Embodying Japan: Cultures of Sport, Beauty, and Medicine 2017

Apprenticeship and the Nation State: Tattooing

      Because of its overt connection to criminality in Japan, tattooing as an art form is passed on in modern times as it was in the 17th century in a more exclusive sense from master to pupil in select parlors and families. This is in contrast to activities that are deemed culturally appropriate or necessary to the nation that are promoted and learned in public schooling and guilds such as Ikebana or the Geisha arts. Tattoo artists themselves develop under an apprenticeship style of learning, like other artists, but with a medium that requires much specific expertise. “Often they are organized along similar family structures and they may also refer to themselves as a family, using the name of the household head as a kind of family name. Most tattooists’ names in Japan begin with Hori (meaning carving) and end in another character” (Gamborg 44). Protecting the artistry of Japan, as an element of bettering the country, can be seen in the overtly accepted arts such as Noh and Ukio-E.
      However, it is a testament to the visceral appeal of tattooing that these traditions have withstood many centuries of scorn and conflation with the negative aspects of Japanese society without being forgotten or phased out. Japan’s standardized education in the late 19th and early 20th century reinforced ideas of national pride: “rise of the modern state, which not only promoted lateral communication between its citizens, but ensured that formalized schooling inculcated within them the same knowledge of and sentiments about national identity” (Robertson 261). As the standards of national pride were enforced, the ideas of what is associated to be detrimental to national pride were also enforced. So it follows that smaller schools of thought and trade would persist alongside these institutions in their curriculums to supplement or compliment standard school systems to keep their art forms regardless, including tattooing. Longstanding disagreements of its' social connotations aside, tattooing is an art form that takes years of study as do other art forms. “Officially translated as ‘‘specialist training schools’’ but broadly known as ‘‘vocational schools,’’ senshu¯ gakko¯ were established in their current form under the amended 1976 School Education Law (Table 17.6). These schools, not as prestigious as universities, offer programs in a wide range of professional, vocational, and technical subjects” (Robertson 290). Widely accepted schools of artistry and trade continue to compete for existence alongside centrally or federally funded institutions, therefore operating a school of less acceptance to the art still presents today, a financial risk to the owners and artists if they can’t depend on steady business, giving the artists another incentive to improve.
      The way that tattoo artists learn takes from a style of relaxed authority similar to the rigid arts in structure, “organized as a family household with the iemoto being the head of the house and having all rights to the teaching of and income from the practice of the art.” (Gamborg 44).  This gives the practitioners more freedom to teach and style their lessons in the way that benefits their artistry the most. However, Gamborg gives much credit to the individual investment of interest and skill of the artist, as being the crucial factor in passing on the art with success. Whereas in a state model of instruction, the pupil is expected to emulate the teacher and a similar result is more quantifiable, or it does not depend as heavily on the discretion of the instructor. As another testament to its acceptance, methods of tattooing are being modernized now that traditional tattooing has resurfaced in its acceptance by foreigners and famous Japanese “sports stars” getting tattoos (Gamborg 39). This modernization of the traditional methods of tattooing has more artists worried about the traditional aspects of tattooing, however the concept and appeals of tattooing as a cultural aspect have already outlasted their expected expiration, and Japan's artists will adapt to that need.

Works Cited

Gamborg, Dag Joakim. “Japanese Traditional Tatooing in Modern Japan.” University of Oslo., 2012. https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/24212

Robertson, Jennifer. Post-Compulsory Schooling and the Legacy of Imperialism, Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

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