OSAKA, Japan — Visitors to Japan who have tattoos bigger than a Band-Aid can forget about going to hot springs or swimming in a public pool. They also can rule out some beaches and gyms, certain restaurants and karaoke rooms, and even some convenience stores.
This is because tattoos are strongly associated with organized crime here — specifically the yakuza, or Japanese mafia — and are therefore almost universally viewed with repugnance. Case in point: When Disney released the animated movie “Moana” here recently, the advertising featured only the young girl in the title, and not the heavily tattooed Maui, who was shown on posters elsewhere (although the company says it was simply a marketing decision).
Japan’s ingrained aversion to tattoos will be put to the test when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics in 2020, an event that will bring a huge influx of foreign visitors — including athletes with body art.
It will get an earlier test, though, with a legal battle that will start in Osaka this week.
Taiki Masuda, a 29-year-old tattoo artist, is going to court Wednesday to fight a $3,000 fine that was imposed on him two years ago when police raided his studio. They relied on a 14-year-old regulation originally intended specifically to regulate cosmetic tattooing, such as creating permanent eyebrows, which stipulated that only licensed health-care providers could do such work.
The others caught up in the raid paid their fines. Masuda, who prided himself on the cleanliness of his studio, refused to give in.
“This is a violation of freedom of expression,” he said in an interview in an Osaka cafe, his heavily decorated skin completely covered with long clothes. “Tattooing is not a medical act, but they’re saying I should be a doctor if I want to do this. It doesn’t make sense, and I can’t accept it.”
The case is expected to take months to hear, and if Masuda loses, it will effectively make it impossible to get a tattoo in Japan.
“This is an unprecedented case,” said his attorney, Takeshi Mikami. “The prosecutors’ position that tattooing should be performed only by doctors is an overreach. This case goes against common sense.”
Because tattooing exists in a kind of legal gray area, Masuda and his allies have formed a group called Save Tattooing in Japan. They want licensing and regulation for tattoo artists, as in many other countries.
But the authorities are standing firm.
“It’s a medical act to put pigment on a needle tip and insert ink into the skin,” said Yoshiyuki Kanno, of the health ministry. “It can cause damage, and there are risks like bleeding or infections if tattooing is done by someone without technical knowledge.”
This attitude has arisen in a country that has a long history of tattooing.
In the 17th century, tattoos were used to punish criminals, especially those who had been involved in scams, said Brian Ashcraft, an American journalist in Osaka who wrote a book about Japanese tattooing.
Then, in the 1700s, Japanese men who worked with their bodies started to get elaborate tattoos. Firefighters had big dragons and other images associated with water, to protect them against fire.
When Japan began opening up to the outside world in the 1800s, authorities cracked down on tattoos because they didn’t want foreigners to think they were backward, and outlawed them entirely in 1872. But the ban had to be scrapped at the end of World War II because so many of Japan’s American occupiers had tattoos.
Tattoos became permissible but carried a social stigma.
“There was such a boom in the 1970s in movies about yakuza, and all the yakuza characters had huge tattoos. It made people associate tattoos with yakuza,” said Kiyoshi Shimizu, who runs the Save Tattooing group with Masuda. “Tattoos equal yakuza equal evil. That became the mind-set.”
The stigma attached to tattoos is also rooted in class structure and hierarchical values, Ashcraft said.
“One of the central ideals is that you must respect your parents,” he said. “You got your body from your parents, so if you put ink into your body, you’re disrespecting your parents.”
Ordinary tattoo artists were generally tolerated until two years ago, when the police in Osaka decided that the 2001 regulations designed for cosmetic tattooing gave them scope to take on the larger tattoo trade. They embarked on high-profile raids on tattoo artists, including Masuda.
In 2012, Osaka City Hall banned tattoos for its employees. Those who already had them were not allowed to show them to citizens and were not allowed to get any more, even if they are not visible.
“Even if you’re being careful, the tattoos might show and they might intimidate citizens, and we don’t want to take that risk,” said Hidetaka Yamaguchi of the city’s human resources department.
This disgust with tattoos is causing complications with Japan’s drive to attract more tourists, especially to big international events.
“Overseas, tattoos are considered a form of self-expression,” said Ichiro Matsui, the governor of Osaka prefecture, which Monday applied to host the 2025 World Expo. “We’d like more foreigners to come here and enjoy Japan, but there are different customs here.”
Ashcraft said it would take an “outside factor” to change Japanese opinion. The Olympics, to be held in Tokyo in 2020, could be that factor. So, too, could more exposure to tattooed celebrities.
The few Japanese celebrities with tattoos, such as singer Namie Amuro, usually have to cover up when doing publicity.
But in a recent ad for Softbank, the phone company, the tattoos on Canadian pop star Justin Bieber’s neck were clearly visible. And the heavily decorated Brazilian soccer player Neymar Jr. appeared on Japanese television in a T-shirt, revealing numerous tattoos.
Perhaps they can help break the association between crime and body art.
Already, Masuda’s case has changed one mind.
“I didn’t know anyone who had a tattoo before this case, but it completely changed the image I had of tattoo fans and tattoo artists,” said Mikami, Masuda’s defense lawyer. “Tattoos have existed in Japan for long, and I hope Japanese society can be more tolerant and accepting.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.