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Youth discreetly chip away at tattoo taboo

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Ayaka Kizu shows her discreet tattoo.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Ayaka Kizu shows her discreet tattoo.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Above, Takafumi Seto got most of his tattoos after moving to Tokyo 10 years ago.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Above, Takafumi Seto got most of his tattoos after moving to Tokyo 10 years ago.

TOKYO >> Ayaka Kizu, a web designer in Tokyo, stood by her office desk one recent day, peeling Band-Aids off an apple-size portion of her right arm. A meeting with clients had ended, so she was now free to reveal what lay underneath: a tattoo of a multicolored unicorn.

Kizu, 28, is one of a growing number of young people who are bucking Japan’s long- standing taboos against tattoos, which remain identified with organized crime even as the Japanese mob has faded and body art has become widely popular in the West.

Inspired by Japanese influencers and foreign celebrities, Kizu decided at 19 to get a tattoo of a crescent moon on her right thigh, an homage to her favorite manga series, Sugar Sugar Rune. She has since gotten five more.

As she has cycled through jobs since college, she has had to get creative to conceal her tattoos, the display of which remains essentially forbidden in all but the most liberal of workplaces. That means, for instance, that she must leave her hair down to cover the ink behind her ears.

“It’s a pain, but as long as I hide them when doing business, I don’t mind,” she said. “I wanted to be fashionable. I just decided to go for it.”

Around 1.4 million Japanese adults have tattoos, almost double the number from 2014, according to Yoshimi Yamamoto, a cultural anthropologist at Tsuru University who studies traditional “hajichi” tattoos worn on the hands of Okinawan women.

In 2020, tattooing took a huge leap toward broader acceptance when Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that it could be performed by people other than licensed medical professionals.

In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, visible tattoos are becoming more commonplace among food service workers, retail employees and those in the fashion industry. In the back alleys of Shinjuku, a buzzing Tokyo neighborhood, Takafumi Seto, 34, wears a T-shirt that shows off his red-and-black inked sleeve while he works as a barista at a trendy cafe.

Seto got most of his tattoos after moving to Tokyo 10 years ago from the suburbs of western Japan, where he still gets stares when he visits his family. His grandmother doesn’t know about his tattoos, so he sees her only in the winter, when he can wear long sleeves.

“I think that the hurdle to getting a tattoo has gone down,” he said. “On Instagram, people show off their ink. Tattoos are OK now. It’s that kind of generation.”

Hiroki Kakehashi, 44, a tattoo artist who has won a cult following among women in their 20s for his coin-size fine-line tattoos, said his clients now come from a broader range of professions: government workers, high school teachers, nurses.

“They’re often in places that can be hidden, but more people have tattoos than you would imagine,” Kakehashi said.

Tattoos have a long history in Japan. They were important to women in Indigenous Okinawan and Ainu communities. Their association with organized crime goes back about 400 years. They were used to brand criminals on their arms or foreheads with marks that varied by region and crime.

After Japan ended more than two centuries of isolation in 1868, the country started promoting Western-style modernization policies. Among them: a law banning tattoos, which were seen as “barbaric.”

Although that ban was lifted in 1948, the stigma remained. Yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, often have neck-to-ankle “wabori,” traditional Japanese-style tattoos done by hand using needles. Because of this association, many hot-springs resorts, beaches and gyms bar people with tattoos, and many companies expressly prohibit applicants who have them.

The case that led to the breakthrough Supreme Court decision began in 2015, when Taiki Masuda, 34, a tattoo artist in Osaka, had his home studio raided and was slapped with a fine. Instead of paying it — as many veteran tattoo artists advised him to do — he went to court.

The lawsuit, Masuda said, “changed the image of the tattoo industry in Japan.”

During the trial a group of veteran tattoo artists, suppliers and lawyers came together to create the Japan Tattooist Organization. In consultation with two doctors, they created an online course on hygiene and safety. Tattoo artists can now receive certification to display in their studios, and the organization is in talks with the health ministry, with hopes that the government will recommend all tattoo artists take the course.

In 2021 about 100 artists did. Currently, at least 3,000 are working in Japan. With more legitimacy, there is hope that more societal acceptance will follow.

Among the new initiates into the world of the tattooed is Rion Sanada, 19, who one recent afternoon was in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo, anxious to get her first tattoo.

Although she was about to start looking for full-time work, she said she was not worried about her job prospects.

“I’ll just get work where I can cover up my arms and legs in baggy clothes,” she said. “These days, tattoos are so much more commonplace.”

Three-quarters of an hour later, Sanada glanced down at her forearm, where an outline of a mouse, sprawled out on its stomach with little wings in the shape of hearts, now rested.

“I’ll work where I can until society catches up to me and I can be free,” she said.

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