Home > Japan, News, op-ed > The tattoo inquisition in Japan has begun – heretics may be punished

The tattoo inquisition in Japan has begun – heretics may be punished

May 24, 2012

Mayor Hashimoto is against public employees right to tattoos, to refuse to sing national anthem and now workers political rights outside of working hours. Source: Japan Times

People who reacted with disbelief over news of Soichiro Takashima’s decision, mayor of Fukuoka City, to ban alcohol for a month for city employees might find his actions mild in comparison to his counterpart to the north, Toru Hashimoto.

Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, created a controversy when he demanded city workers fill out a survey listing their tattoos. Some might recall his comments that he would not hire Johnny Depp or Lady Gaga to work in his city because the two of them have tattoos. Neither of the celebrities needs a job anyway, but city workers in Osaka that have tattoos are largely sanitation or transport workers and need their jobs to survive.

In some police departments in the Unites States this sort of question is routine before hiring begins. It is part of an attempt to know if a candidate had gang affiliations or was perhaps involved in a crime. One could understand the necessity of looking at police who may have tattoos or other marks due to the nature of their work. It goes without saying, however, that many officers have tattoos and that they are not necessarily anything more than a legitimate form of self-expression.

Why should all city workers have to report tattoos in Osaka? A bloke carrying rubbish has nothing to do with law enforcement. Is there a cultural explanation? Tattoos were linked to the Yakuza, or organised crime and so were sanitation workers. “During the 1970s, large numbers of city sanitation workers were also affiliated with yakuza in Nishinari Ward,” reported the Japan Times. That does not mean, however, that today’s sanitation workers are involved with Yakuza. Today “tattoos are now a common means of self-expression in Japan and are no longer indicative of gang membership,” says the Japan Today. They may not be tolerated in public baths and they be may not be as common as in other countries, but they are not quite “taboo” as some media outlets reported. It is nothing more than a harmful stereotype under the guise of Japanese “culture” which equates a tattoo with criminal behaviour.

Mayor Hashimoto gave his reason for starting the tattoo inquisition:

“If tattoos of city employees are seen by the public, the city government will lose its credibility because they will make people feel nervous and intimidated”

The public might feel “intimidated” if they conflate wearing a tattoo as indicative of being in the mob, but there is little reason to confuse the two. Mayor Hashimoto apparently pointed to an incident in which “a worker [a city employee] at a children’s home threatened kids by showing them his tattoos,” as reason to stop city workers from wearing tattoos, as reported by the Japan Today. The story has inconsistencies and few details are available. The Guardian reported there were “complaints”  that  “a welfare officer had intimidated children by showing off his inkwork.” Some man allegedly showed some tattoo to children of unspecified ages and that someone complained, alleging it was a threat.

Even if it is true the children were somehow “threatened” by seeing a tattoo, what is mayor Hashimoto’s point? A worker could conceivably threaten children by showing them a cigarette. After all, many Yakuza smoke. Would Hashimoto demand a survey of city workers to identify who smokes because cigarettes “will make people feel nervous and intimidated?” It would be a ridiculous witch hunt, which is what some feel mayor Hashimoto’s order on tattoos is turning into.

Mayor Hashimoto seems to be taking an isolated incident that may never have occurred to claim that the Japanese public would be intimidated by city workers with tattoos. This is quite a jump and is the opposite of scientific thinking where such extrapolations are the hallmark of less than a scientific observation. The mayor seems to be saying city workers with tattoos look like Yakuza and intimidate the public. What studies have been conducted on the people of Osaka that verify the mayor’s claim? Is it really true a tattoo is going to scare adults?

One has to differentiate the types of tattoos in order to answer this question. “The poll found that 110 workers reported having tattoos, including sea turtles, moons and dolphins,” which are very different from “large, intricate motifs of mythical beasts and shogun-era courtesans” typical of a person in the Yakuza. How many adults would be “intimidated” by seeing a glimpse of a “dolphin” on someone outside their homes for two minutes to collect the rubbish?

These are the sort of tattoos members of organised crime tend to wear. Source: The Guardian

Teachers and some members of the board of education have resisted the order to fill in the survey. This is not the first time they have clashed with the mayor. Last time mayor Hashimoto demanded they all stand and sing the national anthem even though it has links to Japan’s wars of aggression in WWII and teachers opposed it as a violation of their free speech. Though the teachers lost in court, “union officials have complained that the order [to fill out the tattoo survey] is a breach of employees’ human rights and illegal,” reported the Telegraph.

One might conclude this latest attack on human and civil rights is a way to challenge labour unions and weaken opposition to Hashimoto’s political agenda. This looks all the more likely when one takes into account Hashimoto’s announcement of a new “proposed ordinance [that] includes banning [city workers from] the issuance and distribution of newsletters by political organizations, marches and protests with political intent, and expressions of political views at assemblies using loudspeakers.” If city workers cannot take part in politics outside of their work hours, are they being allowed to practise their constitutional rights? Professors cited in the Japan Times feel it would be a violation.

Speaking of intimidation, is it not “intimidation” when mayor Hashimoto says he will not promote workers who refuse to fill out the tattoo survey or that he “threatened to dismiss any city worker who has tattoos,” according to Fuji Tv? He is quoted as saying, “If they insist on having tattoos, they had better leave the city office and go and work in the private sector.” Hashimoto is right now demanding a list of names of all those workers who did not fill out the survey. Who knows, maybe some of those on list are communists, gypsies, Jews, homosexuals or left-wing anarchists. Joseph McCarthy once claimed to have a list. Now Hashimoto will have his own.

This is what the dolphin tattoos may look like, though no representations are currently available. Source: Free Tattoo Designs

Why stop there? The Catholic Church once demanded an inquiry into heresy. Bishops and clergy all over Europe sought out traitors to the Church who would not adhere to official doctrine, and described punishments for those who would not repent. With Osaka the question is not religion per se, but obeying orders is the Japanese civil religion and heretics who refuse to follow orders are a threat to bishop Hashimoto. Their tattoos and defiance are anathema to the authority of people like mayor Hashimoto who have little tolerance for democracy or differences of opinion.

Hashimoto’s dislike for democracy, for instance, is evidenced in comments like “What Japan needs most now is a dictator” instead of ineffectual prime ministers, reported Reuters. Japan may not have a “dictator” in the prime minister’s office, but the city of Osaka does. If this politician, with aspirations on the national level, should win enough seats in the upcoming national election it may very well see a shift to the right that will make the 15 century Catholic Church proud. Hashimoto has a lot to be proud of. A search google’s images under the name “Toru Hashimoto” brings up images of Adolf Hitler, a figure to whom he is sometimes compared, though his style is more in-line with Japanese fascists of the 30s and 40s.

Theodora Dio

This is an op-ed editorial submitted to Civis Journal. Civis Journal does not necessarily endorse, agree with or condone third-party opinion pieces.

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