Art of the Yakuza: Japan's Tattooed Men & Women
Centuries ago in the days of the Shogun, Japan's authorities would mark criminals with tattoos to distinguish them from the rest of the population.
These highly visible tattoos usually took the form of a black ring around the arm; with rings added as convictions increased.
These marked men were usually discriminated against so they tended to stick together, eventually forming the organized, mafia-style gangs now known as "Yakuza". Worn proudly as symbols of status and dedication, Yakuza tattoos have evolved into magnificent, multicolored full-body masterpieces.
Today's many Yakuza factions are patriarchal in nature but women are integral parts of Japan's gangland society. Wives, mistresses and girlfriends of top Yakuza figures often undergo extensive tattooing.
Sometimes these women use tattoos to demonstrate their affiliation with the gang lifestyle; in other cases it's done to show loyalty and obedience to the Yakuza member they are involved with.
One prominent - and prominently tattooed - woman with Yakuza ties is Shoko Tendo. Author of the best-selling book "Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter" , Tendo had herself tattooed in traditional Yakuza style using traditional Japanese motifs and brilliant colors.
Japanese society is slowly losing its prejudice against tattoos, tattooing and those who are tattooed. Young people are embracing tattoos as a form of pure body art with no Yakuza connotations and the influence of Western celebrities, who have no historical bias against tattooing, tends to make tattoos more acceptable.
Still, many public baths and hot spring resorts post signs banning bathers with tattoos - though who's going to raise the issue when the Yakuza comes a-knocking?
J A P A N O R A M A