I recently got a tattoo for turning eighteen. My experience at the tattoo parlor was a mix of excitement, fear, nerves, and embarrassment. I had planned out my tattoo for the past few years and in the past have struggled with a fear of needles. I had no idea what to expect. My mom came with me and we entered a quiet, tiny shop to both of our surprises, with all Asian women tattoo artists. My mom was the only white person and together I felt that we were the loud Americans interrupting their craft. I felt embarrassed again while I instructed the artist with the size and placement as I interpreted her straightforward nature as impatience. Before long she prepared the materials and I was swiftly seated to be tattooed. The buzz started and I flinched while holding my breath, expecting unimaginable pain instead a light jiggling sensation with a pulsing needle lightly etching into my skin. After fifteen minutes, my simple line drawing was complete! The artist did a fabulous job with her clean crisp black lines and I walked, head held high, out of the shop.
For many people the thought of getting a tattoo, let alone telling their parents they were potentially thinking of getting one would be unthinkable. There are many YouTube videos of Asians, specifically with conservative parents freaking out that their child has a fake tattoo on—claiming they have ruined their body. My own family has not had the same kind of reaction or attitude towards tattoos compared to a lot of Asian cultures. Growing up with white parents, I never had that gut wrenching feeling of shame many with immigrant parents feel if they go against their parents’ wishes.
Since I went on a foreign exchange to Osaka, Japan and bonded deeply with my host family, I thought it would be interesting to ask my host sister and other friends their thoughts on tattoos. The reactions were all different. For the first time, I felt that flushed face, full of shame while reading their messages. All of them said that tattoos are associated with the infamous yakuza (aka. the Japanese mafia), and criminals, meaning most unapproved of tattoos. Furthermore, those with any tattoos, traditional ones too, are banned from onsens (温泉, public baths), pools, some gyms, and it can be difficult to find jobs. Two of my closest friends confessed they thought that tattoos were cute but the social stigma is too great.
I wanted to know more about the history of tattoos in Japan to try and understand the stigma. Dating back to 14,000 BCE, Japan has a long history of tattoos. Even now, many indigenous tribes continue the tradition of tattooing. Why the sudden change? The answer was westernization. In an effort to become more ‘civilized’, the Meiji government banned tattooing in 1871 and it was not until 1948 did they become legal again. Tattoos became a way to label criminals or were a sign of societal rebellion. The stigma and secretiveness of tattooing remains as many Japanese tattoo shops keep a low profile to protect themselves from police raids. September 2020 was when non-medical tattoos finally became legal but in a recent boxing match, Kazuto Ioka stirred controversy by revealing a sleeve and abdomen tattoo. It was his December match that sparked discussions about the double standard and unfairness. His charges are yet to be determined but will not get special treatment, despite his world champion title, while other foreign tattooed competitors do not face any consequences.
I find it jarring how the power shame can have lasting effects over a society. While I will probably never tell my host parents about my tattoo, I hope to share it with my Japanese friends and that younger generations become more accepting of them. One day I will be able to go to an onsen without fear of getting kicked out, but until then, my tattoo will be a special secret of my own.
Author: Claire Junkins
DeclarASIAN Blog Contributor