Japan’s Supreme Court has ruled that tattooing without a medical license is no longer a crime. The ruling was made after the country’s Second Petty Bench turned down an appeal by prosecutors seeking to indict a 32-year-old man over three counts of tattooing without a medical license, which previously constituted as a violation of Japan’s medical practitioner laws.

The tattoo artist was fined 150,000 Japanese yen, or about $1,400. Prosecutors argued that tattooing should be considered a medical act, and only be performed when medically necessary by a physician.

The Second Petty Bench, however, stated that “tattoos require artistic skills different from medicine, and that it cannot be assumed that doctors do the act exclusively”. This is the first time a legal body in Japan has acknowledged the legitimacy of tattooing in Japan as an art form. While tattooing was technically legitimized by occupying forces in 1948, following the end of the Second World War, cultural stigma and legal ambiguity has long made it dangerous to tattoo or carry tattoos in Japan.

Now that the Supreme Court recognizes the legitimacy and widespread nature of tattooing, however, it’s likely that new laws will be drafted in order to better regulate the local tattoo industry, create and enforce safety standards and training, and, as per Presiding Justice Koichi Kusano, “prevent risks from tattoo procedures”.

Why Was Tattooing Illegal?

The history of tattooing in Japan can arguably be traced to prehistory, as the presence of line-adorned clay figurines and an ancient tattooing tradition in the indigenous northern population suggests. But the first real evidence of tattooing in Japan stems from Chinese texts written in the Yayoi period, between 300 BC and 300 AD, making note of local tattooing, especially among men.

Contradicting future reports indicate that the practice either fell out of fashion among mainland Japanese (remaining especially prevalent among the Ainu of Hokkaido), or constituted some form of stigma. Reports during the Kofun period note that criminals were branded with tattoos on conspicuous areas of the body, including the forehead.

Modern connotations on tattooing and Japanese tattoo art can be directly traced to the rise of irezumi art during the Edo period, wherein a trend of colorful and artistic tattoos grew among the wealthy members of the non-warrior classes, particularly merchants, who were not allowed to otherwise flaunt their wealth. This rise coincides with the growing popularity of woodblock print art, and it is believed that the first irezumi artists were also woodblock artists, and adapted woodcarving tools for use on human skin.

Irezumi and other forms of tattooing were eventually outlawed by the Japanese government during the Meiji era, as Japan aimed to quickly westernize and avoid a negative image. Ironically, there are multiple accounts of the Western upper class specifically visiting Japan for its tattoos, including four British royals, at least one Russian Tsar, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Due to its longstanding juxtaposition with Japanese authority – first the Shogunate and samurai of the Edo period, and then the ruling class of the Meiji era – tattooing largely fell out of favor with the general population, and instead became an essential part of yakuza art and lore – further steeping it in an image of criminality. Post-war Japanese cinema further deepened the public’s distrust of tattoos by hammering in the connotation between the Japanese mafia and tattoos.

Does This Mean Tattoos are Accepted in Japan Now?

Onsens (bathhouses) and gyms are just some of the establishments in Japan that commonly ban tattoos and tattooed guests, including foreigners. Some are more lax about it than others, and some do not ban tattoos at all – but tattooing generally remains a taboo, and is still associated with criminality, despite its growing international and local reputation, and despite deep roots in Japanese culture.

Reversing this trend will likely take more than just a single ruling by the Supreme Court.

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