If having a tattoo was the reason you could lose your job, and if your boss didn’t yet know about it, how would you feel?

This is is exactly the dilemma being faced by employees in Osaka, after mayor Toru Hashimoto said, of public workers, that “If they want to have tattoos, they should quit working for the city and go to the private sector.”

Tattoos in Japan are seen as controversial by some, in part due to association with Yakuza gangs. Mayor Hashimoto’s comments have reignited ongoing public debate and there has been something of a backlash against his traditionalist stance.

Osaka city employees were instructed to fill out a questionnaire – which included a diagram of the body to mark – asking whether they had tattoos, and whether they were on a part of the body that would be visible to the public, after a February incident in which a worker was said to have scared children by displaying his at a welfare office.

Of 33,546 employees, 110 said that they had a tattoo, 98 of which said that it was on a part of the body, the face, neck, arms, legs or feet, that was on-show while they were carrying out their job.

Grabbing the attention of world media this week – particularly after a reporter asked about western music or movie stars with tattoos and the mayor responded that, “If Johnny Depp or Lady Gaga asked to become Osaka city employees, I would just say ‘no’.” – the story led NBC to ask Osaka-based lawyer, Sayuri Ohashi, whether rights were being infringed.

“Whether one has a tattoo or not has nothing to do with their competence or skills. And if the government tries to pressure employees into quitting by transferring them to another job, that’s a breach of the labour law,” Ohashi was reported as saying. About 800 teachers and school workers refused to respond to the survey.

Seemingly, 42-year-old Hashimoto’s comments are not in tune with younger people who perhaps see the Yakuza associations of tattoos as a thing of the past. Fashion, rather than gang membership, has led them to ink their bodies.

The principle of banning tattoos, and indeed the people who display them, in places such as public baths and swimming pools remains common in Japan and is a cause of much debate.