Owain Jones discusses the cultural significance of tattoos in Japan

Rugby World Cup – Tattoos

The entire rugby community has flocked to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the first ever tournament to be hosted in Asia. As a result this will see the intertwining of countless cultures, traditions and ideologies and it is job of everyone to know how what may be construed as normal or offensive in one culture, may be the complete opposite in another. One such example of this is Japan and its relationship to tattoos.

Tattoos are a fashion accessory for millions of Britons who admire the inkings of superstars David Beckham, Conor McGregor and LeBron James and there are a fair few rugby players who have chosen to cover their torsos in body art; from England duo Courtney Lawes and Jack Nowell to world famous stars like All Black Sonny Bill Williams. Tattoos, however, are interpreted differently all over the world and in the far East they are widely associated with the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime syndicates, which still number around 40,000 people in the country.

Courtney Lawes: The England man pictured with his numerous tattoos (Getty Images)

World Cup organisers are mindful that players and fans are respectful to Japanese culture and traditions while spending time in the country and for their part organisers have promised fans they will not run out of beer. To avoid misunderstandings, they have been advised to wear vests when swimming or bathing to avoid causing offence. There have previously been instances of heavily inked tourists not being admitted into the countries many hot pools by owners on account of their body art.

With 400,000 fans set to travel to the country for the six-week rugby jamboree in September, later this year, Tournament organiser, Alan Gilpin, was keen to stress that players, especially those in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, where half-sleeve tattoos designate hierarchy and warrior status, and date back 2000 years, were respectful of the local customs.

“When we raised it with the teams a year or so ago, we were probably expecting a frustrated reaction, but there hasn’t been at all,” he said. We have done a lot in the last year or so with the teams to get them to understand that. “The idea of putting a rash-vest [shirt used for watersports] on in the pool or in a gym, they will buy into as they want to respect the Japanese culture. We’ll position it as self-policing.”

Of course, players will not be required to cover up during games, but for a trouble-free, harmonious tournament, respecting local customs will be paramount.

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