By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) - World Rugby has advised players to cover-up tattoos during next year's World Cup in Japan, but many advocates for the body art hope the arrival of the inked athletes sparks a debate in a country with a complicated relationship with tattoos.
Tattoos form a traditional part of Polynesian culture, with numerous players of South Pacific backgrounds, like New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams, heading to Japan next year with highly visible tributes to their heritage on their bodies.
Tattoos in Japan, however, have been have been linked with criminality since the Edo Period and are now associated with members of yakuza crime syndicates.
As such, foreign visitors with tattoos can often find themselves banned from gyms and traditional bathhouses known as sento.
A landmark decision on Wednesday in Osaka, where a court overturned an earlier decision that tattoo artist Taiki Masuda had performed unlicensed medical procedures and been operating without a medical license, however could indicate attitudes might be ready for change.
"Tattoos have decorative and artistic meanings and cannot be categorised as a medical practice," ruled judge Masaki Nishida.
Despite the ruling, many tattoo artists in Japan, whose livelihood is often belittled as something unsavoury, or worse, illegal, refused to talk to Reuters because of the community's fear and distrust.
One Tokyo-based artist, Yugo, wanted to speak out as that was the only way it was going to bring about change and he hoped the Rugby World Cup can help further the debate in Japan.
"It will be a good opportunity for the foreigners to know how strict Japan is when it comes to tattoos," said Yugo, who said people come from across the world to be inked at his studio. "I think foreigners will be shocked.
"(So) I think it is a positive thing (that rugby players with tattoos are coming to Japan).
"Not necessarily all those (with tattoos) are yakuza and I think they (Japanese people) need to be aware of that."
For many former gangsters, having tattoos can mean being associated with crime long after they have left the yakuza.
Former yakuza Tatsuya Shindo converted to Christianity in prison and heads the Friends of Sinners Jesus Christ Church, which aims to rehabilitate former criminals.
Shindo, who has tattoos across his arms and chest, said they are vital for inclusion into the yakuza community.
"Getting tattoos for yakuza is like a baptism for Christians," he said. "It is to show yakuza's determination to prove that they are not going back to the society where they are used to be.
"It's the way of showing their decision to live in the yakuza community."
Shindo and other members of his church are not ashamed of their tattoos and do not plan on removing them, although he is still exasperated that having them can make it hard to reintegrate into society.
"Former yakuza or people with criminal records need jobs to get back into society," said Shindo, who allows former prisoners to live at his church for five months as they look for a job.
"It is not acceptable that these people are not offered any job opportunity just because they have tattoos.
"You see waitresses with tattoos at restaurants in other countries, but you barely see such a thing in Japan."
RESPECT JAPANESE VALUES
The most common place foreigners may run into difficulties is at one of Japan's traditional bathhouses, as many do not allow customers to enter if they are sporting a tattoo.
"There are spas and sento which do not allow people with tattoos because it is difficult to know their meaning; whether they are for fashion, anti-social signs, or religious purposes," said bathhouse owner Kazuyuki Shigihara.
"We still have a kind of bias toward yakuza people, but we do allow them as well."
Shigihara is one of a slowly-changing group of sento owners who allow people with tattoos to come into their bathhouses.
He is hopeful that the Rugby World Cup can bring tourists into bathhouses and he has produced a set of English language posters with a rugby theme to encourage visitors.
World Rugby, however, has already said they would prefer it if players with tattoos respected the prevailing culture when they gather for the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 tournament next year and teams are already abiding by the request.
"The first day we were here we all had to go to the gym and cover up," All Blacks centre Williams said during his side's recent test matches in Japan.
"So there were a few long sleeve tights and calf sleeves going around but I think that will just be the go.
"We have got to respect the values that the Japanese people have.
"It is just how it is."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)