Monday, September 21, 2009

The Yakuza and Tattooing

The Yakuza and Tattooing

The yakuza are notorious Japanese syndicate members. Their history dates back over 300 years. Their origin can be traced back to the Edo period (Kaplan and Dupro, 1986). The ancestors of the modern yakuza used tattooing as a mark of status.

Tattoos are the greatest trademark of the yakuza. When we go to see a yakuza movie, for instance, the tattooed yakuza often show up. Rome (1975) refers to the modern yakuza as the title "The Tattooed Men," and describes a typical scene in a yakuza movie: There is a gambling scene where somebody cheats, is discovered, the kimonos are dropped from the shoulders revealing tattoos (cheers from the audience), swords appear and blood is spilled." (p.213)

Kaplan and Dupro (1986) state that approximately 73 percent of the yakuza have tattoos. Among the yakuza, undergoing tattooing was a test to show their strength. The traditional Japanese tattoo takes a long time to complete. To wear the full body tattoo, one needs patience to endure the time and pain. For some yakuza, tattoos are a proof of strength, courage, toughness and masculinity. Besides, wearing tattoos makes them feel a sense of solidarity as a member of the organization. Such tattoos mean loyalty or faithfulness towards the organization.

Although the yakuza began to accept tattoos as their custom in the Edo period, it was not an outstanding figure in those days. Following Japan's economic growth, the yakuza population rapidly increased, and became more often involved in criminal activities. Because of the outlaws' path, we are likely to associate tattooing with the yakuza, and eventually the fixed notion that tattooing has a criminal aspects was built up.

However, in recent years the number of the yakuza with tattoos has been decreasing. Because of increased law enforcement, the yakuza have lost many their sources of income. Moreover, Kaplan and Dupro (1986) point out that the nature of the yakuza has been changing. Although devoting one's life to the organization was the way to survive in the yakuza world, today's young yakuza become less obedient at each step. The younger yakuza are forsaking the full-body pictorial tattoos. They opt instead for a simple line drawing or phrase on their upper arm, more similar to the tattoos of Western youths. The reason, says researcher Hoshino, is not a change in aesthetics: the old-style tattoos cost a fortune, and are simply no longer worth either the physical or financial stress (Kaplan and

Dupro, 1986: 273).

Since the Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Boryokudan (syndicate) members was passed in 1992, the influence of the yakuza has weakened. According to recent reports (Asahi shinbun, 1997), many yakuza try to remove their tattoos and have operations to replace missing fingers in order to return to mainstream society. Moreover, an article in a current magazine (Vollmann, 1999) tells that one yakuza continued to be untattooed. When he was young, his boss had forbidden him to be tattooed on the grounds that fashions change (p.77). Thus, even the yakuza themselves admit that their tattoos are not acceptable. People with tattoos are likely to be stigmatized and regarded as misfits in Japanese society. There is another interesting response about tattoos by the yakuza boss (Vollmann, 1999). The interviewer asks if the yakuza wear certain types of tattoos. The yakuza boss replies: "No, you can't tell. We're not a tribe." (Vollmann, 1999: 78).

To be tattooed in Japan is to abandon conventional society and go into the underworld. It is true that some yakuza tend not to have tattoos. Tattooing is no longer used as either a test of strength or a sign of solidarity among the yakuza.