Tattoos – Today`s Taboo Topic

Today`s taboo topic is the tattoo.

There are two main reasons I don`t have any. I view the largest organ of the body as a blank canvas, thus my first major hurdle is the limited color palate from which to choose. Being a “winter” in color, to use 80`s terminology in describing my skin tone, certain hues work better than others in preventing me from turning green when fully clothed, or not, in the case of being outfitted in tats. Until pimento, 4 variations of purple and all colors reflected off the ocean can be inked, I`ll pass.

The other is a long ingrained fear of commitment. Just like a home, I like a change of scenery every two years prompting Spouse to pronounce we should buy tents instead of houses. Other than the Clampitt clan- two of whom will leave in a few years anyway, and Spouse who I couldn`t part with because he really is funny, I can`t think of anything I`ve partnered with for longer than two years. Visions of me pouring acid on the tattoo site, scratching it off, or carving it out with a fish knife in a crazed fit of fear of commitment prevent me from entering the tattoo artist`s studio.

But now I have a third reason.

Unlike most countries in the world, Japanese still view tattooed folk with suspicion and distrust. Because of this, tattoos must be covered before the individual is allowed entry in to some places and might be barred from others.

Why? Tattoos have been used in Japan for several centuries to identify criminals. Prisoners were tattooed with inscriptions such as,

“I am an escaped prisoner, if found return me to xxxx prison”

This approach worked.

Similar to when I took Offspring #1 to Sesame Place and I wrote on his belly with a black sharpie,

“I am lost, please call my mother at xxxxxxxx.”Although not permanent, it was long-lasting. I got lots of well-meaning phone calls for the next two weeks when we went to the pool. (Not long after I discovered fingernail polish takes off everything.)

On and on through the centuries this practice continued of tattooing criminals which created a long-established “tattoo equals criminal” mentality. Eventually, gang members and other factions began to get similar tattoos for identifying each other.  Tattoos became associated with the Japanese mafia- the Yakusa- during the last century.

Some poor children born in to crime families are tattooed at birth. I was able to take pictures of some recently tattooed toddlers nicknamed “CupiKuza.”

Yakuza style tattoos- according to local anonymous experts

Most toddlers are learning “mama and dadda.” These guys are learning the appropriate response to “Stop! Police! Get your hands in the air! Now!”

Bless their hearts.

Even covering the tattoo might not protect an individual from the stereotype. Recently an article appeared in the Japan Times which stirred the tattoo ink.

In the 1970`s many of the tattooed sanitation workers were associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and/or Tony Soprano. Healthy debate has ensued regarding civil liberties etc.

The event that instigated this whole affair however, was a teacher threatening his students with exposure to his tattoo/tattoos. Parents complained. This of course leads to the obvious questions- where are the tattoos and what is the subject material? The stuff of nightmares alright.


The presence of two full length pinky fingers, my inability to communicate a complete sentence in Japanese, and hair that grows against gravity would lead most Japanese to conclude that I was not a member of the Yakuza even if I were covered in tattoos, however, I would still be asked to cover them. Tattooed customers could scare away other potential patrons. And that`s the reason you should bring lots of band aids, long-sleeved t-shirts, and ace bandages on your next trip to Japan for covering any sized tat- just in case.

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31 Responses to Tattoos – Today`s Taboo Topic

  1. “Today’s taboo topic” <– so much alliteration! 😀
    Interesting how widespread it is, the reputation of tattoos. Mind you, even in the UK, to a much lesser extent it's the same. We tend to stereotype those with more visible tattoos as more dodgy.

    Being scared of needles I don't think I could ever deal with a tattoo though!
    The best tattoo I've seen was a co-worker. He had "Why Not?" tattooed on the inside of his lips. So he'd bring it out at random points. And of course, it answers the inevitable question "WHY?!?!?!". And when he gets old no one will be able to see it 😀


    • Interesting. Now I would have to laugh at someone who did that. Couldn`t he have thought of something more creative?
      It used to be that way in the US but it has changed a lot. Now maybe more along the lines of irresponsible, slacker, or rocker, punkster? Another 10 years and that will change too as most people under 35 have them I bet.


  2. I must confess, I have a tat. But I got it when I was 21. And it is lopsided now. And faded. Nevertheless, I love it because it marks a specific time in my life. But they are not for everyone. Especially for those who have access to acid and fish knives. Those dolls are hilarious. 😉


    • If I were to invest in a tattoo, I`d need one that could move. Something that could keep me entertained when I was bored. Like those old sailors used to have on the inside of their forearms that would move when they wiggled their fingers- only cleaner. Like something that would wave or wink at people. That could keep me pretty occupied during a boring meeting, flashing my winking waving tattoo at unsuspecting people.


  3. Who buys those bad-ass CupiKuza’s for their kids? Yakuza grannies and grandpas? Certainly puts an interesting spin on Cupi…


  4. LOL I agree, a tattoo is way too permanent. How do the Japanese feel about scars and bruises – I’m very accident-prone and often look as if I have been in a fight!

    Have you come across these Japanese trends yet: ?


