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Japanese attitudes to tattoos (apparently they're not good)

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I recently partook in an ESL week long Japanese course in Kobe. Before I got there, I was assured that I would be staying with the loveliest Japanese host family you could ever meet.

... But would they think I’m lovely?! I was concerned, as I’d been told that there was something about my appearance that they might not take too kindly to.

It’s said that if you have tattoos in Japan, it’s best to cover them up. It’s not a very good quote but it is what it is. Over there, it’s presumed that anyone with tattoos is a Yakuza (organized crime in Japan), or a Western equivalent.

When confronted with a set of tattoos, Japanese people tend to act like grandmothers confronted with a set of tattoos in 1951: they either point or put their head down and walk in the opposite direction.

It’s not that they just don’t like them; people with tattoos are openly treated quite unfairly. I don’t want to say people with tattoos are discriminated against, because that’s stupid. It’s not gender or skin colour – near enough everyone with a tattoo has one because they voluntarily went into a shop and paid for it (or traded it for a lager in a friend's cousin's garage). Perceptions will change eventually, but it’s not the most important thing on the itinerary at the moment.

The tattooed people of Osaka, which is about 20 minutes on the train from where I was staying, have a particularly difficult time with the perceptions they face. Toru Hashimoto, an ex-lawyer and now Mayor of Osaka, decided a couple of years ago that any city employee must immediately get their tattoos removed or lose their jobs. Over 30,000 employees had to prove they didn’t have tattoos, and this was all apparently because the tattoos of one employee had intimidated the child of another employee.

This excuse is of course nonsense. Obviously the Mayor’s college girlfriend left him for a tattooed bloke 20 years ago and now he’s taking it out on the rest of us. Hashimoto has now attempted to make tattooing itself illegal across Osaka. According to him, tattooing is a medical procedure and if performed by non-medical professionals, it’s illegal. Of course, it’s only ever performed by non-medical professionals so he’s got us all good and proper. I’m sure there are probably one or two badass haematologists who do a bit of light tattooing on weekends, but how can we know for sure?

Mayor Hashimoto is a rightwing populist who just loves getting into scraps with the city’s public servants. Most of the tattooed employees in Osaka work in either waste disposal or public transport and had to leave their positions, because you’re not exactly going to get a tattoo removed just to keep working as a bin man for an idiot, are you?

It’s common across Japan to find no-tattoo signs scattered across the place, so you can go ahead and forget going to a beach or public bath if the dermis layer of your skin has been inserted with indelible ink.

Although, to me, the above picture looks like it’s banning people with rashes, and then the script is informing us that the bath itself has tattoos, which – as far as I know – is anatomically impossible; although, like the entirety of Japan’s tattooists, I’m no medical professional.

You can't even go in this spa if you have 'other body art', which I'm assuming is either henna or something you just drew on yourself. Drawings of seals are an especially big no-no. 

I was advised before I arrived at my host family’s home that they have young children, so I shouldn’t think of subjecting them to anything untoward like tattoos. It was 25 degrees there and my tattoos are on my arms, so it looked like the kids were going to have to do some growing up real fast.

I arrived at their home at about dinner time. My host family were an absolute delight, so pleasant and welcoming. But would that change once I whipped my coat off? It was a bloody full house – a real occasion; grandmas were there and everything. They weren’t young grandmas, either: they were old ones. Really old. I wasn’t too sure how’d they react to the tattoos... Would they just decide to not talk to me for the week, or would the police get involved? I was starting to regret reading all that stuff about the Mayor before I got there.

I took my seat, jacket-ed up to the nines. It wasn’t a cold room but I didn’t really have much of a choice, as underneath my jacket was a shirt. A short sleeve shirt.

I really felt a lot of pressure. I felt like I was an ambassador for tattooed westerners. What if I mess this up? Had there been some kind of logistical mix up in the Home Office when they decided to send me as the unofficial tattooed representative? Like when we accidentally sent Piers Morgan to the US a few years back and he nearly ruined the hundreds of years of positive British stereotypes we built up. Remember what happened next? We had to send them John Oliver to make up for it. Now we don’t have John Oliver anymore and he’s the king of telly.

Could this happen again now? Would I irrevocably tarnish our good British name and force the government to send David Beckham over to make up for it?

The tension was simply breathtaking. I decided that the big moment had arrived – I’d just have to rip off my coat quick, like a plaster, throw it down on the floor, stand up on the chair and scream I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR.

The point came. I did it. The jacket was off, both metaphorically and physically.

I paused. I don’t think I did it right, no one even slightly looked up from their sashimi. I did what any normal ignored person does in that situation and started flexing my tattoos in the direction of the grandmas. My host father looked up:

‘Ehhhhh tattoo! Sugoi! (cool)’

I might have to quickly add that when a Japanese person expresses wordless emotion or indignation, they don’t say ‘Ooo’ or ‘Ohhh’ or ‘Wooow’ like we do; they say ‘Ehhhhh’ or ‘Owwwww.’ It’s funnier in person.

My host father, whose name I’m not too sure of as he instructed me to call him ‘Papi’, even though he’s about nine years older than me and we weren’t starring in an adult film, was instructing his wife to relay some information to me.

His wife, it turned out, went to Bournemouth University and was perhaps the most un-Japanese Japanese woman I’ve ever met. She was full of impressions and jokes about the famed Japanese demure female – especially the high pitched voice girls put on whenever you enter a shop. Apparently it’s welcoming here and nothing to do with unhealthy levels of helium in the air. She was hilarious, so social and amicable and just the complete opposite of what I was told to expect.

Anyway, she translated what her husband was telling her: ‘Papi says your tattoos are the coolest thing ever, and would you mind if he invited some of his friends round and they all took pictures of your arm?’

‘That is completely fine’

‘Great!’

‘I also have a tattoo on my inner thigh if you want to take pictures of that?’

‘The arm should be fine’

‘Terrific.’

I don’t know what the hell they were doing beforehand but Papi’s mates turned up within about ten minutes, stocked up with camera equipment. I swear to God one even brought a tripod.

The group of men, who were all lorry drivers, had seemingly never seen a tattoo in real life. This led me to think lorry drivers in Japan are perhaps a little different to lorry drivers in the UK.

One mentioned that he delivers to a Yakuza bar and that I should come with him the next day to see if I could interview someone. He assured me I’d have no problem getting in due to my tattoos, but I was unsure; did the Yakuza really operate in a way where you get in by flashing a tattoo? Like the Death Eaters? Or the bad guys in the Hostel films?

I was keen but also a little apprehensive because my only real knowledge of the Yakuza comes from Kill Bill, and when they entered the Yakuza bar in the film, it didn’t seem to work out for anyone. Except Uma Thurman. And I am many things, but Uma Thurman is not one of them.

My host mother ended up convincing me to not go see the Yakuza, so my knowledge of them is still no more detailed than exactly what Quentin Tarantino intended it to be.

But, I was completely wrong about the tattoos, which were causing me so much internal strife beforehand – they were, in actuality, an outrageous positive. It turns out that the infamous Japanese attitude towards tattoos is generally quite exaggerated, and when you find places that are less than welcome towards it, I like to think of a quote from my friend Jack, who has lived in Japan for two years:

‘Are we allowed tattoos in here?’

‘No, but Japanese people don’t like telling Westerners off, so yeah, you’re allowed tattoos in here.’

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