Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ink Stains

Yup, those are my feet, in their nasty, running-induced callused glory.

And, yup, that's a bit of ink on the left one. The kanji read "ichi-go, ichi-e," which roughly translates to "one life, one chance." You might recall how I came to learn these particular kanji at 3 a.m. in an airport waiting room in December. If you don't, the story's here.

I've been thinking about getting the tattoo for a while, since that night in the airport. And now that my time here in Japan is coming to an end, I thought it would be a great way to carry this experience, which has involved many once-in-a-life-time things, with me.

But, of course, even something as seemingly straightforward as getting a tattoo becomes not-so-straightforward when you're a gaijin gal doing it in Japan.

First, there's the stigma. Your average Japanese person is not a fan of tattoos because of their association with the yakuza (the Japanese mob). Members of the yakuza traditionally sport full-body tattoos called irezumi, which are "hand-poked" with bamboo needles. The process is long and painful, and the designs are intricate and symbolic. Those guys are tough. Because of their yakuza ties, tattoos -- and the people they're on -- are often forbidden at hotels and bath houses and public swimming pools. That's all tattoos, even if it's as non-yakuza-looking as, say, a tiny Tweety Bird on your shoulder or, ahem, a Zen Buddhist saying on your foot.

Unless I figure out a way to cover the kanji, it looks like my time days of swimming laps at the Maruoka pool have come to an end. And there will be no wearing of cute sandals at school this summer, lest my students think that their English teacher has joined the mafia underworld.

Second, there's the actual process of finding an artist and getting an appointment. Back home, you could cruise through certain neighborhoods after the sun goes down, walk into any shop on a whim, pick your flash off the wall, and walk out the door with your shiny new tattoo. Done and done.

But here in Japan, it ain't that easy, folks. You have to gain the trust of an artist before (s)he'll tat you. Luckily, a friend was able to introduce me to a lovely guy who did a fantastic job, but I've heard stories of less fortunate folks who have had to wait months -- even years -- before an artist would agree to work on them.

Third, there's the letting go of the Western "customer is always right" mentality. That's definitely not the case here. In Japan, the artist is always right. That means that when I walked into the tattoo shop a few weeks ago and asked for an appointment on my birthday, I had smile and accept the firm "no" I received from the artist (for future reference, the Japanese think birthday tattoos are bad luck). I also had to muster a cheerful "wakarimashita" (OK) when the artist refused to tattoo my wrist (my original choice) and decided where, exactly, the design would be placed on my foot.

With regards to that last point, it was kind of nice to relinquish control and let the artist do his thing. It's fitting, actually: my year in Japan has been a big exercise in letting go. Upon joining JET, I had no control over where I'd be placed to work (I wound up in the middle of a rice paddy in Fukui, of all places). I couldn't control who my friends would be when I got here (turns out I did pretty well -- a group of fellow JET pals presented me with an envelope of cash they'd collected in honor of my birthday, saying it was to help pay for the tattoo). And I've lost count of the number of times that, due to the language barrier, I've had to step aside and let others make decisions for me (try signing up for cellular service when you don't know the language -- the only choice I got to make was the color of my keitai phone). It was a big adjustment for a previously-independent gal who was used to making choices for herself.

But in the end, my year in Japan has been a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And, in the end, I think my one-in-a-lifetime tattoo turned out pretty fantastic, too.

1 comment:

Cara Folkers said...

Since finding you on facebook a couple weeks ago, and finding the link to this blog, I have read a lot of your entries. I think everyone should visit Japan from what you have shared. I hope you're doing well and are you going to stay longer or just the one year?