Kicking up a stink over ink in Kobe

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[The editor of Tattoo Tribal magazine Shinji] 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.”