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

Tattoos and Body Manipulation


Tattooing in the Kofun and early Edo period started from marking out a deviant side of culture to recognizing the artistic value in developing tattoo style. Traditional styled Japanese tattoos or horimono embody the fully committed stance of tattooing, as a marker of selfhood because of their full application to nearly the entire body. Horimono tattoos cover nearly the entire backside of the body and come to the nape of the neck and pectorals in the front, depending on the wishes of the customer. This is in contrast to simple tribal or partial tattoos intended to mark but are not done with as much care, as it takes several sessions to complete a horimono tattoo (Gamborg 63). Branding or punishment tattoos needed only to demarcate the person as one who was charged with a crime or was considered unclean for handling dead bodies (Robertson 346). In response to these issued marks purposing the body for a certain class, lower class citizens would use horimono to cover these irezumi as a resistance to the state or “in the Foucauldian sense” make the full-body tattooing “a counter discourse” (Stolzenberg 106). It follows that the culture surrounding the more complicated tattoos would resonate with a positive narrative of taking time with the design, and knowing the artist on a more personal level. Those being tattooed would be fine with the idea of walking around with a partially completed tattoo, knowing that they would later go back to the artist in sessions until the entire design was finished. Whereas a negative narrative surrounding tattoos would connect with impulsiveness, as though the decision to have the tattoo done in a hasty manner reflected the kind of symbolism the tattoo has. Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings, plays with the commitment in the relationship Lui has with her tattoo artist and tongue piercing specialist, Shiba, in contrast with her boyfriend Ama, of which there are fluid sexual arrangements but the focus of commitment is centered around the tattoos and piercings (Kanehara 29). The reader is meant to question what Lui’s true intentions are in getting the manipulations done, whether she actually removes herself from these situations by going through with the manipulations or if  these decisions mark her permanently as a part of these situations, giving her the catharsis she needs to move on. These manipulations distance her from social connections, but this gives the reader an opportunity to reflect on whether these connections are positive, and what distancing oneself from a society that exploits the body would look like. In many cases tattooing brings out the idea of an inefficiency in the body or the self in response to their state or their environment. How the one being tattooed reacts to the tattoo’s impact on their image of themselves fulfills the idea of self-determination through imagery of the tattoo and constant, measured moments of pain in manipulating the body through applying the ink. This is why the positive aspects of tattooing are often associated with "enduring hardship" as the act of tattooing represents a measured amount of pain resulting in a visual representation of overcoming that temporary pain. (Gamborg 59).
Tattooing as a therapeutic sense shares this quality with body manipulation in the rejection of the body symbolizing a disappointment and wanting to remake it in a symbolically positive way. The person being tattooed is owning up to their own idea of what ideals they hold, against the standard of themselves or the state, and making it permanent with these manipulations. While tattooing is a manipulation of the body in a sense that the body is permanently marked, piercing or splitting the tongue or other parts of the body in connection with the nation state has had little value to offer. Therefore body manipulation is an even further removed process of separation from the acceptable standard of bodies. As mentioned earlier, dissidents of this process would use the horimono to make their sentiments as permanent as the state’s concerning their own bodies. The purpose of the body manipulation aesthetic however, in many personal accounts and in pop culture, is to destroy the value of the body in a system that places value on a set body type. This manipulation is purposefully meant to be extreme in many cases in order to reflect on the conversation of placing value in a set body type as a lead in to commodification and possible exploitation of the body type.

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

Kanehara, Hitomi. Snakes and Earrings, Penguin Group Publishing. 2005.

Robertson, Jennifer. Biopower, Blood, Kinship, and Eugenic Marriage, Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

Stolzenberg, Thorsten. "Between Coquetry and Gallantry." Stockhom University. 2016.

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