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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

THE ZEIT GIST

Kicking up a stink over ink in Kobe

Charles Lewis looks at a proposed ban of displaying tattoos while on Suma Beach


By CHARLES LEWIS

You might want to avoid Suma Beach this summer if you are inked or have even a temporary sticker tattoo. The powers that be in Kobe City are considering ways to ban the display of tattoos on the beach.

News photo
A day at Suma Beach: The city of Kobe is considering a way to ban people from exposing their tattoos at the beach. The body-art form is commonly associated with criminal yakuza gangs in Japan. KYODO PHOTO

It's not easy to have a tattoo in Japan, and things have been getting even more complicated in recent years. Dress codes prohibiting employees from having exposed tattoos at companies are common. The Softbank Hawks have informed Venezuelan first baseman Alex Cabrera that he will have to cover the tattoos on his forearms this season. Inked Japanese celebrities such as Namie Amuro appear on television with their tattoos blurred out.

Saunas, gyms and other places where customers disrobe used to look the other way when tattoos were obviously not gang-related, but a hardline stance toward ink of any kind is now common.

Whether accurate or not, says Jake Adelstein, author of "Tokyo Vice" and a former crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, it is the link with the yakuza that is behind the infamous "bathhouse ban" on tattoos — a regulation that over the years has left many an inked foreign tourist or resident angry and unwashed after being turned away from an onsen (hot spring) like a common criminal.

"Police pressure and the yakuza image are bad in Japan. There are also public safety concerns. Since so many yakuza have hepatitis C from drug use or contaminated needles used for their tattoos, they risk spreading infection to the other customers," explains Adelstein. "The other reason is obvious. Yakuza are often violent, ill-tempered individuals and no one wants to hang around them. Tattoos equal yakuza in the Japanese mind. And the hepatitis C concerns apply to nonyakuza as well."

As in other parts of the world, tattoos have a long history in Japan. The Ryukyu, Jomon and Ainu peoples decorated their bodies with ink. Tattooing in modern Japan can be traced back to the late 17th century, when woodblock prints depicted prostitutes with body art. In the Edo Period tattoos were popular with laborers, porters, geisha and firemen.

Tattooing was banned in the Meiji Era by officials who feared being viewed as uncivilized by Westerners, who were arriving with the end of the closed country policy. But it was impossible to stamp out the practice completely and it continued underground.

Then, as now, Japanese tattooing techniques were highly regarded and some foreign visitors sought out Japanese tattoo artists. Noboru Koyama states in "Nihon no Irezumi to Eikoku Oushitsu" ("Japanese Tattoos and the British Royal Family") that the future King George V and others were tattooed in Japan.

In an ironic twist, it was Western people who brought tattooing out of the back alleys in Japan. The U.S. Occupation forces legalized tattoo parlors in 1948, presumably due to demand for ink from soldiers and sailors.

The Western influence continued when tattoos broke into the mainstream as tattoo-covered heavy metal and rap stars from America and Europe became popular in Japan. Fans imitating their idols had themselves inked. Japanese singers and celebrities also began to sport tattoos.

Many young Japanese today view tattoos as fashion and a way to express themselves. Modern body art has a distinctive tribal or Western flavor and the favored name is "tattoo" rather than the traditional Japanese terms horimono or irezumi.

Tattooists operate in a gray area in Japan, says Shinji Watanabe, editor of Tattoo Tribal magazine. "The health ministry states that tattooing is a medical procedure, but this is very unreasonable. It may be more difficult to license tattooists in Japan than for example in the United States, for cultural reasons, but there is a modern Japanese tattoo culture and the Japanese government should think about regulating tattoos for sanitary reasons."

While private businesses — such as restaurants requiring a coat and tie — sometimes dictate the appearance of customers, and it is harder to hit the gym or onsen when inked, restricting tattoos on a public beach would be unprecedented.

Old prejudices die hard, however. The Kobe Municipal Government is currently discussing prohibiting tattoos at Suma Beach. Regulating concerts, dancing, alcohol and tobacco are among other measures also on the table. A vote is scheduled for March 22.

