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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Culture of Body Modification in Japan

With Ryoichi Keroppy Maeda

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to interview Ryoichi Keroppy Maeda, a Japanese journalist who is probably best known in the US for popularizing the Bagel Head* phenomenon. But Maeda, a 49 year old graduate of Chiba University, is a lot more than the Bagel Head Guy. He’s probably the most knowledgeable person in Japan on the subject of modified culture, and I definitely took the time to discuss that with him.

As with my previous article featuring Maeda, I’ve produced the best version of his answers here, since our communication was limited by my terrible Japanese and his reasonably good English.

The first thing I wanted to know about Maeda was his background. Where did he come from and how did he get into piercings, tattoos and saline injections to the forehead? The fact that he studied journalism at Chiba University required some research. What he actually said was that he went to the same university as ARAKI, a photographer whose work he admires.

ARAKI, aka Nobuyoshi Araki, is a controversial photographer, whose erotic works often feature women suspended by shibari bondage ropes (Google it if you’re not at work), and was often featured in one of Maeda’s favorite magazines, Shashin Jidai.

Imagine this, but with naked people. Dirty naked people.

So Maeda’s at a reasonably small college, a pretty normal, straight laced place, but he’s into counter-culture types like ARAKI and reading magazines like Shashin Jidai that publish erotica, literature, independent comics, cutting edge stuff. It’s so hardcore that Shashin Jidai is shut down occasionally by the cops for pushing the line too far.

Then, in 1991, Maeda reads the book Modern Primitives, gets his nipple pierced the next year and starts looking at Shannon Larratt’s BMEzine on the web in 1994. In 1997 he finds Steve Haworth and gets implants in his forehead.

He’s hooked.

What follows is twenty years of reporting on, and participating in, the Japanese body modification scene.

Part of what you need to understand about Japan, Maeda tells me, is that during the 90s, when he was getting into piercings, it was mostly S&M people doing it. After 2000, he says, it became a fashion statement, young girls getting their belly button pierced and their ears pierced in multiple places and stretched.

So why are people in Japan getting modified now? What’s making it so popular?

Partly, Maeda tells me, it’s that young Japanese people want to change, to be different, and the older generation has become more accepting of it. I was a bit dubious about that, and mentioned that Japan has a reputation for being a strict culture. I wondered if it was hard to find work, or if people only fit in in the big cities like Tokyo.

“Osaka is big too,” he says, “But in all of Japan, it’s now the internet age.” As for finding work, he says, “It’s up to the person and the situation. I know many Japanese modified people can find work that fits them.”

With Ryoichi Keroppy Maeda

I keep digging. What do people’s parents think about this? Their grandparents?

“I know an interesting story about it,” he says. “You know, we had a poison gas terror attack by a Buddhist cult group in Tokyo in 1995.”

Aum Shinrikyo, the cult group Maeda is talking about, used sarin gas to try and poison several judges in 1994, killing 7 innocent people and injuring hundreds more. In 1995, they released sarin gas into the subways of Tokyo, killing 13 and injuring a thousand. Some estimates place the injuries at more than 6000. Later that year, they were suspected of shooting the chief of the national police, and mailed a bomb to the governor of Tokyo, which blew the fingers off his secretary’s hand.

In the western press, focus was placed on the main perpetrators and leaders, who were almost all in their late 20s and early 30s, while the involvement of young people in the group was almost ignored.

“In that case,” Maeda continued, “many high school age boys and girls did terrorism to try and change Japan. After that, Japanese parents changed and gave more free will to their children. That’s the reason why they say ‘OK’ to their children for getting tattooing and piercing, rather than having them join a religious cult group.”

Shutterstock doesn't have stock photos for any of this. So here's this guy.

“One more interesting story,” Maeda says, “About why extreme body modification spread in Japan.”

In 2003, the novel Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara was published, and in 2004 it won the Akutagawa Prize for literature, probably the biggest literary prize you can win in Japan. In American terms, that would be like winning the National Book Award. It’s the story of a nineteen year old girl who gets into body modification and gets her tongue split.

Maeda knew Kanehara before the book was published. She read a lot of BURST magazine, where a lot of Maeda’s body modification articles were published.

At 21 years of age, Kanehara was the youngest person ever to win the prize, and became super famous.

“That’s another reason why extreme body modification is very popular in Japan,” Maeda says. “For example, my grandmother understands my work because she read the newspaper article about the novel. It doesn’t surprise Japanese people that their children are getting modified, because they know these kinds of things exist. It just depends whether they like it or not.”

*Bagel Head (Google it whether you’re at work or not) is the name for getting a saline injection in your forehead in the shape of a bagel.