Tattoos in Japan
The shogun of Osaka
A revealing political crackdown on a usually hidden form of art
May 26th 2012 | TOKYO | from the print edition
Then there is the lifetime of pariah status that follows. Bathhouses and onsen (hot springs) usually forbid entry to tattoo wearers. So do swimming pools. Men may believe their swirling, ornate body engravings reflect a roguish masculinity. But the worst of it is that many Japanese women disagree. And so body-art narcissism takes place mainly among other tattooed men. Such groups of even innocent men immediately take on the air of gangsters, for yakuza and irezumi are inseparable.
"brass", effrontery, sobriety, brooks no tardiness...
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irezumi - CachedIrezumi (入れ墨, 入墨, 紋身, 刺花, 剳青, 黥 or 刺青) is a Japanese word that refers to the insertion of ink under the skin to leave a permanent, usually decorative ...
You might assume that an up-and-coming politician with a maverick streak, a descendant of social-outcast communities who used to dye his hair blond, would sympathise with such people. Yet Toru Hashimoto, the 42-year-old mayor of the huge city of Osaka, does not. He is on a mission to force workers in his government to admit to any tattoos in obvious places. If they have them, they should remove them—or find work elsewhere (though big companies are just as tattoo-phobic). Even Lady Gaga, the tattooed diva who has raised a fortune for victims of the March 11th tsunami, would not get a job in his government, he insists.
The crackdown says a few things about this clever nationalist, who is gaining huge attention in Japanese politics. First, he likes a bit of blood sport. Picking fights with people who cannot easily defend themselves keeps him in the media gaze. Mr Hashimoto’s campaign follows his order forcing teachers in Osaka to stand for the national anthem.
Second, it sets him firmly in the socially conservative camp, displaying even a dash of authoritarianism. Since the end of the second world war, tattoo-wearers have mostly faced social—though not official—ostracism. During the periods before then when tattoos were banned, it was either by repressive shoguns or by the Meiji modernisers in the late 19th century, who thought the sight of naked men with engraved buttocks would earn Japan ridicule in the West (which was mostly fascinated instead). Aligning himself with strongmen may serve only to boost Mr Hashimoto’s popularity, at a time when many Japanese are fed up with the weak-willed characters in national government.
The curious bit is that many of the tattooed have right-wing tendencies too. Many seem to approve of Mr Hashimoto’s crackdown. Horiyoshi the Third, an irezumi master based in Yokohama, is forgiving of the Osaka mayor. He says he believes Mr Hashimoto understands very well that public officials showing off their tattoos must be considered threatening. The tattooist, whose silk paintings are now on display at London’s Somerset House, keeps his own painted “body armour” well hidden beneath a pale-blue seersucker suit with a diamanté broach on the lapel. Most of the time, the master says, irezumi should be concealed.
Then he pulls back his sleeve a few inches to show the start of swirling decorations travelling up his arm. The simple act of revealing those tattoos, he says, is supposed to intimidate. Mr Hashimoto has a different way of showing that he means business, but it is equally effective.