Tattoos in Japan
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This article is about tattoos and Japan, not about tattoos in Japanese, for that see Why we don't do Japanese tattoos.
Traditional Japanese tattoos
To greatly oversimplify, Japanese tattoos traditionally did not consist of words and short phrases. Instead, landscapes, battle scenes, mystical figures and other pictures were more common. The idea of writing something in kanji as a tattoo is largely a Western idea.
Tattoos in History
Tattoos have had a mixed history in Japan. They started as deeply religious and spiritual markings, or outward signs of high status, as far back as 10,000 years ago. By the 4th Century AD, however, tattoos became a way to mark criminals, and therefore started to fall into disfavor. During the Edo period, tattoos became a way to voluntarily identify oneself with the criminal underworld. At the same time, however, tattooing fads came and went, and were often used by non-criminal elements in society. Perhaps the most notable were Edo-period firemen, who used tattoos to convey an outward sign of their own dashing, courage, and - perhaps most important - group loyalty.
During the Meiji period, tattoos were made illegal in an attempt to better Japan's image for the outside world.
Tattoos are no longer illegal in Japan (thanks to the post-war occupation forces), but they still continue to carry negative associations.
Although tattoos are slowly becoming more popular amongst Japan's youth, they are typically of the Western 'one point' style, rather than the traditional 'full body' Japanese works.
Tattoos and the Yakuza
Tattoos were, and are, prevalent in organized gangs such as the Yakuza. They are viewed as a sign of loyalty to the organisation as the traditional tattooing methods involve excruciating pain. This is one of the reasons that people with tattoos may be viewed suspiciously or fearfully and not be welcomed in establishments like public baths were their tattooed skin will be visible. That's not to say everyone with a tattoo is some sort of hardened criminal but this association should be born in mind.