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.