Japan Tattoo Laws: Finally Legal

September 18, 2020 - A day to remember for all tattoo artists in Japan and around the world. It’s official; tattooing without a medical license is now legal in Japan.

How the Decision Came About:

The Supreme Court in Japan acknowledged the practice of tattooing as an artform rather than a medical practice after an appeal was brought into court by public prosecutors against a 32 year old tattoo artist named Taiki Masuda, who had been fined 150,000 Yen (around $1400) for tattooing three people. The Court radically admitted that "Tattoos require artistic skills different from medicine, and that it cannot be assumed that doctors do the act exclusively" (Japan Times).

While the legality of tattooing in Japan is now clear, the history behind the now-formally-recognized artform goes back thousands of years, and the taboo is ever-present.

The History of Tattooing in Japan:

  • The earliest traces of tattooing are around 5000BC, figurines were found with marks representing tattoos.
  • In Ancient Chinese text dated around 300BC - 300AD, men of all ages are described as having tattoos decorating their face and bodies.
  • Tattooing transformed from 250AD to 650AD - no longer an art form, tattoos were known to be commonly used to brand criminals and prisoners on their faces and arms.
  • In the 17th century tattoo branding for prisoners was replaced by other punishments, but those who had been branded with tattoos began transforming their scars into vivid and narrative images, similar to how we now commonly associate Japanese style tattoos. These tattoos involve a single overarching design that covers the back and sometimes the arms, legs, and chest, with colorful imagery of waves, clouds, allegorical animals, and religious motifs.
  • Laws were declared in 1867, officially banning tattooing, claiming the practice seemed primitive and barbaric to the outside (Western world). However, under the same ruling, foreigners were still allowed to be tattooed.
  • In 1948, tattooing became legal in Japan for local people if done by individuals who were certified to perform medical procedures.
  • In 2017, a case brought to court shifted public policy. Taiki Masuda, an Osaka tattoo artist was found guilty of tattooing three female customers without a medical license. Despite the Osaka District Court’s initial ruling that tattoo harm results in skin disorders and must be limited to medical professionals, in November 2018 the decision was reversed to claim that the decorative nature of tattoos distinguishes it from a medical procedure.
  • In September 2020, the ruling has been upheld in the Supreme court and tattooing without a medical license is now legal.

The history of tattoos in Japan is extensive. While the art form has typically never been considered an art form by the Japanese courts and much of the public, it has developed into an iconic style popular all around the world. And though there is a narrative shift in the artform, with the recent legalization of the practice within the country, there is also hesitation as many fear potential government regulations will supersede artistic vision. In addition, the cultural taboo and association with criminality is still ever-present, but at least now, tattoo artists are free to practice their form as a livelihood.

Mad Rabbit is forever in support of individual expression. Kudos to the high courts of Japan for finally recognizing ink as an art.







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