Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Much ink spilled over tattoo crackdown in Japan

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It is easy for outsiders to admire those in Japan who sport tattoos.

First, think of the pain: The body art known as irezumi is inflicted on a wearer's torso with wooden needles and charcoal ink. During as many as 50 sessions, the irezumi master brooks no tardiness, insobriety or whining.

Then there is the lifetime of pariah status that follows. Bathhouses and hot springs usually forbid entry to tattoo wearers. So do swimming pools. Men may believe that their swirling, ornate body engravings reflect a roguish masculinity, but many Japanese women disagree.

As a result, body-art narcissism takes place mainly among other tattooed men. Such groups of even innocent men immediately take on the air of gangsterism, because yakuza and irezumi are inseparable.

You might assume that an up-and-coming politician with a maverick streak, a descendant of social-outcast communities who used to dye his hair blond, would sympathize with such people. Yet Toru Hashimoto, the 42-year-old mayor of the huge city of Osaka, does not.

He is on a mission to force workers in his government to admit to any tattoos in obvious places. If they have them, he wants them to remove them or find work elsewhere, though big companies are equally tattoo-phobic. Even Lady Gaga, the tattooed diva who has raised a fortune for victims of the March 11 tsunami, would not get a job in his government, Hashimoto insists.

The crackdown says a few things about this clever nationalist, who is gaining huge attention in Japanese politics. First, he likes a bit of blood sport. Picking fights with people who cannot easily defend themselves keeps him in the media gaze. Hashimoto's campaign follows his order forcing teachers in Osaka to stand for the national anthem.

Second, it sets him firmly in the socially conservative camp, displaying even a dash of authoritarianism. Since the end of the Second World War, tattoo-wearers have mostly faced social ostracism, though not from officialdom.

During the periods before then, when tattoos were banned, it was either by repressive shoguns or by the Meiji modernizers in the late 19th century, who thought that the sight of naked men with engraved buttocks would earn Japan ridicule in the West -- which was mostly fascinated instead.

Aligning himself with strongmen may serve only to boost Hashimoto's popularity, at a time when many Japanese are fed up with the weak-willed characters in national government.

The curious thing is that many of the tattooed likewise have right-wing tendencies. Many seem to approve of Hashimoto's crackdown.

Horiyoshi the Third, an irezumi master based in Yokohama, is forgiving of the Osaka mayor. He says that he believes Hashimoto understands very well that public officials showing off their tattoos must be considered threatening. The tattooist, whose silk paintings are now on display at London's Somerset House, keeps his own painted "body armor" well hidden beneath a pale-blue seersucker suit with a diamante broach on the lapel. Most of the time, the master says, irezumi should be concealed.

Then he pulls back his sleeve a few inches to show the start of swirling decorations traveling up his arm.

The simple act of revealing those tattoos, he says, is supposed to intimidate.

Hashimoto has a different way of showing that he means business, but it is equally effective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2012 A10

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