Japan Society Chairman’s Blog – 21


Every generation, as they get older, sees things happening among younger people that allows them to conclude that society must have gone mad. For me, in recent years one of those signs has been the growing popularity of tattoos, with the accompanying arrival in towns large and small of a proliferation of tattoo parlours. As an economist I can understand that a natural consequence of the decline of physical retailing in the face of online shopping is that spaces become filled by shops offering personal services that cannot be supplied digitally. As a person, however, I have long continued to place tattoos in the context in which they were most seen in the post-war years, namely on the arms and torsos of present or former sailors in the Royal Navy or the merchant fleet. Moreover, when I lived in Japan I could readily understand why tattoos were adopted by a rather classic group of outsiders, for whom such signs of belonging might matter: namely, of course, Yakuza. However until this week, I had never thought of a tattoo as a “medical act”. It may be an act of lunacy, perhaps, in the view of an older generation person who considers a decision to make long-lasting changes to their skin somewhat crazy. But not a medical act. That was until I read a fascinating article in the Financial Times by Leo Lewis, one of our early webinar speakers back in April, about tattoos, doctors and the Supreme Court of Japan.

I am told that technological progress in tattooing has in fact made it much easier – and,
crucially, usually painless and now affordable – to have tattoos removed, so to have a tattoo
has become more of a fashion statement, one that can be changed with the seasons. This
perhaps explains the spread of tattoo parlours in Japan too, a spread which apparently led
in 2015 to the Osaka police deciding to take control by enforcing what they believed to be a
roughly 150-year-old legal principle, namely that a tattoo can only be performed by a
licensed medical practitioner. According to Leo Lewis, this principle had never before been
used to outlaw tattooists, possibly on the assumption that their only clients were Yakuza,
whose law-breaking spreads rather more widely and serious than body-decoration. A brave,
28-year-old Osakan tattooist decided to challenge this effort in the courts, attracted
widespread support, lost in the Osaka District Court but then when the case reached the
Supreme Court he won on 16 September a surprise victory which sounds entirely logical.
The Supreme Court declared that to assess whether particular procedures should be
considered “medical acts” requires a judgment about how they are performed and whether
the public views them as medical. Clearly, in the case of a tattoo, they do not.

This sort of story seemed to me to correspond quite closely to what both of our speakers in this week’s webinar (the video of which can be viewed here) described as their favourite sort of approach to how to cover a foreign country. While both John Simpson, in his 50+ years of reporting for the BBC, and Aiko Doden, in her time becoming a senior foreign affairs presenter for NHK, have covered their fair share of historic events and interviewed powerful and famous people, both told us that what they really like to do is to find scenes and stories in ordinary life which serve to illustrate or to open a window on to the reality of how things work or where they are heading in the country they are studying. Too often among foreign correspondents this can become a kind of search for exotica, exotica plucked genuinely from the pages or broadcasts of local media but which in the international media become used out of context and give a misleading image. Neither Aiko nor John would ever want to do that: their goal is rather to provide a true but also revealing picture. Declining editorial budgets have, they said, made this harder. But fortunately for us, not impossible, though perhaps easier for a publication such as the FT which has the space, resources and readership to be able to use tattoos not as exotica but rather as evidence of changing social behaviour and of the workings of both prosecutors and the law in Japan.

Further evidence of changing social behaviour has been seen all around the world on the soccer field, where, as with other sports, women’s football has been making a breakthrough into professionalism by virtue of the emergence of a sustainable commercial basis for the women’s game. Next week’s webinar will explore how this global phenomenon is now reaching Japan, with our speaker Kikko Okajima Murray, though based in the United States, now leading Japan’s first professional women’s soccer league, the WE-League (the ‘WE’ being for women’s empowerment). Kelly Simmons, director of the Women’s Professional Game at the FA in the UK, will explain what, if any, lessons can be learned from the British experience. Our trustee Yuuichiro Nakajima recruited both of these speakers, and as he knows a lot more about the business of football than I do, I am delighted that he will be moderating the discussion. The following week, on 14 October, I will be back for a more general discussion also about women’s empowerment and its place in Japan’s economic development with Kathy Matsui, who as vice-chair of Goldman Sachs in Tokyo has published a whole series of landmark studies on what she termed “womenomics”, long before the term became fashionable.  

Finally, I would like also to bring to your attention a talk about a rather older form of social activity, namely a 1,300-year-old ceremony of what could be termed restorative dances, the Dainichido Bugaku, or Zaido, at Kazuno in Akita prefecture. I wonder whether Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, an Akita man, has ever participated? Whatever the answer, there will be an online talk for the Japan Society on 10 October by Yukari Chikura, a photographer who documented the annual ritual as part of her own restorative pilgrimage. Perhaps some older person in 8th century Akita felt the initiation of these New Year’s dances was an indication that society was going mad.