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  • Mason Masters

Taboos & Tattoos: As The Olympics Loom, Japan Ponders Change

Even under the most cynical and critical light, it’s hard to ignore the Olympic Games central purpose. No, not to make the International Olympic Committee all of the money. The feel-good goal, to promote friendship through sport. It’s a pretty simple premise in theory. Under the guise of competition, people from all walks of life hold a two-week-long cultural exchange that leads to fuzzy puff-pieces galore and if lucky, a new appreciation for the values and customs of the places we don’t call home. This is best shown in the cultural ripple effects seen in hosting cities and nations, who have to find ways to communicate and entertain people from close to 100 nations, while also showcasing themselves. Generally speaking, host cities try their best to embrace the reciprocal nature of the cultural exchange. But what happens when a location’s norms don’t embrace inclusivity, but rather exclusion? 

In less than a year, Tokyo will be hosting its second Summer Olympics. The nation is still in the midst of preparation, moving into the final stages of infrastructure and facilities upgrades across the megacity. When you think of Tokyo, you probably think of its bullet trains, its skyscrapers, or its streets ablaze with neon. For those of us in the west, it can seem like everything about the country is cutting edge. They’ve got square watermelons and a Voltron! When it comes to the cultural aspects of Japan though, there is a dichotomy between the impressive post-WWII structural growth of the nation and the cultural ideals which rest between the tides of colonialism and a much deeper past. Perhaps no art form has been as tied to the changes in Japanese culture as tattooing. 

The people of Japan have been modifying their skin with pigments since at least 300 B.C. Just like today, these markings were signifiers of status and beliefs, differentiating tribes and their social hierarchy from one another. This early tattooing, which was documented by the Chinese, was mainly contained to the southern edge of Japan. On a

national level, tattooing really came into its own during the era of the Samurai. For hundreds of years, fads would come and go, but the ink would stay in the skin. Firemen would wear tattoos as a talisman for protection, couples would sport tattoos that only fit together if they held hands, and criminals would sometimes have tattoos forced upon them to display their sins to the world. Tattoos were even a form of silent protest by merchants who were legally barred from flaunting their wealth by the government. They were also sported by revolutionaries looking to subvert regimes they disagreed with. Even when the ebbs and flows of society would take tattooing away from the mainstream, it remained a cultural touchstone. 

This era of expression would come to an end. As Japan became ensnared by western colonialism, the prevalence of tattoos was increasingly seen as a sign of Japan’s lack of progress. By the turn of the 20th century, Japan imposed an outright ban on tattooing. Although the practice was not totally extinguished, the ban succeeded in driving tattoos firmly into the underground. There, they once again became a symbol of the criminal world, with Yakuza members sporting oceans of ink on their bodies as a way to pledge loyalty and to show their tolerance to pain.

 Ironically, the formal ban on the art was lifted in 1948 by the post-war government put in place by the very western powers who led to tattooing’s decline. The art’s half-century absence from the mainstream did enough damage to keep tattoos taboo in Japan for decades. In the last half of the 20th century, movies about organized crime and high profile court cases involving criminal syndicates hammered home the connection between tattoos and unsavory people. Showing off ink in public is still taboo with people of a certain age and industries all over the country discriminate against people who sport ink. So, enter stage right: The Olympics.

The 2020 games will bring more tourists to the nation at one time than it has probably ever seen. Tens of thousands of people, not to mention all the athletes competing, will pour in from across the globe to soak in the sights, sounds, and sports of the upcoming competition. These visitors, most of whom will be on a once-in-a-lifetime journey, will want to take part in some of the traditional activities that Japan has to offer. Japan’s lingering cultural stigma towards tattoos could restrict a large number of tourists from taking in certain cultural touchstones and could cost some industries the profits of a lifetime. 

The industry having the longest look in the mirror probably is the Japanese bathhouse industry. These bathhouses, known as Sento, are communal hubs where people pay varying fees to use the different amenities they offer. These baths will no doubt be an attraction during the games, a fun way to immerse one’s self in the culture of the host country for an hour or two. Once, the sento operated as actual bathhouses. They were places people could go to wash because their homes did not have spaces for them to do so. As Japan modernized though, the sento pivoted from being simple hygiene stations to being community spaces for people looking for a change of pace. Many of the remaining sento have saunas and jet baths for their clientele as well as the baths. Onsen bathhouses feature the use of natural hot springs in their facilities, allowing customers to literally soak outdoors in the springs themselves in some instances. These facilities are the truly luxurious ones, catering to Japanese and tourists alike looking for a pampered experience. In both sento and onsen, tattoos are simply not allowed. Visitors may cover up small tattoos at most bathhouses with a band-aid or sticker but, if you have script work, a sleeve or multiple pieces… well, you’re just out of luck. 

Across the globe, tattoos are having something of a renaissance. Just like in Japan, ink has

Tattoo Olympics ink sport Japan Rio London

been used the world over to identify one’s self to a group, be it the military, a social circle or yes, a criminal outfit. Over the past 25 years in much of Europe and North America, a person’s decision to mark themselves with ink comes less from representing a group and more from the need to express individuality. With that shift in mindset, the number of people living with tattoos has continued to grow. A Pew Research study found that 38 percent of people age 18 to 29 have a least one tattoo. Multiple studies have the number of Americans with tattoos north of 40 percent, with several countries in Europe holding similar numbers. 

So, let’s say to even everything out, only 20 percent of the tourists that will travel to Tokyo for the Olympic Games have tattoos. On paper, it’s not a terribly high number of people to cater to. Having 80% of visitors able to spend their money at your business right off the plane is great. But it’s not that simple. 

At the 2012 London games, about 590,000 people visited the country for the purpose of watching the games. At the 2016 games, about 440,000 foreign tourists visited Rio. Tokyo is sure to have similar numbers to London, if not more. Let’s meet in the middle and say half a million people visit Japan during the 2020 games. By that standard, at least 100,000 people would not be able to spend their time (and more importantly to the bathhouses, their money) at these Japanese institutions. That’s a whole lot of money to leave on the street. And that’s just during the two-week run of the competition. Due to the international spotlight, Japan will enjoy a boost in tourism long after the Olympics leave town. Officials are hoping numbers total around 40 million for the year. 

So, what are these institutions to do? It’s unlikely to think that they will universally waive their bans on tattoos, but considering the potential money they risk losing, will there be some softening of the rules? The Japan Tourism Agency has worked with onsen to relax admittance for foreign visitors, but as of 2015, half of business polled would flatly refuse tattooed individual. 

The government is in a tight spot. Sure, they can lean on the bathhouses relax their bans, but more Japanese people use the bathhouses than foreigners and the taboo surrounding tattooed people still runs deep in local circles. Even if some locations change their rules to take a dip in that sweet, sweet Olympic money pool, for many, the locals will come first. The locals will still be there in 2021. So if you're interested in visiting this facet of Japanese culture, maybe stock up on bandages before your flight.


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