How Come More Anime Characters Don't Have Tattoos?

by Justin Sevakis,

Matthew asks:

Something I've noticed in anime is that they're aren't a lot of characters that have tattoos. By tattoo I mean purely aesthetically ink tattoos used as a means of self expression. Most tattoos that I've seen in anime are tattoos that serve as some kind of plot device or they're some type of magical markings that give a character special powers. I understand that Japan has a strict policy on publicly displaying tattoos so could that be a reason why we see so few characters with legitimate tattoos? Or is it because the majority of characters in anime are teenagers and the image of tattooed teenagers might send the wrong message to viewers?

Most Asian countries are very conservative when it comes to tattoos, and Japan is no exception. While there was some history of tattooing in Japan dating back centuries, the practice was banned entirely in the mid-1800s. While they were legalized after WWII, pretty much the only people in the following years who got them were yakuza, with their giant, full-back tattoos. If you saw a guy like that walking around a public bath or a sauna, you'd probably get really really nervous. I completely understand that. I was once at a Korean spa here in LA with some friends when a guy came into the shower area with a giant swastika-with-eagle emblem tattooed over his chest, and I pretty much freaked the hell out. (He seemed a little off, and another guy who was with him seemed to realize what was happening and made him put on a shirt. So nothing happened.)

But if you're the owner of a hot springs resort or a public bath, you can't exactly hang up a sign that says "no yakuza allowed" if you want to continue to live your life peacefully. So, instead, you put up a sign that says, "no tattoos." It's passive-aggressive, but when basically nobody else gets tattoos, it works. This really only came up when foreigners with tattoos came to visit resorts and found that tattoos were banned.

In recent years, plenty of japanese people have started getting tattoos as a fashion statement, just like in the West. This includes some celebrities. But they're still not very common -- nowhere near like what you'd see in the West. Japan is a very slow country to change, and public perception being what it is, the tattoo ban has mostly stuck around.

The lack of anime characters with tattoos reflects this. They're uncommon enough over there that unless having one is a very specific and intentional trait that a character is designed to have, they simply won't have one by default.

If you think that's a little harsh, tattoos are still illegal in Korea unless they're done by a doctor. There are even stories of Korean pop stars who got temporary henna tattoos having to cover them up with bandages before appearing on TV shows, to avoid the potential scandal.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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