Unexpected Interpretation of the Medical Practitioners Law

On September 8, 2015, a tattoo artist, Taiki-san, from Osaka received a summary order alleging violation of the Medical Practitioners Law. Taiki-san loves tattoo as an art form, doesn’t neglect hygiene management, and hasn’t received complaints from customers. Yet despite all this, Taiki was charged with violating the Medical Practitioners Law.
However, the police’s legal interpretation of the law doesn’t fit with reality. The police have interpreted “medical act”, as mentioned in the Medical Practitioners Law, to include the act of using a needle to put ink in the surface of the skin. The upshot of this interpretation is that tattoo artists must have a medical license to carry out their business.

But is this really necessary? Of course hygiene and safety are necessary. It’s impossible to be a tattoo artist without the technology and expertise to ensure this. The contrary assertion being made is that unless a doctor is the one etching into the skin, it’s impossible to guarantee the quality of technology and expertise.

In other developed countries, tattoo artist licensing requires the know how and the equipment to ensure safety and hygiene. A medical license isn’t necessary. People who want tattoos are free to choose from a wide range of licensed tattooists.

In recent years in Japan, a number of artists and athletes have opted for ink. Also, many people from other countries have tattoos. This is one of the issues Japan is being forced to confront with the prospect of many tattooed foreigners coming to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic games. Interpreting the Medical Practitioners Law as the police have, goes against the flow of the times. Proper regulation should be introduced that provides a framework for tattoo artist licensing.

A history of tattooing in Japan

During the Edo era, Japan was subject to Sumptuary laws. These laws banned tattoos as a prohibited form of luxury.

But people who worked in lowly jobs and trades wanted to decorate their bodies as a form of rebellion, for example: palanquin bearers, fire fighters, woodworkers, riverside and dock workers, steeplejacks, etc. Tattoos were also a source of pride, along with the kamishimo, for Edo samurai.

Traditional tattoo techniques and designs continued to develop underground, even though prohibition lasted well beyond the Meiji period. GHQ abolished the ban on tattoos after WW2. A combination of passion for tattoos and a flurry of movies about war heroes, lead to a flourishing of the tattoos, incorporating designs from both Japan and overseas.

However, although the tattoo ban has been abolished, tattoo artists are under threat because of the narrow interpretation of the Medical Practitioners Law, essentially turning tattoo artists into criminals.

A Crisis of Tattoo Culture

Until now, the police have differentiated between the activities of gangsters and everyday tattoo artists. But this time, an everyday tattoo artist has been caught up in the net.

If the police case prevails, Japanese tattoo artists won’t be able to work unless they get a medical license. This means you won’t be able to get a tattoo if you want one.

It’s true that some people associate tattoos with criminal or other anti-social elements. But this is changing. Tattoos are fashionable, and becoming more and more popular in Japan.

And not just fashion. Many people immortalise special occasions, anniversaries, deaths, loved ones, memories, and dreams with tattoos.

These require much more than merely inking dates and words. Design is a crucial element in determining the success of a tattoo. It requires special skills, including a sense for discerning what clients want. This is something that only tattoo artists can bring to the table. Ignoring this fact reduces tattoos to nothing more than empty ink.

In addition, Japan’s unbroken legacy of tattoo culture from Edo until now, including sophisticated artistry and methods, has received high praise from other countries. This legacy is under threat because of the sudden police crackdown. This amazing and beautiful culture could become extinct because of nothing more than an unfair interpretation of the law.


Taiki-san is taking a stand to protect Japan’s tattoo culture. But we can’t let this tremendous burden fall on the shoulders of one person. This fight is for all of us. We need to recruit advocates and supporters for Taiki-san as he fights to protect tattoo culture.

Taiki-san’s friends and customers have taken leading roles in getting SAVE TATTOOING off the ground. This project aims to ensure the art of tattooing in Japan continues to develop, and that freedom of expression is respected - nationwide and globally, across ethnic and national borders. We want to join forces with tattoo fans for a world where tattoo culture is freely enjoyed without fear.

"SAVE TATTOOING" includes everyone who loves the art of tattoo - no matter who they are or where they come from. We can change the world with our voices!


Click to charity