Monday, 30 July 2012

Tattoo You

Strap in, it’s rant-o’clock…

Japan has a bit of a neurotic attitude to tattoos. The history of tattooing goes back a long way, possibly 10,000 years to the Jomon period, but certainly to the Yayoi period (c.300BC to 300AD) where Chinese visitors to these shores remarked on them upon their return to the middle kingdom.

According to Wikipedia the Japanese art of tattooing (irezumi 入れ (there are quite a few ways to write in kanji so I’ve plumped for this one) became popular after with the arrival of woodblock printing and it was the wood block artists who apparently became the tattooists. In the Edo period (1600-1860) it’s unclear who made irezumi popular, some say it was low class ruffian types, others say it was wealthy merchants who could not flaunt their wealth through clothes so got themselves painted instead. Anyway, the popularity took off until…

The Meiji Restoration (1860 onwards) – in a useless sop to the West (another chapter in Japan’s on-going attitude by the sound of it) the government made tattoos illegal and it was then that tattoos took on their connotations of criminality and the association with the yakuza was, well, not born as they had always had tattoos done, but from here on tatts = gangsters, end of story. Tattooing was legalized by the Americans in 1946 but the stigma has remained, so much so that onsens, swimming pools, gyms and other places where you may have to strip off will now not allow anyone with tattoos on the premises, even dorky gaijin with the kanji for carburetor stamped on their neck who could never, in a month of blue moons, be associated with Japanese yakuza gangs.

“So what” I hear you cry. Well it wouldn’t be very much at all really, just another example of Japan unable to think or acknowledge the changing of times. However a few months back in May Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka, suddenly decided he didn’t have enough to do, so he sent a “voluntary” survey to all employees of the city government “asking” them to disclose if they had any tattoos and, if so one assumes, what and where.

For some reason most city’s 32,000 employees responded to this gross invasion of their privacy and provided details of the tattoos they had (98 workers had visible tattoos, 12 had concealed tatts and a further 16 had both). However around 500 teachers and other school staff with their heads screwed on refused to answer as they saw, rightly, it was an invasion of their privacy.

Delighted by the overall response Hashimoto basically said that any of the 120 or staff with tattoos should either get them removed (at, one assumes, their own expense) or look for another job as he didn’t want their sort around. So, having been given a job under one set of criteria, those staff are now being shafted by a complete dickhead with a serious chip on his shoulder (the nasty media accused his parents of being yakuza when he was running for office, so instead of getting narked with the media he’s taking it out on his employees, nice…)

However he was mightily irked by the refusals so he ordered these 500 miscreants to reply to the voluntary survey or else – which I guess means that at that stage it stopped even trying to be voluntary.  Most of them did eventually comply but 15 Osaka city employees continued to refuse to respond, again citing the violation of privacy issue that it so clearly was. So the city government decided that these 15 employees would be subject to disciplinary measures, including reprimands and possible salary cuts as the refusal to complete the survey was tantamount to disregarding a direct order (they were teachers and caretakers, remember, and not soldiers).

Since then the scent on this issue has gone cold, as it were. What I find most depressing about the whole issue is not the survey itself or the action being taken against the Osaka 15, though it’s bad enough. No, what gets me more is that fact that there has not been a general outcry in the media, organisations devoted to freedom and/or liberty, from the unions or from anyone else. Indeed the main reaction seems to have been “well, they do have tattoos…” even though we don’t actually know if they have tattoos or not. What we do know is they have the balls to stand up to the authority figure and say ‘no way am I going to tell you that, it’s personal, it’s nothing to do with you, it makes no difference to my ability to do my job so go fuck yourself”. It almost makes me want to get a tattoo in sympathy – though I won’t because they’re ridiculous, but I will stand up for the right of Osaka city employees to not have to answer pointless and demeaning questions about the possibility of having one.

Driving in Tokyo

In England drivers tend to follow the mantra ‘mirror-signal-manoeuvre’

In Japan drivers tend to follow the mantra ‘manoeuvre’

It makes driving fun, really…

That said I will maintain that Japanese drivers do tend to be better behaved towards cyclists that (my limited) experience of UK drivers. OK, I know I used to cycle quite a lot when I was a kid 25 years ago, before Bradley Wiggins had won the Tour de France or Chris Hoy had torn up the Beijing velodrome, but it cycling on a A-road was taking your life in your hands. Here in Tokyo I cycle to work in the summer and take roads that are the equivalent of the London north circular (namely routes 317 (nakasendo) and 17 (yamate-dori)) and drivers are pretty well behaved, even taxis and truck drivers.

My theory on this is that in Japan you are allowed to undertake on motorways, so when changing lanes you have to use your passenger-side mirror a lot more – this means Japanese drivers are a bit more adept about using them and spotting cyclists flying up their inside. They still don’t signal very well, but at least you think they might have spotted you (unlike the idiot who stepped into the road on a long flat corner last week who I missed by the width of a swear word…)


  1. Interesting.

    But I was of the impression that the Yakuza were a bit more insidious in Japanese life than say the "east end gangs" or "Yardies" we see in England. were we have territorial gangs in the run down bits of towns and citys the Yakuza are more deeply intertwined with the fabric of society in Japan.

    So a tatto must still mean something to the average Japanese citizen even in these "enlightened" times you couldn't possible have a tattoo done without thinking "will this been seen as a Yakuza mark"

    Whilst I agree that the state should never go around asking if it's staff have body art, in the the west certainly that would never happen. But in Japan body art means something completely different and comes from, dare I say, a different culture.

    Maybe through your western filter it's wrong to ask about tattoo. But through an Asian filter its fine to ask "are you a member of a criminal organisation"

  2. With tattoos and the yakuza, yes, the yaks are more deeply entwined in Japanese life but that also means that it would be extremely unlikely that a member of the yakuza would be working for the municipal government in a school. Being a yakuza, or member of a gang, is actually a category in the national census, they hang together and, traditionally, are construction workers - so for the Mayor of Osaka to start asking his employees is inappropriate.

    As for the general public's attitude, well, if you're over 40 then yes, the average Japanese person's reaction might well be 'he has tattoos so he must be a gangster', but young people here have more than embraced body art and are making it their own, without the darker affiliations.

    Anyway all this is moot, the point of the post was about the lack of outcry over the arsehole mayor asking these questions in the first place - as I said it's perfectly OK to ask if you are a member of a criminal organisation, but that's not what he was asking. He was saying "I don't care who you are, if you have a tattoo you should go and look for another job. I don't care that you have worked for the city for 40 years, that when you were employed you had the tattoo and there was no prohibition about having it. I don't care that it is not illegal to have tattoos or that there is no city ordinance banning employees from having tattoos. I personally don't like tattoos and this is my crusade to get rid of them, even though what I'm doing is completely inappropriate, discriminatory and far more illegal than having a tattoo in the first place."


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