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Japan’s Complex Relationship with Tattoo


Japan’s Complex Relationship with Tattoo When visiting Japanese Tattoo: Perseverance, Art, and Tradition, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia until September 27, you’re struck by the pure artistry. Photo after photo of intricate, mesmerizing designs, breathtaking colors, and symbolic imagery, one interwoven into the other, which would be difficult to render on canvas, much less flesh. There’s a passion and a reverence in these galleries that is almost palpable.  That’s why it’s almost inconceivable that Japan, which has been so instrumental in elevating tattooing to an art form, has also pushed this art form into the shadows, even condemned it for centuries. To understand the seemingly conflicted relationship that Japan has with tattooing, you must carefully unearth the deep roots of Japan’s tattoo culture, which date back to the Jomon Period (roughly 10,500 to 300 BC). That’s when the first evidence of tattooing in Japan was recovered from tombs, in the form of clay figurines with faces painted or engraved to represent tattoos. Fast forward many years later to the Edo Period (1615-1868) and Japanese authorities began using tattoos to mark criminals. According to “Japanese Tattoos: From Yakuza to Artisans, Aesthetes” in the Wall Street Journal, “…convicts were branded with penal markings such as bands on the arms, or the kanji character for ‘dog’ on the forehead.” While this criminal stigma would prove difficult to shake for many centuries, tattooing enjoyed a significant reprieve from the negative connotation at the end of the ... Read More »

In Japan, Tattoos Are Not Just For Yakuza Anymore


By Nathalie-Kyoko and Jake Adelstein (Original story appears on the Japanese Subculture Research Center’s (JSRC) website.) Tattoos are as Japanese as sushi, samurai and yakuza but in recent years with the crackdown on organized crime (the yakuza), tattoos have become increasingly socially unacceptable while many younger Japanese and people living abroad have embraced tattoos as a fashion item. In December last year, the government of Saitama Prefecture submitted a bill to revise local ordinances to prohibit tattoos under the age of 18. A fine of up to 500,000 yen will be levied on the violators of the law. If a space is provided to tattoo on young people under 18, there is a fine of up to 300,000 yen for the tattoo parlor owners. If the law is passed it will go into effect February 1st, 2013. Japan has waged many fruitless wars in the past and the latest war is a war on tattoos. Kicking it off was the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, the son of a yakuza boss, who as most yakuza are, was probably heavily tattooed… Read More »

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