Japan, Ink. Global Flows of ‘Deviant’ Body Modification

Post by Jakob Strobl, Undergraduate Advisory Council Treasurer

On November 28th, the Asian Studies Center held “Japan, Ink: Global Flows of ‘Deviant’ Body Modification”, a wonderful presentation given by John M. Skutlin. Given the title, I thought the presentation would focus only on Japan’s tattoo culture and their negative stigma towards the practice.  However, Mr. Skutlin’s presentation delve into a broader spectrum of body modification including piercings and cosmetic surgery.  A survey in Japan reported that 85% of adults in Japan would never get a tattoo, and over 55% reported they would be unforgiving toward a family member who received a tattoo. In today’s global society, tattoos have grown in popularity, while in Japan, a person with a tattoo can be denied access to pools, beaches, gyms, and can even cause problems in their social life. This leads us to the question, why has the stigma against tattooing persisted in Japan?

If we go back into early Japanese history, around the early hundreds CE, tattoos were used in a talismanic manner. During the same period, other countries such as China saw the art as barbaric. As the relationship between Japan and China increased in activity, China’s ideology regarding tattoos was slowly diffused into Japanese government. By the 7th century, Japan’s rulers had adopted the same attitude towards tattoos as China, and the practice was legally disfavored. The tattoo culture dissolved and tattoos were not seen again until it was repurposed by the Japanese government to be used punitively. By the end of the 17th century, decorative tattooing began to rise in popularity causing penal tattoos to be replaced by other forms of punishment. When western countries sailed to Japan to work out trade agreements in the mid-19th century, the Japanese rulers feared that westerners would view tattoos as barbaric such as China did a millennial before. In 1867, the rulers enforced laws prohibiting tattooing. Ironically, the tattooing business grew due to the new influx of foreign sailors entering the country. The talent of Japanese tattoo artists even attracted distinguished clients such as King George V. The ban on tattooing was not lifted until 1947 when Japan’s new constitution was implemented. By then, a negative stigma towards tattoos had already been ingrained in Japanese culture and society. As tattoos began to come back into Japanese society, the media and news linked tattoos with the Yakuza. The Yakuza are an organized crime syndicate the originated in Japan. This linkage between tattoos and organized crime intensified the distaste for tattoos in their society.

In Japan’s current day society, many of the young adults do not perceive tattoos with such negative assumptions as those before them did. With that considered, those who do bear tattoos still cover them up in their day to day lives to avoid disrupting those around them and putting themselves in disadvantageous positions socially. Tattoos are not the only body modification looked down upon. More “extreme” types of piercings and exhibitionist body modifications (e.g. suspension) are also negatively perceived by the public. Events that display these sectors of body modification can be closed simply by someone reporting it to the police.  While tattooing continues to exist in Japan, the art falls in a legal grey area. All medical practices in Japan need to be performed by someone with a medical license. While tattoos were not explicitly described as a medical practice, some legal shuffling can shift tattooing into the medical sector causing legal issues for some tattoo artists. Being a tattoo artist can lead to fines which you will be required to pay. Other areas such as Cosmetic surgery are not affected by this legal grey area. Cosmetic surgery is explicitly defined as a medical practice which requires a license. The field has grown in popularity in Japan just as it has globally. With a rise in popularity, the most common cosmetic surgery in Japan is blepharoplasty (i.e. double eyelid surgery).  Compared to tattoo culture in Japan, cosmetic surgery is not frowned upon. Cosmetic Surgery socially works on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Even then, cosmetic surgery can be advertised legally in Japan.

Japan’s negative stigma towards tattoos and other forms of body modification stems from their interactions with other nations. Early in their history, Japan used tattoos and saw them in a positive light. But as Japan created relationships with foreign countries, they were looked down upon as barbarians. Wanting to give themselves positive impressions with foreign nations, Japanese rulers decided to squash that part of their culture. As Japan became more closed off centuries later, tattoo culture was revitalized as an art. Once trade deals with western nations were formed, the culture was squashed again out of fear of looking barbaric. As time progressed, some other nations began to welcome tattoo culture as an art. But for Japan, they have a previous history of being looking downed upon by other nations due to their tattoo culture. Centuries of being subjected to foreign nations’ negative stigmas towards tattoos caused Japanese society to become ingrained with those foreign views. As other countries begin to welcome tattooing, Japan is still under those previous foreign values that tattooing is, in a sense, barbaric.

India Consul General Visits Campus

Left to Right:  Rachel Jacobson, Lynn Kawaratani and Emily Rook-Koepsel of the Asian Studies Center (ASC); Ariel Armony, Senior Director of International Programs & Director, University Center for International Studies; India Consul General Riva Ganguly Das; Consul Trade Sreenivasa Rao; James Cook, Acting Director, ASC; Ira Gumberg, Chairman and CEO of JJ Gumberg, University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees member; and Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg.

A reception in honor of Consul General Das was hosted by Ariel Armony of the University Center for International Studies. The Asian Studies Center liaised with the Consulate to develop a full schedule of meetings and visits during the two days. The reception opened with Pitt student dance club Pitt Nrityamala performing three Indian classical dances. Remarks were then given by UCIS director Ariel Armory, Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg and Consul General Das. She described India as one of the world’s “most multicultural and most diverse countries.”  She added that “as India’s relationship with the United States grows, education is a very important aspect of this relationship. There have been many government-to-government initiatives on how we can learn from the US universities.” She also remarked that the “he Indian community by and large adapts well to the society in which they live, and they are able to seamlessly contribute to both India and to the country of their adoption.”

Earlier in the day, the Ambassador and Consul Trade attended a luncheon hosted by Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, and met with members of the School of Medicine, including Chair of the Department of Epidemiology Anne Newman, MD. Day one concluded with Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg hosting a dinner attended by Provost Patricia Beeson and other Pitt faculty.



China and Latin American Relations: Conference in China

The conference——addressed trilateral relations, and the changing roles and impacts of China’s involvement in Latin America. The event was held in Beijing on October 20-21, 2016 at Renmin University of China.

At a time when relations between China and Latin America have been deepened, there is growing interest among Chinese, American and Latin American academics and policymakers in the economic, political, and social relations between these three key regions of the world. The emergence of China as a primary economic actor in Latin America has reconfigured investment, economic cooperation, business practices, and cultural flows on the one hand, while bringing competition and challenges to the region on the other hand.

Geographically close to Latin America, the United States aims to enhance commercial relations, cultural exchanges, and immigration flows with the region. This at a moment when the relationships between China, the United States and Latin America are evolving. Some Latin American countries are enthusiastic about attracting China’s investment yet wish to maintain a geopolitical balance with the US. China’s activity in Latin America is shaping a new landscape of relations, challenges and opportunities among China, the United States and Latin America.

Ariel Armony, senior director of International Programs and director of UCIS, delivered the keynote address: Key Trends in Latin America and What They Mean for China. Other speakers from the University of Pittsburgh included Scott Morgenstern, director, Center for Latin American Studies; James Cook, acting director, Asian Studies Center; Ravi Madhavan, director, International Business Center; and Thomas Rawski, professor of Economics and History.

The conference attracted a diverse range of speakers and attendees, including:

  • Ambassadors to China from Argentina, Brazil and Peru
  • Latin American universities and organizations from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama
  • Four other US universities:  Brown University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Southern California, and University of Puget Sound

The conference was sponsored by: University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for International Studies, Renmin University of China, Chinese Association for Latin American Studies, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Center for Latin American Studies at Renmin University of China.