    • I don`t know if you read this post from the early days- but it has a few of those gadgets in it. Yes there are a lot of those. And hundreds of herbal supplements. Placenta is a favorite ingredient.

      I didn`t know about the teeth, however, braces are VERY expensive here- about $10,000 a pop. Most Japanese kids don`t get them and many have crooked teeth. Also, sexiness here usually means the younger the better. Older seductive women with cleavage and long legs and not the preferred look- a school girl in a uniform is. Therefore you see all the girl bands wearing school uniforms and dressing young- high socks, pig tails etc. So, it doesn`t surprise me that the crooked teeth- ie before you are old enough to have them fixed is considered sexy.

      As for scars and bruises- be careful!


  5. Tattoos are a big no no in Japanese society. There will signs up at onsens to deny entry to those with tattoos. But I reckon that’s to not welcome random Yakuzas into the bath houses and scar the average living Japanese away. As for teeth, the Japanese do think that having ‘vampire like teeth’ is very Kawaii. However everywhere else in the world generally think that that’s not very aesthetic.
    I found it quite disturbing when I was studying in Japan to see adult tv presenters describing 5-10year olds as sexy in a kids talent show. That just sounds wrong, doesn’t it? It’s a variety show where mums sign their kids up to dance and sing like Ayumi or Nami Amuro, give them a fake tan and wear very little clothes.


    • I had not heard of the vampire teeth being so kawaii until Lisa attached that article. Now I know why Offspring #1 is upset that he lost his vampire teeth when his braces came off!Great comments Crafty! Thanks!


  6. This is a fascinating post. Thank God I have never gotten a tattoo. At least I could get by in Tokyo without long sleeves and bandaids. And thank God Mafia children aren’t tattooed in this country or I’d be shit out of luck.


    • Oh Kertle…. You would be covered wouldn`t you! I so loved Tori`s blog about you and Sarah at the bloggy wedding. So so sweet. I will always call you Kertle from here on. Love you!


  7. that was lot of information.keep up the good work


  8. In college, there were no tattoo places in our town. We had to drive to Panama City (Fla). One of the guys in my dorm drove down to get a tattoo of Garfield drinking from a beer mug. I bet he’s regretting that now.


  9. 2summers says:

    This is good to know for future reference. If I ever go to Japan, I guess I’ll have to wear my hair down the whole time.


  10. Dana says:

    My preferences change way too frequently to ever get anything permanent put onto my skin. However, I actually admire tattoos on other people– I have a lot of friends who have some amazing, sophisticated works of art etched onto their bodies. Just not for me. (And for the record, I also know a lot of people with misguided Mickey Mouse, Tasmanian Devil, and Volkswagen Logo tattoos. Really? You want that on your body FOREVER?)


    • Truly- what would I want- FOREVER? When I was a kid I wanted green hair. Now it would really stand out in a crowd. I might consider a tattoo on the sole of my foot- as I said earlier that had some movement. Or did tricks.


  11. Tar-Buns says:

    The timing of this topic made me smile. I’m teaching a new class this term on Prohibition and the Mafia. As we near the end of the school year, we have also studied the Yakuza and watched the old Robert Mitchum movie from 1970s titled, The Yakuza (‘natch). My students were very interested in the cultural implications and difference between Asian mafia and Western style.

    I don’t remember seeing many tattoos while I lived in Japan, but then that was 20 years ago now.
    Well done!


    • I haven`t seen any since I`ve been here. The one time I did- last week- was in a park. The tattooed person was doing a photo shoot- looked legit. The police kicked him out of the park. Andretti-san differentiates tattoos as American style and Yakuza style.


  12. Lisa j says:

    Fascinating stuff! I need one if those dolls. Where did u see them?


    • Go to Asukasa Shrine- walk down the main alley of the shopping street that leads to the shrine. At the first place where you can go left- by the sembei booth- take a left down that street. It turns in to one of those covered shopping streets. I saw these hanging in one of those shops on the left hand side in that area. If you go out the other end to where the covered area stops, you past it. It`s hilarious! Those shots were taken from my waist as a certain someone stood hiding me from the view of the shop owner. Be sure and put sunglasses on it. That`s the reason most men don`t wear them. Another hallmark of the Yakuza.


  13. mj monaghan says:

    Very entertaining post, Emily. First time I’ve been on your blog. I like your writing style. Keeps even my mind from wandering. 🙂

    My son studied Japanese for 4 years in HS, so this is pretty fascinating.


  14. Michi says:

    Fear of commitment is also the reason I haven’t gotten a tattoo. And because, where the heck do you put it? Seriously, if I was ever forced to get a tattoo, I’d just get my eyeliner tattooed on.


  15. Jackie Paulson says:

    Why? Tattoos have been used in Japan for several centuries to identify criminals. Prisoners were tattooed with inscriptions such as,

    “I am an escaped prisoner, if found return me to xxxx prison”

    OK, I am in I’ll and LOVE tattoo’s on OTHERS, but not on me.
    My reason is it is written in the bible in the OT that “thou shalt not put tattoo’s on thy body.”
    good enough for me… ♥ Jackie


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