Thinking of going to Japan for a tattoo? Think again!

A Japanese tattoo artist who argued he should not have to hold a medical certificate to tattoo people has lost his case and been ordered to pay a fine.

The decision by the Osaka District Court is likely to deal a major blow to the tattoo industry in a country where the Tattoo art is largely associated with the Yakuza, mafia-like organised crime syndicates.

The law in Japan regarding tattoos

Under Japanese law, all tattoo artists require a formal medical qualification. Police raided the studio of Taiki Masuda in 2015 but he refused to pay the ensuing fine and asked for a trial.

The case, the first of its kind, has drawn international attention to tattoo culture in Japan, where historical associations with gangsters and a general social pressure for conformity.

Mr Masuda had argued that his tattooing was a form of artistic expression, and that preventing him from operating was a violation of the constitution. He said tattooists needed knowledge of safety and hygiene, but not to the same extent as licensed medical practitioners.

But the court ruled that medical knowledge and skills were indispensable in assessing the risks, and sentenced Mr Masuda to a 150,000 yen fine (about 1,850 New Zealand dollars).

Tattoo culture in Japan

Mr Masuda said tattoos were “a part of traditional Japanese culture” and he would appeal against the ruling.

Irezumi is the name given to tattooing in Japan, and refers to many different forms of traditional Japanese tattoos, or modern forms inspired or derived from these. Just to confuse things, the word can be written AND spoken in several different ways, and also translate into several different words, although the most common is literally “insert ink”.

Japanese tattoos date back thousands of years, but their meaning and role in society fluctuates with different time periods. It was around the Kofun period (300-600 AD) that tattoos began to take on negative associations.

Criminals were tattooed as a form of punishment, so others would know they had committed a crime. It is estimated there are around 300 tattoo artists in Japan, it is unclear how many of those hold a medical qualification.