Japan's government has been actively trying to dismantle its thriving tattoo community for quite some time now. Back in 2015, for instance, Osaka police raided most of the city's parlors, arresting and fining tattooists for practicing the art form without a medical license, which is technically illegal according to an outdated and vague law passed over a century ago. However, some of the tattooists, who haven't already packed up their bags and headed to greener pastures, have decided to take a stand, and at the forefront of this daring movement is Taiki Masuda.
This case is truly a landmark one, and it has been a long time coming. The tension between the tattoo community and mainstream Japanese society has been heated for decades, mainly due to the commonly held and hugely false association between body art and members of the country's crime syndicate — the Yakuza.
The state of tattooing there is not the only thing that hangs in the balance because of this this legal battle. The issue of whether or not tattooing can be considered a medical practice instead of an art form strikes directly at the heart of the Japanese Constitution. “I want people to see this as a social problem," Masuda told Financial Times. "There are many people who have no idea how to take action over an issue like this. I was one of them. I never imagined I would be involved in a group activity like this. This is not just about tattoos." He is right. It is about more than tattoos. It's about rectifying the bastardization of a longstanding tradition of visual storytelling that's honored the culture its grown side-by-side with even though its been shamelessly rejected as of late.
"... This would be a violation of their freedom of expression."
Though the case will first go to trial at the end of January, 2017, it's expected to eventually be handed up all the way to Japan's Supreme Court because the dispute deals directly with the constitutionality of the "physician's law." A group of young lawyers that has a strong track record of winning lawsuits similar to this one are backing Masuda. Among this defense team is Takeshi Mikami. "If the court decides that tattooing requires a medical license, then none of the tattooists will be able to carry on tattooing," he said. "[The] tattooist and their customers create designs through communication and put meaningful expression into it ... so this would be a violation of their freedom of expression."
This is a compelling argument that coincides closely with the provisions granted to Japanese citizens by the nation's legislative cornerstone. However, mainstream prejudice against tattoos is so strong in the country that even sound legal reasoning might fall upon deaf ears. Only time will tell, but the outcome could be, for lack of a better term, make-or-break for the industry in Japan. Should the requirement for tattooists to have medical licenses be upheld, it would mean that the torch-bearers of traditional Japanese tattooing, like Horiyoshi III, would be forced to practice the art form to which they've devoted most of their lives either outside of their homeland, underground at risk of prosecution, or not at all.
This case could not have come at a more crucial moment either. With the 2020 Summer Olympics scheduled to be hosted in Tokyo, it's no wonder that authorities are coming down so severely on tattooing. Their actions signify that the government intends to rid Japanese society of this longstanding artistic custom in an effort to present a more homogeneous national image to the world. As a lover of Irezumi, one can only hope that the efforts of individuals like Masuda are not in vain. If tattooing is exiled from Japan, it would be a devastating and potentially fatal blow to what is one of the richest artistic traditions in the country's history.
If you want to see Masuda, some of his legal representatives, as well as a few experts in the field talk about what all this means in regards to the tattoo industry in Japan, here's a link to where you can watch some of Financial Times coverage.