How the Yakuza Warped the Way Tattoos are Viewed in Japan
Tattoos in anime are not something that we see every day. Sure, there are pretty iconic anime characters that sport tattoos, but they are very far and few between. A lot of it has to do with the way tattoos are viewed in Japan’s society. Over a century ago tattoos in Japan, took a turn that would lead them down a very different path than that of many other societies around the world. For instance, here in America tattoos have been ingrained in our everyday life; almost everybody has one. In Japan, however, it is an art that has been connected to criminals and was even illegal up until just after World War ll.
When you know a little about the history of tattoos in Japan, their lack of presence in anime make sense.
Tattoo Characters with Tattoos
There are anime characters with tattoos like Scar from Full Metal Alchemist where the character not only has a tattoo, but the tattoo is actually a major plot point. And then you have anime pirates that seem to be the most tattooed group of characters. You have Revy from Black Lagoon; and Law, Ace, and Monkey D. Dragon all from One Piece. There are others out there, but it’s very much an uncommon trait of an anime character.
Tattoo History in Japan
In Japan, it is thought tattoos had been used for both spiritual and decorative means dating back all the way to the Jōmon or Paleolithic periods (up to 14,000 B.C.). There is Chinese text from before 300 AD that describe how the Japanese would use tattoos to indicate social differences among one another. Then around the beginning of the 17th century, tattoos started being used as a way to mark criminals. These tattoos varied from crosses on the arms to the Kanji for dog on one’s forehead.
Samurai and Tattoos
It’s said that the Samurai first used tattoos as a way to identify a dead warrior. A Samurai’s armor was worth a lot, and would often time be stolen by other warriors or scavengers of the battlefield, and sold for profit.
In the Meiji period (1873) the Samurai were forced to disband and were no longer allowed to carry their swords and armor. When forced to retire their armor, many Samurai took on tattoos as a way to show their true origins.
While many of the now disbanded Samurai joined the newly formed, western style, army of Japan or went on to become scholars and business owners. Many, craving the power they once had, became bandits and thieves.
However, when the Meiji government outlawed the art of tattooing, many of these once highly respected Samurais now became criminals in the eyes of society.
Having lost their power and their status, many of the Samurai would go on to join the Yakuza—which at the time was merely a small organized group of peddlers, permitted by the government to carry a short sword—forming what is effectively the known today as the Japanese Mafia.
How the Yakuza are Viewed in Japan
Even though the Yakuza is what is known as the Japanese mafia, they aren’t even an illegal organization. They are a semi-legitimate group that is closely monitored by the Japanese government. While they do their share of extortion and human trafficking, the Yakuza have been known to come to the aid of the Japanese citizens.
During the Kobe earthquake and the Tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011, the Yakuza opened up their offices to refugees and sent supplies to relief areas faster than the Japanese government.
The Traditional Yakuza Tattoo
The Yakuza traditional style of tattoo is a full body suit. The tattoos end at the wrists, ankles, and neck to prevent the tattoo from being seen by the general public. Most of these body suits also have a gap running down the center of the chest so that the member can unbutton his shirt without the tattoo ever being seen.
These full body tattoos are not only seen as a members loyalty to the family but also as a sign that the member is successful. The Yakuza’s tattoos are done by a tattoo artist that practices an art called Irezumi. This way of tattooing is a very long and expensive process. As such, they can take decades to complete since the Yakuza member can only have it worked on when he has the time and the money.
The Yakuza’s tattoos are wabori (和彫り), which is a Japanese style based on Japanese history and mythology.
Facts About Tattoos in Japan
The traditional method of tattooing in Japan is known as Irezumi. It is a hand poked style done by using a brush made from either steel or bamboo. Like painting a picture, the artist dips the needle in ink and repeatedly pokes the skin to create the tattoo. This is a lot more painful and slow when compared to the modern tattoo machine.
In Japan, they consider tattoos to be a medical procedure, and as with any medical procedure, you need a medical license to legally practice. In 2001, the Labor and Welfare Ministry labeled tattooing as a procedure to be carried out only by licensed medical doctors. This is yet another setback for tattoos in Japan.
I’m sure your know in Japan public communal bath houses are very prevalent. In the vast majority of public bathhouses, you can’t show any visible tattoos. Some will let you cover them up with a towel and some with bandages or tape, but if you have a whole back piece, for instance, forget about it.
The Acceptance of Tattoos
Tattoos being widely accepted in Japan is something that is probably more than far off. Its history of being associated criminals runs very deep and the current laws of Japan make it difficult for those that want to be tattoo artists to pursue their dreams. Maybe things will change, but most likely not anytime soon!