When I found out that Helen Mirren was wearing a tiny tattoo on one of her sole feet, my student friends got excited. The discovery that Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan in 1963 caused a similar frenzy. From 2013 to 2017, the Ambassador to Japan had visible tattoos under one of her elbows. Would she be allowed to Japan’s renownedly conservative hotsprings and swimming pools, as well as gyms?
Japan’s tattooing history is long. The roots of tattooing can be traced back to the facial designs made on haniwa (ancient clay figurines from the fourth or fifth centuries). However, it was used as a punishment for recidivist criminals. They were embarrassed by four strokes that constituted the “dog” ideogram. These were worn as fashion statements by legions, including rickshaw-pullers (sushi chefs), artisans, Kabuki actresses, and laborers) from the 18th century onwards.
In addition to their decorative purpose, tattoos could also be used as protection against natural disasters or evil spirits. Tattoo artists were known to be loyal customers of firefighters, providing them with imagery that was water-themed, such as carp, water dragons, and waterfalls. Japanese literature is full of references. irebokuro — a pledge tattoo worn by courtesans, lovers and promiscuous priests. Junichiro Tanizaki, a novelist, wrote that people visiting Edo (an old name for Tokyo) preferred to hire tattooed palanquin bearers.
The art was never approved by the Japanese government. In the Edo period (1603-1867), any expression of individuality by commoners was invariably considered subversion. Edicts were generally ignored. The country was finally opened in the 1960s after nearly 250 years of self-isolation. Draconian laws prohibiting tattooing were created. They weren’t motivated by social instability or fears that Westerners might denounce this barbaric practice.
Ironically, tattoo artists lost their local clients and found new customers in foreigners, the exact people the government was trying to protect. Some of these clients included Queen Olga from Greece (1851-1926) and the young Duke of York (later King George V). In the port city Kobe, the master artist Horichio inked a dragon tattoo onto the forearm of the latter.
After World War II, official prohibition of tattooing was lifted and legal harassment stopped. However, there was still a stigma associated with tattooing. In countless crime movies that came out of Nikkatsu and Toei after World War II, the link was reinforced by gangsters and mistresses sporting full-body tattoos, often in beautifully lit seminaked scenes.
While tattoos have a strong connection with the underworld of Japan, it is starting to fade. The tattoo artist’s best customer is no longer criminals. Although the number of yakuza is not declining, it’s believed that their ranks have dropped from 80,000 to 10,000 at the peak. Hollywood has seen this trend, with the villains in movies about crime being once Sicilians and tattoo-inked yakuza. They are now more likely to come from the Russian mafia.
These days the more frightening and freaky aspects of ink arts are far less obvious than they were when James Kirkup, a British poet, visited the Sanya area of Tokyo. This was documented in Kirkup’s 1970 book, “Japan Behind The Fan,” which he wrote in 1970. A man was seen with his body covered in pictures of spiders, lizards, snakes, etc., while a beautiful image of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy in flowing robes and a tiara stood “with lissome feet on a sevenfold lotus flowers.” He flexed his back to make the iconographic mass come to life and the drapery of Kannon seemed to gently move in a Nirvana breeze by moving it.
It is a big decision to get a tattoo. While tattoos can be beautiful and can beautify the body, they are also susceptible to skin problems like wrinkles, sagging, and wrinkles. Tattoos that have been worn over time will fade or become distorted. The sensual lips and canine bark of an elderly Japanese truck driver were transformed into the sinuous lips of a god incised on his forearm. Only those who have deep pockets can opt for laser removal.
Tattoos are living records that preserve and transmit colorful aspects of popular culture from the past. Clients are now looking for contemporary imagery and motifs, such as manga or anime characters, super heroes, intergalactic aliens or death metal guitar shredders.
Experiments are always ongoing. Reboots are also possible. Moeko Heshiki is a tattoo artist who is just starting to get more people to accept and understand the art. hajichiThe unique Okinawa body illustration is called. These marks, which were primarily worn by women on the hands of their husbands, were inscribed locally by shamans. The Japanese colonized the islands and hajichi was once proudly adorned. However, by the 1950s, the marks were a source for shame.
You can also use it as a hajicha Heshiki (hajichi artist), has initiated a campaign to promote handpoke, which is a way of using the technique. Heshiki has decided to abandon the use of lasers and instead promote traditional ink-and-needle techniques. This fluid is made of a mixture of awamori (a local liquor) and squid. Heshiki will be the first to acknowledge that there is still a lot to do before she can move from shame to pride, but she says she is making the important first step.
Even though tattoo artists won’t be receiving large grants to help them spread their artwork or become living national treasures anytime soon, I feel the growing acceptance of the subject. Although Japanese tattoo artists are proud social outliers and have not sought respectability in their lives, they could appreciate a bit of respect.
Stephen Mansfield lives in Japan and is a writer.
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