The view from here - Japan - Mayor wants to make teachers' ink invisible

Michael Fitzpatrick

Edward VII and George V would not be happy customers at a Japanese swimming pool. Sporting tattoos, as both monarchs did, would be enough to have each politely but firmly ejected from public bathing places. They might also be disqualified from teaching in Osaka or even from emptying the bins.

Teachers in the city of Osaka recently found themselves in a difficult situation when they were forced to declare in a questionnaire, prepared for all public sector employees, whether they had any such bodily adornments.

Tattoos in Japan are simply too declasse and too strongly tainted with underworld associations to be entertained in polite society: that is the thinking behind the ban dreamed up by the city's mayor, Toru Hashimoto.

The mayor knows how to court a mostly elderly, conservative voting population, many of whom consider tattoos an affront to society. As previously reported in this column, the mayor also wants to force teachers to sing the national anthem at graduation ceremonies.

Until now, teachers would be surprised to find that owning such body ink could put their job in jeopardy. Attitudes to tattoos, as in the West, are changing in Japan, at least among the younger generation. Painfully acquired full-body tattoos (irezumi) are still the reserve of a minority blue-collar class and their outcast brothers, the yakuza. But "fashion" tattoos of the type that make David Beckham's epidermis famous are on the rise.

The mayor of Osaka, however, disagrees strongly that anyone, particularly civil servants, should be allowed tattoos. "Anyone can tell whether a tattoo is appropriate for a government employee. A bad thing only makes for a bad atmosphere," he said recently.

Hashimoto, who once dyed his own hair blonde in a younger, rebellious phase, knows what will play well with voters. An attack on teachers, perceived to be pampered public employees, in economically straitened times is calculated to score points for a politician with his eye on higher office.

His mandatory survey was first questioned by human rights lawyers and then a hard core of teachers. Since then both parties have retreated and the tattoo inquisition went ahead, with more than 32,000 city workers conscientiously (as far as we know) answering the survey. A total of 113 admitted to having tattoos and 10 of 17,000 teachers bravely confessed to harbouring hidden ink.

With employment law in favour of the authorities, particularly in the case of public employees, the unnamed teachers have agreed to remove their tattoos and so can keep teaching in Osaka. "(The teachers) plan to remove the tattoos, so they don't embarrass themselves further in front of their students. I hope they can refocus on teaching," Hashimoto said.

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Michael Fitzpatrick

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