Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing against body art in general. I do admit a certain grotesque
fascination with such bangles that seem to be a modern form of torture, but only in a method of awe.
Tattoos, however, are rather commonplace these days. Rock stars, athletes and junior high students all sport various surfaces of permanent decoration whose design declares the era of the procedure as fads rage one minute and fade the next. I myself sport such an epidermal ornament, which I definitely enjoy. Never did I ever imagine that aside from general prejudice,
I might be banned from otherwise-public facilities.
A few weeks ago, I relocated to the Kyoto Prefecture of Japan to work as an English teacher for the Kameoka Board of Education. I have spent the time since then trying to furnish my apartment on a meager budget and
find my way around the area. Another new teacher
expressed an interest in joining a gym, so we
dutifully visited the two gyms in town.
After touring the second and gesturing our way through many questions (dictionary in hand) we decided to join.
We made our way through the first form, copying the information from our wallet card. The hostess, then proceeded to open a rules booklet and attempt to convey their meaning to us.
The first rule: no tattoos allowed. I don't understand, I said (one of the best phrases to know in any language, as important as 'where is the bathroom.') Arimasu ka, or literally, does one exist, she inquired, concerned. Hai, arimasu. A frenzy of activity ensued.
Although Japan has less crime than America, there is a sizeable nationwide gang whose members are referred to as "yakuza." The defining characteristic of these gang members is that they all have a tattoo or two. Thus, many public bathhouses won't admit anyone with body art. Of this fact I was aware, but of the gym membership rule I was not. No tattoos allowed? Can I
check it at the door?
The hostess and various staff of the gym bustled
around, temporarily flustered by this situation. I was able to pick out a few words and took the liberty of constructing the following river of conversation-- "This woman wants to join! She is an English teacher and works for in City Hall, but she has a tattoo! But she is a foreigner, and blond at that; she cannot possible be yakuza. But the rules say, and what if
anybody notices? But it's not likely to be seen, and she is a foreigner and may be good for business."
Eventually the hostess came back and murmured
furtively, "It is okay." Whew. So much for being
truthful about any situation. Behind me a sign
advertising a line of sporting clothing named "Body Art" hung in tribute to a society that cannot understand sarcasm.
But all's well that ends well, and we procured the
coveted gym membership to the tune of a significant loss to our bank accounts. Sun Sports made an exception for me; they bent the rules a bit to welcome me into their facility, and their way of life. So
anybody who wishes to argue that the Japanese are
stubborn and proud should remember how these people accepted me, despite my differences and potentially threatening mark.
After all, change begins with small
differences being recognized, considered, and perhaps allowed. Oh, and for those of you who were expecting to read about bananas, I would just like to add that the bananas here taste better although they are smaller and more expensive. But that's okay, I buy
(Emily Bays,a recent intern at the Flyer, moved to Kyoto, Japan, to teach English after her graduation from Rhodes in May. Some weeks back we afforded you another report in this space -- from a Memphian now teaching English in Japan -- about Memphis-specific T-shirts seen on Osaka subway lines. Clearly, it is our destiny to shed as much light (or tatooed skin) as we can on the inscrutable East.)