A Sporting Cover-Up To Celebrate

Rugby players agree to hide tattoos in honour of Japanese culture
16:02, 18 Sep 2019

Rugby players aren't always known for their sensitivity, but the cultural respect they've shown towards Japan and its people in the run-up to Friday's World Cup kick-off is winning hearts and minds.

We've seen how teams have been welcomed with song, dance and bags of respect across the nation. And they've returned that warmth by being mindful, in particular, to Japan's distinct relationship with tattoos.

Historically in Japan, if someone has committed a crime they would be marked with ink, and though attitudes have tempered to an extent, tattoos still have an association with the notorious ‘Yakuza’ or ‘Bōryokudan’ crime syndicates.

Pacific nations, in particular, are heaped in tradition with tattoos being cultural components and intrinsic positive parts of identity and community. 

Defending champions New Zealand also have a number of indigenous Maori or Polynesian players who have traditional tattoos.

But, to show their respect, the All Blacks have agreed to ‘cover up’ at specific off-field occasions where tattoos - or ‘Tā moko’ - would usually be visible.

Ahead of the tournament, the campaign ‘New Zealand says 39’ was launched, reciprocating the ‘omotenashi’, or hospitality, shown by their hosts. 

Jamie Tuuta, Chair of the Tourism New Zealand Board, who spoke at the event says: “We know that to the Japanese omotenashi hospitality is as important as manaakitanga is to us in New Zealand, and so we are here today to acknowledge that and send a message from all of New Zealand to Japan, to thank them for looking after our team and our fans.”

Samoa - over 3200km north of New Zealand in the heart of the Pacific Ocean - have also taken steps to keep their traditional tattoos concealed whilst in public, by applying skin suits to adhere to the local culture. 

Samoa team manager Va’elua Aloi Alesana told the Rugby World Cup website that the word tattoo originates from the Samoan word “tatau, which means ‘a must’,” adding: "so every young boy, when he gets to a certain age, gets a tattoo as a kind of passport to get into the group and serve the chiefs.”

Alesana said the wearing of the skin covering will depend on the training site. 

“There are some training venues that have allowed us to show our tattoos and some places where we can’t, and for those places we’ve been given ‘skins’ to wear to cover our tattoos,” he said.

“The extra skins are only for when we go to the [swimming] pools though, at the training we can wear our normal clothes.”

Samoa captain Jack Lam, speaking to the New Zealand Herald, said: “There’s a lot of similarities in our cultures but when it comes to the tattoos... it’s quite normal in our culture. We are respectful and mindful to what the Japanese way is. We will be making sure that what we are showing will be OK."

Samoa will play Russia, Scotland, Japan and Ireland in Pool A, opening against Russia on Tuesday at Kumagaya.

For tourists visiting the country for the World Cup, of which approximately are 600,000 are expected, those tattooed are advised to also ‘cover up’ when frequenting traditional ‘onsen’ (spas/hot springs) or swimming pools. Around 56% of such establishments refuse entry if they’re spotted.