I came across this story on CNN today, about a convicted child molester and murderer who had a tattoo forcibly applied to his forehead in prison. "Katie" was the name of the young girl he killed. The full story can be found here. Prison justice can be brutal, and child molesters rank at the very bottom of the prison hierarchy. This reminds me of some of the prison tattoos detailed in the fascinating book "Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia". As a mark of shame, nothing can surpass the tattoo - it is the permanent Scarlet Letter. In a very similar way, tattooing was used in Japan during the Tokugawa period as a form of punishment. To quote from "Japanese Tattooing from the Past to the Present" by Mieko Yamada:
"Crimes such as extortion, swindling and fraud were punished by tattooing. The criminals were tattooed with a black ring around an arm for each offense, or with a Japanese character on the forehead."
To many this custom marks the beginning of the poor reputation wearers of tattoos face in society. Yamada goes on to say:
"The tattoo became a mark of punishment, used by the authorities to ostracize the outlaws from society. While the purpose of this penalty was to identify criminals and repeat offenders, tattooing as punishment became a vicious circle. The tattooed criminals were ostracized by society throughout their whole lives. Some of them abandoned all hope, and sank to a level of despair and a cycle of crimes. Consequently, the penal system formed a solitary minority group, called eta class, the social outcasts. For this reason, ordinary people became afraid of tattooed people. The people with the penal tattoos often used the records incised on the skin for illicit purposes. They hardly rebuilt their trust in society. Some of them abandoned themselves to despair and repeated crimes. This phenomenon made other people feel frightened and they came to see any tattooed person as a criminal or evil. Therefore, showing tattoos was perceived as a threat to society."
From what I have been told, the association between tattoos and criminals has decreased in recent years, and now many young Japanese proudly display their Western-style tattoos. But there are still many places in Japan where showing a tattoo would be considered completely inappropriate, especially the larger, traditionally styled tattoos which have been strongly connected to criminal organizations for years.