Japan: Breaking the taboo of tattoos

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A growing number of Japanese enthusiasts are trying to tackle a 400-year-old taboo associating tattoos with organised-crime gangs such as the yakuza.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Hiroki at the Irezumi Aikokai

Their tattoos often feature characters from traditional legends.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Scrapyard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto, 48, and his one year-old daughter, Tsumugi, at home, in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki

And, although some spas, pools, beaches and gyms ban body tattoos, photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon met some of them at a public bath in Tokyo.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Asakusa Horikazu with men he and his father have tattooed
Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Construction worker Hiraku Sasaki, 48
Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Restaurant owner Hiroshi Sugiyama, 38

The annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association), in Tokyo, in February, "is important because usually we hide our tattoos from society", its head, Hiroyuki Nemoto, says.

"But just once a year, we can proudly show off our tattoos and show each other what new tattoos we've gotten."

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
The Irezumi Aikokai
Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
The Irezumi Aikokai

Attendee author Hiroki Takamura, 62, says: "In the 2000s, tattoo magazines began to increase.

"And even women began to get more tattoos.

"I thought there was hope that tattoos would finally be accepted the way they are in Europe."

But Rie Yoshihara, 33, who works dressing tourists in kimonos, still feels unable to show her father her full back tattoo.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Rie at home in Warabi, Saitama
Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Shodai tattoos Rie

Her tattooist, Shodai Horiren, says: "Your house gets old.

"Your parents die.

"You break up with a lover.

"Kids grow and go.

"But a tattoo is with you until you're cremated and in your grave.

"That's the appeal."

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Rie

Bookkeeper Mina Yoshimura, 40, says of her husband, Hiroshi: "If I had tattoos and he didn't, he'd be able to go places that I couldn't.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Mina touches her husband's latest tattoo, at home, in Tokyo

"But since we're both the same, we can go anywhere together.

"I think that's nice."

Mari Okasaka, 48, had her first tattoo 20 years ago.

Now, her son, Tenji, 24, is working towards having his whole body covered in colour.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Mari and Tenji at home, in Niiza, Saitama

"Some people get tattoos for deep reasons," she says.

"But I do it because they're cute, the same way I might buy a nice blouse."

But when Mari leaves the house, she wears long sleeves so her neighbours won't talk.

Tenji says: "Some people probably look at me funny.

"But I don't pay attention to it anymore.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Tenji

"Yes, there are times when people think I'm part of a gang.

"But I don't worry about it that much.

"I'll keep on going until I don't have any skin uncoloured."

Office worker Hideyuki Togashi, 48, whose leg was amputated in March 2019, says: "I think that because of the tattoos, part of me became stronger psychologically.

Image source, Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters
Image caption,
Hideyuki at a park near his house, in Tokyo

"And because I was so strong, I was able to recover quickly."

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