We are currently back in the UK on holiday. This is the first time I’ve been back in the UK since we moved to Osaka 9 months ago. I think us living in Japan has moulded my views of some things, for instance my views about tattoos. And I am not talking about the bagpipe people or military musicians at Edinburgh or Hamina Tattoo. I’m talking about body ‘art’.
Tattoos are not common in Japan so, as soon as we arrived in the UK, one of the first things I noticed was the abundance of tattoos. Actually, it was already at Helsinki airport (where we had a stop over of 4 hours) during our journey back to the UK where I remembered that in Europe tattoos are as mundane as a boxer’s nose bleed – in fact having a tattoo seems to be in the person specifications for Finnish customs and security personnel. Maybe I have been away from Finland for too long but I think Helsinki could be renamed ‘Tatooine’, partly because of the tattoos but mostly because the majority of people there look like they have been extras in Star Wars.
I didn’t use to have anything against tattoos – in fact, I have ex-boyfriends with tattoos and I didn’t mind it then, and I still don’t, but after spending nine months in Osaka, I all of a sudden find myself tutting when I see a person with a tattoo – and it doesn’t have to be anything tasteless like a tattoo of a cat’s private parts or the Word ‘Mum’ scribbled on someone’s forehead, but my perception of tattoos has definitely changed a little.
When I was little, my home town of Kotka on the south coast of Finland used to get a lot of sailors and pretty much the only people those days in Finland who had tattoos were those sailors (or people who had been or were on their way to prison). So the connotations in relation to tattoos were not exactly flattering back then and I remember being scared of men with tattoos. But within the past 20-30 years things have changed even in small and relatively isolated and conservative towns like Kotka where people care as much about your tattoos as they care about your cold sores – some people still see both of these as an indication that the person works in the adult entertainment industry, but most people know that a tattoo (or a cold sore) is not a very good indicator of a person’s occupation or social status (providing that they are less than about 40 years of age). I am not trying to argue that having a tattoo would not at all be related to social class or occupation but I know people from all walks of life who have tattoos: teachers, architects, lawyers, university professors, doctors and physicists and them having a tattoo seems to have little hindrance on their careers (see a selection of photos of their tattoos below).
Japan is different in this respect – they still view tattoos like Finnish people did pre-1990s. In Japan it is still only foreign sailors, expats and tourists who have tattoos, and members of the Japanese Mafia, Yakuza. So, if you are Japanese, your mother would not be happy if you came home one day with a big tiger or a carp tattooed on your arm, legs or back and neither would your employer. People are scared of people with tattoos, because having a tattoo is likely to indicate that you are a dangerous person. This means that still today, people having tattoos is unusual.
A couple of anecdotes should demonstrate the level of difficulty having a tattoo in Japan creates.
(1) A couple of months ago an old school friend sent me an email. She said that her and her husband are going to Hokkaido (the northernmost Island of Japan) next summer and explained that her and her husband were having difficulties finding a hotel. The problem was that she has tattoos. The hotels simply do not welcome people with tattoos (because they think people with tattoos might be members of organized crime organisations). I said that as long as they cover the tattoos while in the public areas of the hotel they should be ok; even though hotels don’t like tattoos, they do not do a full body search when you check in. My friend said that it would be impossible to cover the tattoos she has during the hot Japanese summer. I didn’t know what other advice to give other than for her to consider a full body cast.
(2) Our neighbours from Brighton visited Japan recently. They had won a 5-day tour around Japan in a competition. I met them in Kyoto and we went for some food. Our neighbour was wearing a cardigan but as soon as we sat down in the restaurant, he took it off which revealed some pretty impressive tattoos on his arms (see photo below). I have to admit I had never noticed them when we lived in Brighton. But in that restaurant in Kyoto those tattoos stuck out as much the Duchess of Cambridge would in Geordie Shore. Anxiously I looked around – did the staff see them?! Our neighbours were aware of the potential problem. They suggested that we should ask the staff if it was ok for him not to wear the cardigan. I exclaimed ‘NO’! I said we should play the dumb foreigner part and wait for the staff to point out the tattoos and ask us to leave. And that’s what we did – we pretended that we did not know that tattoos are not acceptable in Japan and continued with our meal. And it worked. Even though our neighbour’s tattoos are ‘the worst kind’ i.e. depicting a tiger, a carp and snake/dragon the staff never came and asked us to leave. Perhaps they were too scared – or confused by a foreign man being covered with distinct Yakuza-style tattoos.
(3) A few weeks prior to that dinner in the restaurant in Kyoto, another friend sent me a message and said that she was planning to come and visit us in Osaka. She gave me a list of things she wanted to do while on holiday. One of the items on the list was: ‘Go to an Onsen (a Japanese hot spring)’. She added that she had some tattoos and asked if that would create a problem. Would that create a problem?! Erm…Yes! Were they small ones? Can they be covered by plasters? – No. Well, that rules out pretty much any public Onsen. There is no way she can enter a public Onsen which is a bit like a Finnish public swimming pool sauna in which swimming costumes and towels are not allowed (mainly for hygiene reasons). This is of course very different from England where there are big signs by the swimming pool showers to tell people not to get naked while having a wash. In Japan there are also big signs on the walls at swimming pools but those signs are not by the showers – they are by the main entrance stating that people with tattoos cannot use the swimming pool.
(4) Lastly, having tattoos doesn’t only restrict the activities you can do if you visit Japan but it, of course, also poses a real problem when it comes to finding/holding on to a job. I know a young Western woman in Osaka who has a small tattoo on her wrist. She has worked in a nursery in Osaka for several years, but apart from a colleague who is also her good friend, no one at her work knows about the tattoo. She covers the tattoo with a wristband whenever she goes to work because the owner and the staff of the nursery and the nursery children’s parents would not find her tattoo acceptable. Thank god I never got an ‘I don’t need no education’ tattoo when I was 16 as I don’t think I could ever have got my current university professor job in Japan.