Debate Over Tattoos Continues In Japan

Debate Over Tattoos Continues In Japan

Last week, Japanese celebrity Ryuchell revealed he got his wife and son’s names tattooed on his arms. It caused a debate over tattoos that has continued through this week.

The 22-year-old Ryuchell is a popular model, television personality, and newly minted pop singer. He and his wife Peco take their fashion cues from Full House, Lisa Frank and pizza.

One of Ryuchell’s shoulder now reads “Link,” which is the name of his son. Incidentally, the newborn isn’t named for the Zelda character but Link Larkin from Hairspray. The other tattoo says “Tetsuko,” his wife’s real name.

As Japan Trends reports, some thought it was inappropriate for a father to get such tattoos. Most of the country thinks tattoos are unsuitable—full stop. For example, in a 2014 nationwide poll, 51.1 per cent of those who replied said they felt “unpleasant” when seeing people with tattoos and 36.6 per cent said they felt afraid.

Over 55 per cent said tattoos made them think of outlaws and 47.5 per cent thought of criminals. (Note: the survey allowed multiple replies.)

This is because tattoos became heavily associated with Japanese organised crime during the 20th century. However, Ryucheru’s one-point tattoos are not Japanese in style. The stigma still remains.

For centuries, polite society in Japan has turned its nose up at tattoos. In my book Japanese Tattoos, I explain why this is—as well as detail the various designs and motifs that typically appear in the art form.

The reason for the stigma many Japanese have towards tattoos is that it’s seen as dishonourable to one’s parents to deface the body they bestowed. This is based on Confucian concepts that were entrenched in the society long ago, when polite society closely followed those ideals, and that have become part of Japanese society’s intrinsic, accepted values.

Part of those accepted values is banning people with tattoos from public swimming pools or hot springs. Or, at least, banning them from flaunting those tattoos and inferring that they should cover up as not to disturb others.

One Twitter user posted a photo doing just that at a waterpark while holding his daughter. The tweet asks, “If you have tattoos, you’re no good? If you have tattoos, you’re a bad person?”

“I refuse to have your values forced upon me,” the tweet continues. “Because no matter what, you have nothing to do with another person’s body. Please don’t be mistaken. ‘Kay.” So far, the tweet has over 17,000 likes.

Because of the Ryuchell controversy, another Twitter user said he got this tattoo, which is perhaps the most eloquent refutation of the country’s discrimination towards permanent ink.

That is Article 13 of the Japanese Constitution. It reads, “All of the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs.”


  • My wife and I had issues getting into bath houses and so forth due to our tattoos when we were there for a while. You can argue your way in in Kyoto (mostly because all of mine are David Bowie related-yes all- this was recognised and somewhat appreciated), but my wife is covered head to toe so Tokyo and Osaka treated us a bit like bikers. People were still super awesome in explaining why it is a thing there and offering apologies, but it’s a bit primitive for a largely atheist society that has advanced us all so much over the past half century.
    They’ll get there. By 2020 half their tourists for the Olympic s will be tatted up and need places to bathe, so I’m guessing that’s the first step forward.

    • How did you go in hotels, tourist spots and the sort? I am visibly tattooed and want to visit Japan so I am curious…

      • I can’t speak for super but I’ve been to japan with friends who had visible tattoos. it really depends where you’re going

        if you’re staying in the western hotels (including business hotels) there’s no problems. if you’re visiting more rural japan some places will ask you to cover up and I’ve seen some traditional inns have signs banning tattoos (even if they aren’t meant to)

        in terms of visiting places… it’s best to cover up if you’re planning on going shrines / castles.

      • Went to Onsens and Ryokens with little problem. One had a no tattoo policy and, well, my wife can be very persuasive (looks help) and reminds them of money. At one place we recognised one of their employees from Newcastle University and went down the road of how accomodating our nation was to her (it ended up fine and we hung out despite starting off uncomfortable).
        We had two issues with “No gaijins” signs in smaller venues in smaller cities, but it’s illegal and I encourage everyone who visits to make a stand and enter, then report the (guaranteed) incident both online at their tourism page on FB (be sure to name and shame) and at the local police box thingy (can’t remember the word).
        Rights are great and all, but meaningless unless you exercise them is where I got to with it.

    • They’ll get there. By 2020 half their tourists for the Olympic s will be tatted up and need places to bathe, so I’m guessing that’s the first step forward.

      They’re going to need to make a lot of steps on this extremely quickly then, because over the last few years the situation there has gotten worse, not better, and it’s still basically impossible to get into most places, it’s just a blanket ban and so entrenched that they will not make exceptions, even if you’re clearly a foreign tourist and not Yakuza.

    • Who knows. Japanese business owners are actually very practically minded. I expect very few would actually turn around a paying customer because their own feelings regarding that customer’s tattoos. However, when they think whether their allowing that customer in will drive away several other paying customers…

      We’ll see if they value more the Olympics’ tourists money for one month than that of their longtime regulars for upcoming years.

  • I personally don’t like tattoos of any kind. I’m a father myself and have no urge to get even that kind of tattoo.

    But as a massive fan of Japanese culture, I can see how this would be a problem. Fandom there spreads like wildfire and this can’t be good for those involved. Japan is too entrenched in its ways to change their views on this, so a bunch of kids getting tattoos cause an internet famous person did, can only end badly

    • Or alternatively, it’ll spark social change. Just like any other populist movement.

      It’s not that long ago that people with tattoos here (Australia) were viewed as bikers or sailors and generally looked down upon. It’s steadily changed as they became more visible on popular figures.

  • To be fair the Yakuza are a terrifying thing. Tattoos are major way of recognising them so naturally they are scared of them. businesses don’t want them because they don’t want the trouble that can come from associating with gangsters. is it right? I don’t know. they have a genuine fear of these people. it’s not just some tattoos are evil thing but, more alog the lines of the manji or swastika. We know not all uses of them mean Nazi but, it doesn’t make it less uncomfortable to see them around the place either.

    • From memory, they can’t discriminate against the individuals (yakuza) to keep them out of the onsens, Tatoos were a way of setting a blanket rule to keep them out and not affect their normal clientele. So maybe this gets reversed and locals stop going after the yakuza move back in (or fear of them do). It’s not just one paying customer but a whole culture of change, some of it quite frightening i imagine.

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