The clients themselves are paradoxes: most are men who are outwardly gentle, often lonely, eager to meet and impress women. Even those irezumi with rumored connections to crime and the underworld present themselves as courtly, shy individuals, proud of their tattoos that depict fierce warriors and legendary heroes. The irezumi simultaneously celebrate and conceal their sexuality, flaunt and deny their masculinity. The tattoos change, too, as the body moves, sometimes appearing playful and entertaining, sometimes grotesque and intimidating. Despite the fiery subject matter, the tattoo is cool to the touch, belying the brutal treatment it receives as it comes into being. I could not help thinking that such stoic endurance of pain sometimes masks social and personal insecurity. More than adornment, the tattoo becomes a client's armor against the outside world.
Of course there is a homosexual element among some of the irezumi, but this subject is taboo and not openly discussed. There are also construction workers and truck drivers who spend all their wages and most of their off-hours getting tattooed. They may be moved to display their "works of art" in a drunken moment in a Ginza bar, as might geisha or bar hostesses who bear a timid cherry petal on an inner arm or an autumn leaf above a breast as souvenirs of past loves. If tattooed men marry, they marry a woman who is attracted to the power and the strangeness of the tattoo as much as to the man himself. In fact, the wives of tattoo masters usually become irezumi themselves. "Normal women don't like tattooed men," Ohwada says—although they are considered seductive, and myth holds that no woman ever refuses an irezumi.
Nothing has damaged the irezumi reputation more than its putative association with gangsters, the Yakuza. While largely rumor and partly reality, this questionable layer of society for a century now has had both the "time, money and need for group identification," as scholar John E. Thayer III observes, making them ideal clients for the tattoo artist. Somewhat equivalent to the Cosa Nostra or Mafia in the West, with whom they are now reputed to have dealings, today's Yakuza constitute some two thousand criminal organizations with an overall membership of one hundred thousand persons.
The word Ya-ku-za (8-9-3) comes from a gambler's card game in which that combination of numbers is "worthless." Like some of our prison inmates who tattoo the words" "Born to Lose" on their biceps, Yakuza take pride in being worthless or useless members of an outcast social group. They trace their origin back to the seventeenth-century Banzuin Chobei, a commoner hero bandit immortalized in several Kabuki plays and, it might be added, in many portraits tattooed by irezumi artists. Now far removed from Chobei, originally a sort of Robin Hood, the Yakuza are deeply involved in prostitution, pornography, extortion, and drugs, with an income estimated by Japanese police at five billion dollars annually. Anywhere from sixty to seventy percent of its members are tattooed, and thus a fear of being taken for a Yakuza if one gets tattooed has spread into the hearts of ordinary Japanese. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, in an effort to alert our agents to Yakuza trying to launder money in America, devotes a section to tattoos in its 1985 manual, "Strategic Assessment: Asian Organized Crime."
Nonetheless, the stigmatic connection between Yakuza and irezumi has somewhat faded recently. Young Japanese are less afraid than their elders, who were suckled on Yakuza tales, for they have fed more on the manga comic books that so horrify Westerners by their violence and sexuality. Japanese who read these with nonchalance are likely to ask tattoo masters to apply violent imagery, sadomasochistic scenes, and kappa, the wicked river imps who traditionally drown children and rape women who venture near the water. Young Japanese also ask for nukibori, American style tattooing with its New York colors and shadingless lack of subtlety ("cartoonish" to conservative Japanese eyes). Undoubtedly they have been influenced by the sixty thousand U.S. troops permanently stationed on Army, Air, and Navy bases in Japan, as well as the continual influx and outflow of military personnel who come on leave to Japan for R and R (rest and recuperation) from Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and who take back home tattoo souvenirs of Japan.
For as long as recorded history, tattooing has suffered the unpredictability and trendishness of fashion, running the sometimes reasonable, often capricious gauntlet between sanction and sanctions. As early as 2000 B.C., tattooing was practiced in Egypt, according to evidence found in mummies. Ancient Greeks branded their slaves (doulos) with a delta, and Romans stamped the foreheads of gladiators, convicted criminals sentenced to the arena, for easy identification. Julius Caesar, when he invaded Britain in 54 B.C., noted with astonishment that the natives not only painted their faces with yellow weld, but wore more lasting decorations that were pricked into their skin.
