by Dustin W. Leavitt
The underworld of Japanese tattoo is full of surprises.Akasaka enjoys the world he lives in, a world of geishas, gangsters, and dragons. It’s not an imaginary world. The world Akasaka inhabits is quite real, though you and I may only visit by special invitation, which was how I recently found myself on the outskirts of Tokyo, seated around a low table with him in the house of a professional hostess. Akasaka also enjoys kidding around, especially if the kidding is at the expense of someone he likes—me, for example. I in turn am fond of Akasaka, and consequently when I am with him I sometimes find myself doing things I wouldn’t do in any other company, like singing Beatles songs into a karaoke microphone or bathing naked with half a dozen tattooed men. All this might seem rather incongruous until I tell you that Akasaka-sensei is a master of the art of the traditional Japanese tattoo.

But this story isn’t about Akasaka-sensei. Rather, it’s about another guest at the party, a young man whose elaborate tattoo Akasaka wanted to show off. Like everyone Akasaka-sensei had introduced me to in his floating world, the young man was impeccably well mannered and groomed, though his comportment and dress were not what my “cultured” acquaintances would consider quite respectable. He wore a swank black outfit that revealed his broad chest and that advantageously set off his massive gold watch and the heavy gold chain around his neck. His black hair was shorn short. And while he was properly reserved, when spoken to, he responded with a most un-Japanese candor.

Our hostess had provided us with a lavish banquet, and as we made our leisurely way through its delicacies—sashimi, Kobe beef, sake and beer, pickles and rice—she moved among us with the restrained grace and inconspicuous attentiveness of a seasoned specialist, filling our glasses before they were quite empty, bestowing on us expensive gifts, and tactfully guiding our conversation to Akasaka’s advantage with strategic interjections.

We spoke primarily about traditional Japanese tattoo, and eventually, the opportunity having arisen for Akasaka-sensei to reveal his purpose in asking me to dine with him, he turned to the young man and instructed him to remove his shirt. In Akasaka’s world, matters of hierarchy are understood, and the young man, unembarrassed in his obedience, complied without hesitation. He was well formed, having obviously trained regularly in a gym, with wide shoulders and toned muscles, and across his back was inscribed one of the most splendid tattoos I had ever seen, depicting a ferocious snake descending from a stalwart tree beneath a full moon. I immediately recognized Akasaka’s hand in the vigor of the line, the delicacy of the akebono, a technique for rendering gradations of gray, the quality of which is the mark of a true master, and in the complexity of the detail. Uncharacteristic of Akasaka, however, the tattoo was a monochrome, devoid of color, and its subject was a snake rather than his hallmark, the Japanese dragon.

I complimented the tattoo, which prompted Akasaka to ask me to display my own (yes, I am also one of Akasaka-sensei’s clients), and as the young man and I stood shoulder to shoulder, Akasaka and our hostess appraised his work. When we had dressed and returned to our seats, I asked the young man why he had decided to be tattooed. I asked tentatively because I thought I knew the answer, and suspecting what I did, also knew that such an indiscreet question could be socially precarious, if not risky, as traditional Japanese tattoo is the mark of the yakuza. However, I soon discovered I had been wrong in my assumption. “He’s a gigolo,” Akasaka informed me with a foxy smile. “Five women support him.”

I had never met a gigolo before.

“Yes, five women support me,” the young man affirmed, pushing his gold-framed glasses farther up his nose and shaking his magnificent watch in a gesture that said, “And quite well, too, I might add.”

Ah, so desu-ka, ” I said, suddenly seeing the larger picture (or so I thought): besides the erotic stimulus afforded by the tattoo itself, the snake and tree and the tumescent moon rising were intimations of its owner’s virility.

At this point, unable to contain himself, Akasaka interjected, “And he’s an inventor. He has a patent.”

An inventor? I strove to look more impressed than surprised. “What’s the patent for?”

“I invented a fan that can be attached to a baby carriage to keep your baby cool,” the young man replied evenly. I glanced at Akasaka, who was all but hugging himself in amusement.

“That’s a good idea,” I stammered.

“Yes,” our hostess agreed from the edge of her seat, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from the lap of her faultless kimono, “a very good idea.”

It was my turn to say something meaningful, but I was dumbfounded. My assumptions about Japanese machismo had been shattered in a blow, and as we all nodded thoughtfully and I struggled to regain my sense of reality along with my composure, I turned to Akasaka and asked, “So, when will the tattoo be finished?” The corners of his mouth twitched down, but he didn’t reply and the conversation foundered until the young man spoke up, filling the void.

“My wife didn’t want me to get tattooed,” he explained, “so I haven’t been home in several weeks…”

Wife? You can imagine the new and unexpected—and unspoken—questions running through my head.

“…But now I must return for my son’s Sports Day, so the tattoo will have to wait.”

Dustin W. Leavitt contributes articles and essays on subjects including travel, social commentary, and art criticism to books and periodicals. Much of his travel writing visits Asia and the Pacific, where he has lived, worked, and wandered at various times in his life. He teaches at the University of Redlands, near Los Angeles.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.