Tattoos in Japan

From the BBC:

Thai police have arrested a Japanese yakuza boss on the run for 15 years after pictures of his tattoos went viral on Facebook.

Shigeharu Shirai is accused of murdering a gang rival in 2003.

The photographs of the 74-year old fugitive’s elaborate yakuza tattoos were taken by a local person in Thailand unaware of his identity.

The mafia-like yakuza gangs have been part of Japanese society for centuries and have an estimated 60,000 members.

I expect things have changed and tattoos are now more common among Japan’s non-criminal class, but there was a time when one was almost exclusively linked to the other. I discovered when I was in Japan that most swimming pools or saunas in hotels have a sign saying “No Tattoos”, and it took me a while to figure out this is a polite way of saying “No Yakuza”, presumably because ordinary Japanese don’t want to find themselves mixing with a bunch of organised criminals.

What Australian hipsters, or indeed British engineers with ill-advised tattoos, do when they turn up on ski holidays I don’t know. Perhaps they’ve amended their policy to overlook a Southern Cross neck tattoo or tramp stamp, but would still eject anyone with the full t-shirt.

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14 thoughts on “Tattoos in Japan

  1. I suspect that most tattoos would qualify as “ill-advised”, if looked at objectively.

  2. Don’t the yakuza have some kind of weird semi official position in society though?

    If not, it seems a stupid thing to do otherwise, walking around with a marker on your body saying ‘I am mafioso’

  3. Tattoos are still relativity uncommon among the population and westerners with them still have issues getting into onsens (hot springs) and swimming pools (I’ve see men in them covered in bandages to hide their tatoos)

  4. Tattoos are, frankly, tat. I taught a kid who at an illegal age had tattoos of stars going up the side of his somewhat long neck to his ear. He looked a prat.

    I asked the lad if he had one before but somehow at an even earlier age he had paid some parlour to have a man’s name tattooed on his forearm for reasons beyond me. I resisted the temptation to tell him about the bloke in Scunthorpe who had the names of the entire promotion winning team of some far-flung season tattooed on his back. Yes, he couldn’t see it (apart from the wrong way round in a mirror) but I bet the guy all these years later cannot remember who half the buggers were.

    It is however always a shock to see people with crude tattoos of tears on their cheeks. Apparently they have it done while in jail for murder.

    My favourite tattoo story is the one about the parlour which had a sign up announcing ‘Tattoos while you wait.’ I really can’t see any other way of doing it, unless we perfect removable limbs.

  5. When I was applying for a teaching job in Taiwan, they told us that we couldn’t have any visible tattoos in case the children thought we were gangsters.

  6. re: Oblong

    If you look at that guys’ tattoos, you’ll note that it can be covered up with him wearing normal shirts. Unless they take off their shirts, you’ll not noticed them unless you’re train to look for them (like the police). In his case, his body ink is very much a part of his existing arrest record back in Japan during his many arrests. And they’re distinct enough that identifying them can be done via computer pattern recognition.

  7. Watcher:
    ‘Tattoos while you wait.’

    Also, quite frequently seen in jewelry stores:

    “Ear piercing while you wait.”

  8. The Japanese consider their bodies a gift from their parents so deliberately vandalising their bodies is a big no-no. This includes piercings and even dyeing their hair. Turning up to a job with anything other than natural coloured hair is “frowned upon”.

    It wasn’t always considered so bad in Japan – in the past irezumi (Inserting Ink) was accepted – but by getting tattoos the Yakuza are giving the message loud and clear that they are apart from normal society. Oddly enough, firemen in Japan go in for tattoos too …

    Nowadays, tattoos are not compulsory for Yakuza according to David Kaplan and Alec Dubro in their book Yakuza – Japans Criminal Underworld. It is an interesting read.

  9. “Don’t the yakuza have some kind of weird semi official position in society though?”

    Many long established organised crime groups do. In criminology there is a term of art, “the official police”, which is used to distinguish policing performed by government controlled forces from that performed by the Mob.

    In some cases, it can be argued that the Mob are more effective. You don’t hear about many radical Islamic atrocities in Sicily, do you?

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