Scooter vs Japan

Piercings, Tattoos, and Body Mods, or, Dirty Barbarian post no. 1 | May 5, 2015

Gang signs

If you’re a dirty barbarian like I am, you have some piercings or tattoos. And for those of us who are into Japan, this is a point of concern and uncertainty. Let’s try and change that with some information from this century.

I have pierced and slightly stretched ears and normally wear dark wooden plugs, and I also have a tattoo on one of my legs. The tattoo is a word written in kanji (Chinese characters), so get your lols out now. Nothing is offensive or too abrasive, and if anything, I have a more conservative look now than when I was last in Japan in 2009.

So the burning question on everyone’s mind; “I have piercings/tattoos/whatever, and I heard that I’m going to get chased out of Japan like Frankenstein’s monster. Is this true?” In my experience, no. I was never lit on fire or chased with pitchforks for having pierced ears or a tattoo. But the issue is less straight forward and more complex than that. So I guess I’ll start with what tattoos are in Japan, and then talk about what I’ve seen/heard/been told. I’ll also touch a little on piercings, though I don’t have a lot of anthropological context aside from my own experience.

The first thing to acknowledge is that icky yakuza thing. Yes, tattooing and the like are historically associated with less desirable elements of society, just as I understand they used to be in the West. This is where things get messy. See, it’s important to realize that tattoos and piercings come in all shapes and sizes (literally). The kinds of tattoos that get Japanese blood boiling are yakuza tattoos. You know the ones I’m talking about. Full back, half sleeve, lots of imagery with maybe carps and youkai. That kind of thing. So you can immediately see that this style of tattoo is quite different than the ho stamps and tribal bands we see in the West. That seems to be the linchpin here. If you have a western style tattoo and are a dirty foreigner like me, this is a very different matter than if you have yakuza style tattoos or a lot of tattoos (haunting white skin or not), and you’ll probably be fine. If you have the full sleeves, a back, or the like, that might be something to be concerned over.

Onto anthropological context. In a class on non-verbal communication and a religious studies class I was in, the topic of body mods came up. The responses by the Japanese students in the class and the additional info from the professors said that the Japanese aren’t likely to get tattoos or piercings because of their religio-cultural upbringing. In Japan, the body is viewed as a gift and there are serious concerns with it remaining whole and in tact (versus my view that my body is more like a rental car and not a sacred temple that is to be invested in). It should be noted that this view is, to a tiny, immeasurable degree, changing, as there were a students with piercings and presumable one or two that at least have seriously thought about a tattoo. This ultimately means that the Japanese are less interested on one level or another in body mods due to concerns about, basically, leave a pretty body for cremation (yeah, it makes no sense, but I’ll give it to them).

There are also deeply seeded ideas of group identity, homogeneity, and a sort of inside-ism. Being on the inside is a big deal in Japan, and doing things that can label you and put you on the outside (like body modding, so you visually stand out) is something to be avoided. This concept of the inside and the outside is so deeply rooted in Shinto and Japanese culture that it can almost explain everything the Japanese do. It’s the source of sumo, the cause of much of Japan’s foreign policy, a major social concern in an increasingly international world, and possibly one of the reasons being a Japanese youth is so awful (come on, we all remember junior high).

So all that academia and discussion is great, but what’s the real answer? How are body mods viewed in Japan? Well, that’s a tricky questions, and the answer seems to be highly individual. As I mentioned, I’m tattooed and pierced, and when I was in Japan in 2009, I had these big spiraled earrings. A lot of students asked me about them. And then when I told them I had a tattoo, they’d scream with a mix of excitement and repulsion, with someone then asking what the tattoo looked like. I also went to a number of sentos (bath houses) and never had a problem or was asked to cover up or leave. In fact, during one of my last trips before returning home, I saw a Japanese man with several tattoos in the sento near me, and obviously he was allowed in. I also wore shorts from time to time, though I did acknowledge that I was being something of a social deviant by doing so. On the flip side though, I spoke with a now former JET, and she said that her city was super conservative and she needed to cover her tattoo. And at my JET interview, I was asked if I was ok taking out my piercings since blah blah blah Japan. There was also a rather funny section of the application form that asked applicants to declare their body mods.

What does this all mean? It means that a lot of commentary you hear about body mods is rooted in the late 20th century and really not that accurate anymore. A lot of this info has been perpetuated since as far back as the 1960’s (if not earlier), but that was a long time ago. It’s 2015 now, and it’s entirely possible that attitudes have changed even since my experiences in 2009.

So should you wipe your brow in relief and go get 9 tattoos and some piercings? Probably not. Should you be concerned that you have some body mods and will be openly shamed and refused work? Again, probably not. For as conservative and somewhat fearful Japan is, everyone I met and spoke with was pretty open minded and at least a little tolerant of foreign ideas. One of the great things about JET and probably a lot of other teaching and study opportunities is the idea of foreign ambassadorship. As a JET (and as an exchange student in 2009), I’ll be learning about Japan as well as representing Canada and the West. There’s a two way relationship with any engagement of this kind, and the Japanese are ultimately going to be pretty ok with some of our dirty barbarian ways, if not a little interested themselves. But remember that it goes two ways. You can’t just gaijin smash your way through the country. Pending the specifics of my contract, I’ll probably refrain from wearing shorts at work (if such a thing is even possible) and be considerate of the culture I’m living in when I go flashing my bling and ink. I may be buying even more subtle earrings than I have now and I’ll try not to make a big deal about my tattoo. And if I’m ever called out on either, I will explain the level of commonality in the West but be receptive to local considerations.

I think that’s it for now. As always, I’m interested in touching on this should I see or experience anything new once I’m in Japan again. And if you like what I’m writing, find it helpful, or want to share your own thoughts or suggestions for future bloggery, please drop me a line.

Until I think of more things to ramble on about, happy Revenge of the Fifth everyone.

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About author

Scooter is an ESL teacher and Japanese anthropologist. He hopes to document his thoughts of living in Japan, continued cultural studies, and to provide advice for others looking to hop the pond.

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