As has been the case at many beaches throughout Japan, the number of visitors to Suma has been declining since the 1980s, and about 10 years ago some beach houses started holding music events to drum up business.

The varieties of entertainment on offer at Suma beach were many and events attracted major sponsors. On any given day enthusiastic crowds were treated to capoeira (a mixture of martial arts and dancing), break dancing, belly dancing, DJs and bands. The atmosphere was international and there were days when the crowds swelled into the thousands.

Few, with the exception of the partygoers themselves perhaps, would argue that the situation at Suma had not gotten out of hand. At times the scene would put "Girls Gone Wild" to shame. Local residents were fed up.

The beach houses and the city tried drawing up guidelines with little success. The parties and concerts continued while the decadence increased. Illegal parking in the area, campfires, fireworks and trash on the beach continued to be problems.

The final straw was a big drug bust on the beach last August that made headlines and shocked the community. In September, a special team consisting of local residents, lawyers, police and public workers was formed with the goal of finding ways to make Suma Beach safe and secure and stopping illegal activity. The establishment of the team was proceeded by a news report that a ban on tattoos might be enacted to improve the deteriorating situation at Suma.

Yuichi Kanaya, section chief at the Kobe City Port and Urban Projects Bureau, provided The Japan Times with some background on the proposed antitattoo ordinance: "Public workers joining neighborhood patrols at Suma Beach at night to try to keep order — mainly warning beach-goers not to set off fireworks — were frightened by increasing numbers of tattooed people.

"Elected officials at city meetings said they were told by their constituents that they were fearful of tattooed people on the beach, and the special team to clean up the beach was formed. It was subsequently decided that getting tattoos off the beach would improve the situation. What's being proposed is not a ban on tattoos but prohibiting the open display of tattoos," Kanaya stressed.

Colin Jones, a professor at Doshisha University Law School, said it was "interesting that the thing driving it (the ban) is subjective fear of people with tattoos.

"If that is a reason for legislation, I guess you could ban foreigners or black people from going to the beach too, if enough people felt fearful because of it," he added.

Adelstein believes the proposed tattoo legislation probably has a yakuza connection, and that there may be more to the ordinance than just clamping down on concerts and raves.

"I think that the yakuza are simply a nuisance there and scare away other people. The drug busts are closely linked to the yakuza in the sense that the yakuza supply the drugs. Make it harder for the suppliers to access the beach and you curtail the supply, even if only a little. It's easier to spot a tattooed guy than to monitor noise levels."

It is unclear how prohibiting the open display of tattoos at Suma Beach would be enforced, and unknown whether it would be effective in restoring order and calming fears. Covering tattoos would work for some when they weren't swimming but those with ink on their faces, fingers or feet would be out of luck.

No penalties are planned for those violating the proposed regulations on tattoos at Suma Beach. Kanagawa Prefecture banned smoking on beaches last year, also without any punishment for violators. Smoking areas were prepared but people could still be seen lighting up on the sand.

It is understood that tattoos are not the only cause of the problems at Suma, and measures will be taken to rein in the parties, says Kanaya.

"The main problems in the past were deep bass sounds and crowds of dancers. There are no plans to ban music on the beach but specifications for speakers and beach houses being prohibited from moving tables and chairs to make dance floors are being considered."

Duane Levi of the Kansai Music Conference says there was a community meeting in January about the issue of beach parties. "After that meeting, I was informed that basically the community, along with the police department, felt that the 'summer beach party events' — not only Suma Beach Party, that we sponsored — were becoming a nuisance to the community. Because of this, they agreed to ban beach parties from 'outsiders' and put tight controls on parties at the existing beach houses."

Watanabe says many people in the tattoo community are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the proposed legislation, but he is concerned that the ordinance could set back efforts toward the acceptance of tattoos in Japanese society.

"There are people who do not have tattoos that do bad things and it's sad that people blame bad behavior on tattoos. Tattoos have an outlaw history in Japan but that image is archaic. I am worried that if Kobe City puts signs on the beach banning tattoos, the image of tattoos in Japan will worsen even further."

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