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Monday, September 16, 2013

Inka-Dinka-Do-Not - Tattoos Not Welcome

Even before I arrived in Japan, at my JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme interview at the Japanese consulate in Toronto I was asked if I had any tattoos.

It was really none of their business, but since I had nothing to hide, I told them truthfully that I did not have any.

I'm a hairy guy, and unless I did a tattoo of a bear, it really would be obscured. I did not want a tattoo of a bear - and a brown bear at that - anyway. I always figured that if I was going to permanently mark my body, it would have to be with a symbol or piece of art that would mean something to me... perhaps a blue maple leaf over my heart for my hockey team... but then again, that was so cliche, I decided that my ability to bleed true-blue Leafs blood was enough.

And so, some 23 years later, I remain un-inked and true-blue.

That isn't to say I have anything against it. I admire tattoos when done correctly. Many of the women I like are inked. One of my best friends at work is heavily inked - but everything he has on him has meaning, and I can see the story each tells. The women? I'm not so sure. Fairies, butterflies, a smiley face... no one can tell me WHY they did it or what its importance is/was. To me that's a waste of youthful exuberance.

They still look cool on them, though.

Anyhow, JET told me then that the Japanese don't care for tattoos much, as in Japan they are the domain of the Yakuza... what passes for a quasi-criminal organization in Japan. The tattoos I have seen on the Yakuza members looks bloody awesome, though - full body works of art and color that almost defy the imagination (I imagine very well).

I wonder how many people were rejected by the JET Programme for their honesty when they mentioned they did have a tattoo or seven?

But that was in 1990.

Nowadays, a fair number of Japanese youth have embraced inking themselves with gusto, as a way of saying 'eff-you' to the status quo, much like the rest of the world started doing in the 1980s. Prior to that, unless you were a sailor, stripper or a member of a motorcycle club, tattoos weren't much in vogue.

Tattoos are still looked upon by the older generation as something of a taboo... of a reminder of the underworld... the Yakuza... and truthfully, I wonder what the Yakuza thinks about all of this ink in Japan that infringes upon their domain.
The scratched out version is more preferred in Japan and the rest of the world.

But what if you are an AET (assistant English teacher) now?

From my sources, it's still something you want to keep hidden. (I have sources.)

Because tattoos in Japan are still something of a mark of rebellious youth, the school system would rather you, the adult teacher, not incite the youngsters. Teachers in Japan, no matter what one thinks, are still held in high regard in Japan. You, even though you are a foreigner, are still proffered respect because you are a teacher (more so if you are serving alcohol to someone as a bartender).

Recall that the nail that stands up gets hammered down. In Japan, despite some changing of attitudes, if one is to succeed in the world of Japan without being a rock star or Yakuza, being part of the straight-and-narrow is expected. Don't stand out if you are Japanese. And don't stand out if you are a gaijin (foreigner) unless it's for something the status quo thinks is positive - like taking part in a festival without being drunk. I did that a few times. Drunk and not drunk. Out with the office? Go ahead and share a few brew. During the day, by yourself - be on your best behavior.

Not standing out.... the same holds true here in Toronto - though it is changing.

I recall some 20 years ago or more that Rolls Royce was reluctant to hire a young salesman at a dealership because he was dressed as a punk... and Rolls Royce would never expect any of its customers to associate with such people... but guess what... they relented.

Here in Toronto... in my office... people cover up their tattoos to some degree... you don't want to scare people.

Let me ask you... when looking for a lawyer or a doctor, would you rather have one who was dressed well and supposedly clean of visible ink, or one who had tattoos on his neck, arms, and maybe even a tear drop under an eye? It doesn't matter if both are polite and capable people, the average citizen is still 'afraid' of tattoos... as though it means a lowered intelligence.

I know that's not true, but there's a primal fear involved. Seeing someone appear clean-cut provides a level of security... of comfort.

Welcome to the jungle of Japan, baby. If you are inked, and they know it, you are going down.

They don't want to see an AET showing off his/her tattoos to the kids. As well, your fellow Japanese teachers and board of education members are also going to suffer from a prejudice... because in Japan - despite the fact that the times, they are a changing - it still associates ink with criminals.

If you are inked and show it off in Japan - then you must also be an unsavory character.

Trust me. Even now in 2013... if you have a tattoo in Japan, you could be turned away at a spa... they have a code, just like many bars here in Toronto have a 'no colors' policy to avoid gang battles occurring withing their place of business.

Look at that photo above... that's Japan. 

It's all BS of course. But that's the way it is.

You can still have tattoos in Japan (maybe not in Osaka - see HERE and HERE), but do your best not to let them be seen by the school kids or by their parents!

Hells bells, after my second year in Japan, I went home in 1992 and came back to Japan with my ear pierced. While I was lucky that I was like Ferris Bueller and was beloved by all (my Board of Education office thought I looked 'cool' - whereas I know of another AET friend with hair shorter than mine who was told politely to get a hair cut by his office), my earring still caused a stir.

Fortunately for me, an earring was okay, but more than once, it was mentioned for no one within hearing range except myself, that tattoos were not.

Just some friendly advice, in case you were considering getting some ink.

Andrew Joseph

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