Japan: Breaking the taboo of tattoos

A growing number of Japanese enthusiasts are trying to tackle a 400-year-old taboo associating tattoos with organised-crime gangs such as the yakuza.

A man with tattoos on his legs and torso poses with this baby daughter sat on the carpet
Scrapyard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto, 48, and his one year-old daughter, Tsumugi, at home, in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

And, although some spas, pools, beaches and gyms ban body tattoos, photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon met some of them at a public bath in Tokyo.

A group of men with tattoos pose in a public bath
Asakusa Horikazu with men he and his father have tattooed – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

A man with body tattoos pours water over his back
Construction worker Hiraku Sasaki, 48 – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

A man with body tattoos lies in a public bath
Restaurant owner Hiroshi Sugiyama, 38 – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

The annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association), in Tokyo, in February, “is important because usually we hide our tattoos from society”, its head, Hiroyuki Nemoto, says.

“But just once a year, we can proudly show off our tattoos and show each other what new tattoos we’ve gotten.”

A group of people with body tattoos pose for a photo
The Irezumi Aikokai – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

Two men sit next to each other with heavily tattooed torsos
The Irezumi Aikokai – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

Attendee author Hiroki Takamura, 62, says: “In the 2000s, tattoo magazines began to increase.

“And even women began to get more tattoos.

“I thought there was hope that tattoos would finally be accepted the way they are in Europe.”

But Rie Yoshihara, 33, who works dressing tourists in kimonos, still feels unable to show her father her full back tattoo.

A man shows his tattooed palms to the camera
Hiroki at the Irezumi Aikokai – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

A woman kneels on a couch with a garment pulled down to reveal her large back tattoo to the camera
Rie at home in Warabi, Saitama – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

A tattoo artist tattoos a woman's back in their studio
Shodai tattoos Rie – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

Her tattooist, Shodai Horiren, says: “Your house gets old.

“Your parents die.

“You break up with a lover.

“Kids grow and go.

“But a tattoo is with you until you’re cremated and in your grave.

“That’s the appeal.”

A tattoo artist works on a customer's back

Bookkeeper Mina Yoshimura, 40, says of her husband, Hiroshi: “If I had tattoos and he didn’t, he’d be able to go places that I couldn’t.

A woman with lots of tattoos touches a tattoo on the torso of her husband
Mina touches her husband’s latest tattoo, at home, in Tokyo – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

“But since we’re both the same, we can go anywhere together.

“I think that’s nice.”

Mari Okasaka, 48, had her first tattoo 20 years ago.

Now, her son, Tenji, 24, is working towards having his whole body covered in colour.

A tattooed woman and her adult son pose in their home
Mari and Tenji at home, in Niiza, Saitama – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

“Some people get tattoos for deep reasons,” she says.

“But I do it because they’re cute, the same way I might buy a nice blouse.”

But when Mari leaves the house, she wears long sleeves so her neighbours won’t talk.

Tenji says: “Some people probably look at me funny.

“But I don’t pay attention to it anymore.

A man with tattoos on his arm and leg pets a black cat on a sofa

“Yes, there are times when people think I’m part of a gang.

“But I don’t worry about it that much.

“I’ll keep on going until I don’t have any skin uncoloured.”

Office worker Hideyuki Togashi, 48, whose leg was amputated in March 2019, says: “I think that because of the tattoos, part of me became stronger psychologically.

A man stands on grass wearing shorts, showing a prosthetic leg and a tattooed leg
Hideyuki at a park near his house, in Tokyo – KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

“And because I was so strong, I was able to recover quickly.”


*Photos are subject to copyright.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s