As for Japan, the earliest chronicle written by Chinese, in A.D. 238-247, describes Japan as the "Queen Country" and recounts along with amounts of tribute how Empress Pimiko asked Silla (Korea) and Wei (China) for help in subduing her rival kingdoms. The Chinese scribes also remarked with some alarm that "the men both great and small tattoo their faces and work designs upon their bodies," a practice that for centuries would be absent from China itself. In Japan's own first historical record, Nihongi, compiled in A.D. 720, mention is made of an emperor who commutes his cook's death sentence to ostracism by "facial tattoo." It was not until the Edo period of the eighteenth century, a time of social unrest against the warrior caste, when the basis of the economy changed from rice to gold and merchants began surpassing their hierarchal superiors in extravagance, that tattooing began to be in vogue. While commoners were still at the lower end of the social ladder and politically oppressed, they were given freedom to pursue pleasures. Townsmen outdid the samurai in bravado and bravura. Along with the geisha's floating world of flowers and willows, and the arts of literature, puppet theater, Kabuki, and ukiyo-e, bathhouses and licensed quarters flourished. And so did tattooing. Courtesans tattooed kisho bori (promise engravings) on hidden parts of their bodies, visible only when naked or in the act of love. The men tattooed themselves more visibly as part of the bluster of being "chivalrous commoners." The variety and prevalence of tattoos is well documented in the popular picture prints of the day by Utamaro, Toyokuni, Kunisada, Sharaku, and Hiroshige, so highly prized by art connoisseurs everywhere.
An event of considerable significance to both Japanese culture and the evolution of the tattoo arts took place in 1805. Bakin, the preeminent novelist of Edo, published his translation of a fourteenth-century Chinese cycle of tales based on historical fact. Suikoden ("The Water Margin," or, as translated in Sino English by Pearl Buck, "All Men Are Brothers") was written just as the hundred-year-long Mongol dynasty of Yuan (when tattooing was introduced to China) was yielding to the indigenous Ming dynasty. Suikoden unfolds the heroics of Sung Chiang (whose chest was tattooed with an indigo leopard) and his band of thirty-six major and seventy-two lesser hao han bravos, or "men to be feared." Seventeen of them sported outrageous tattoos, and although they were good and generous men they had been driven to live outside the law by the wicked injustices of men in power. To serve the common good they retrieved ill-gotten wealth accumulated by officials. To take such treasure, to eat the fruits of misdeeds against the people, to spend a day in such riches meant to them "a smile in the next world." They marauded and swashbuckled, dyed their flags in human blood, and lit their lamps at night with oil squeezed from the fat of their victims' brains. They swore allegiance, took oaths of brotherhood that bound them to go through fire, to step into boiling cauldrons, and to live and die together for
one another. As if inspired by Thucydides they followed the dictum that "the strong do as they will, the weak as they must." Whatever their crimes they still righted wrongs, protected the young, and respected the aged. To beg pardon they bared their tattooed backs to be beaten.
The effect on Japan of Suikoden was electric. Kabuki adapted some of the stories, and the ukiyo-e artists illustrated all of them. Kuniyoshi, who had been a failure at his souvenir portraits of favorite actors and scenes of daily life that other artists issued in the tens of thousands (so that the populace could keep up with the latest rages), became an overnight sensation with his series, "108 Heroes of Suikoden." Bakin's book and Kuniyoshi's prints set the fashion for and established the canons of the art of tattoo that have lasted down through to the present.
After the Revolution of 1868, euphemistically known as the Meiji Restoration, the face of Japan changed with the overthrow of the ruling military shoguns and the establishment of the emperor as head of state. The Englishman A. D. Mitford, later Lord Redesdale, one of the earliest chroniclers of this turning point in Japan's history, arrived as a junior official with the nascent embassy in 1866. Moved to describe the turbulence of the times, he attended a public crucifixion, was invited to a seppuku (harakiri), and watched the eijanaika, a superstitious dance craze that seized the country and was performed daily to celebrate "the end of the world." He also met the last shogun, Tokugawa Keiki, soon to be deposed. Mitford was present when the Emperor Meiji met for the first time with foreigners. "As we entered the Son of Heaven rose and acknowledged our bows. He was a tall youth with bright eyes and clear complexion. His eyebrows were shaved off and painted in high up on the forehead; his cheeks were rouged and his lips painted with red and gold. His teeth were blackened____" To the English this was grotesque, "a travesty of nature."
