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Tattoos on RWC players and fans sparking debate in Japan around strictness, affiliations of body art

Tattoos on display at rugby games isn't unusual, with many Pasifika and Māori players embracing their culture somewhere on their bodies.

In Japan, however, that's an issue.

While tattoos are a way of displaying a player’s culture in other parts of the world, the body art is traditionally associated with local gangs called yakuza in Japan.

Former yakuza member turned Christian pastor Tatsuya Shindo told 1 NEWS the tattoos give gang members an identity.

"Getting tattoos for yakuza is just like a baptism for Christians,” Shindo said.

“It is to show a yakuza's determination to prove that they are not going back to the society where they used to be.”

Prior to this year’s Rugby World Cup, players and fans travelling to Japan were warned to cover up their tattoos. But the host nation appreciates the gravity of the event they're holding and has loosened their rules in some areas.

“Tattoos are cultural - we have to have respect for each other’s stance and that is a dialogue that’s taking place,” Rugby World Cup organising committee CEO Akira Shimazu said.

“I don't think we'll see trouble related to tattoos.”

Regardless, All Blacks such as Aaron Smith insist on being respectful towards their hosts.

"We've just got to respect that and adapt as All Blacks,” Smith said.

“We're grateful to be here and we don't like to act like we're anything bigger than we are.

"We've got an onsen or a spa at every hotel. In Kashiwa, that spa was a public one so we had to wear skivvies or tights and that's OK - we're in Japan and we have to embrace their way and their culture.

“Most people with tattoos were happy to cover up."

But local tattoo artists hope the World Cup will spark a debate about whether the stance should become more relaxed permanently.

One world-renowned local artist, Horiren First, says there's nothing wrong with foreigners exposing their tattoo's but she's suffered because of hers.

"I have tattoos but I'm not a criminal,” Horiren told 1 NEWS.

“I pay taxes like everybody else, I put my rubbish out like everybody else.

“I shouldn't be treated like a criminal.”

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1 NEWS’ Jenny-May Clarkson has this report from Tokyo. Source: 1 NEWS