felt it strange that during the broadcasts “announcers didn’t say so much as one word about the tattoos,” but nonetheless felt that tattoos on athletes “were generally accepted.”
Yamada used the word “migoto” (stunning or outstanding) to praise the body art on the 191-centimeter-tall Dressel.
“His right arm has the Olympics symbol, and on his left is the Star Spangled Banner and an eagle stretching from his shoulders to his back and arms.” she writes. “The first time I saw him, my heart fluttered.”
Yamada predicts the performances by Dressel and other charismatic tattooed athletes are likely to have “a big impact around town,” and as a result she anticipates Japan can expect a “big increase” in demand for body art.
If anything, I’m sure Kotaku’s Ashcraft would warn her not to hold her breath.
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