Japan was acutely sensitive to the opinions and the taste of foreigners. It was only after Japanese ambassadors abroad reported on being taken to the opera as an honor for dignitaries that an emperor of Japan was allowed to attend a Kabuki performance. Until 1887 it had been considered "common," like tattooing. As for tattooing, in 1869 the Japanese were so fearful of appearing barbarous in Western eyes, or rendering the nation contemptible to Americans and Europeans, that tattooing was summarily interdicted. (So was the Buddhist ceremony of cremation.) The police raided the mansions of tattoo masters, seized their paraphernalia, and destroyed their "pattern books." However, the inscrutable Westerners were baffling to the Japanese. They were fascinated by Japan's tattoos, with embassies invariably choosing the most totally tattooed grooms to pull their rickshas. In time the Japanese government relented, and tattoo master Horicho's establishment was permitted to reopen in Yokohama with a sign, "For Foreigners Only." This was where those young sailors George and Nicholas went fresh off their ships.
It is impossible to discuss irezumi without touching on the great classical theater of Kabuki. It has served as Japan's most profound and verisimilar source of the nation's "living history" and teems with dramas where plot devolves on tattoos and ensuant revelations. These include, inevitably, Suikoden tales, but also many more created originally by Japanese playwrights. Grand Kabuki, on its most recent tour in 1985 at the Metropolitan Opera House and Kennedy Center in Washington, surprised Americans with the starring performances of The Scarlet Princess ofEdo by Takao I and Tamasaburo V. Both the male and female leading roles require tattoos. The hero Gonsuke is a scoundrel, by profession a gravedig-ger. He is also a thief and an assassin for hire, but, of course, with a heart of gold. On his forearm is a large tattoo of a metallic blue temple bell, a talisman, suspended from a sprig of cherry blossoms. The heroine Sakura, or "Cherry," is a virgin princess with the soul of a whore. In the middle of the night Gonsuke robs her palace, but as he is making his escape he sees the sixteen-year-old sleeping beauty, the princess, and not wanting to miss an opportunity rapes her. She is unable to see his face, but, "in the pale morning light of dawn's crescent moon," she says, "I caught one glimpse of that arm. Oh! Mark of manhood!"
A year passes, and the princess is about to enter a nunnery. Gonsuke is entertaining Sakura's ladies-in-waiting with a ribald story when he lifts the sleeve of his kimono to emphasize a point. Sakura sees the tattoo, dismisses her retinue, and bids Gonsuke draw near. She pulls up her own sleeve and reveals the identical tattoo on the inside of her arm. She had undergone this pain as proof and pledge of her passion and, according to the power of tattoos as amulets, as magical assurance that she would meet him once again. Indeed, she does. "So, you were the one?" Gonsuke exlaims. "Pierced by love's arrow, within my body both my love and a child grew," she answers in a classically poetic stanza. They resume their love affair but do not live happily ever after. They join society's dregs, and live miserably but lovingly in Japan's lower depths. At the end of the play Gonsuke promises never to abandon her. He does not, but sells her to a house of prostitution so that they may live in comfort.
Since the Meiji period, irezumi with remarkable masterpieces tattooed by famous masters and with particular urges for immortality have willed their highly prized bodies to university laboratories, somewhat in the way Westerners donate organs for medical research or transplanting. More often, however, irezumi who have fallen onto hard times, or who are in urgent need of immediate cash, sell their bodies to institutions staffed by doctors specially trained in decortication. They remove the skin from the fresh cadaver in one piece, preserve it in oils, and mount it, eventually, in airtight frames, so that it can be sold to a museum or private collector. There are probably some three hundred of these half- and full-body tattoos in existence at present. I was given a special tour of the largest collection, one hundred specimens, lodged at Tokyo University's Pathology Department. Nowadays the legalities are considerably more complicated. Beyond the expressed wishes of the deceased, the consent of the entire immediate family must be given and official documents signed and sealed. Occasionally these items come up for auction, and one example of a half-body tattoo a few years ago went for fifty thousand dollars.
Contorting himself in front of mirrors or viewing a friend's snapshots had been the only visual access an irezumi had to the artwork carved into his own back. The almost life-size twenty- by twenty-four-inch instant Polaroid prints reproduced in this book provided a unique opportunity for each irezumi to scrutinize himself in a new way. They began to see themselves fully for the first time and, over a period of years, to reveal to me the depths of their culture, eventually exhibiting not only the beauty and charm but also the sinister, the macabre, and the perverse elements of the Japanese tattoo. The contradictions inherent in the art imbue the photographs with the power to seduce and repel. This is their magic.
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