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Inked: What is it like to Travel Japan with Tattoos?

Inked: What is it like to Travel Japan with Tattoos?

Date published: 12 January 2019
Last updated: 13 January 2019

“I want to go to Japan, but will I be okay with my tattoos? Can I go to hot springs? What about showing them in public?”

Everyone with a tattoo who has thought about visiting Japan has probably asked themselves these questions, wondering what Japan’s current stance on tattoos really is. Join as we delve behind the inky world of tattoos in Japan!

Just How Do Japanese Perceive Tattoos?

Just How Do Japanese Perceive Tattoos?

In the past, tattoos were used to mark someone who committed a crime, and remnants of this culture still exist in various parts of Japan. This is the base for the rather widespread belief that “tattoos are a bit of a no-go in Japan.”

Nonetheless, Japan has gradually become much more open in recent years in regard to the topic of tattoos, compared to the past few decades. Especially younger people display much fewer prejudices or disdain towards tattoos, and increasing numbers of younger Japanese casually get a tattoo as a fashion statement or lifestyle choice—a rather global trend. An increase of international tourists coming to Japan may also have an influence on this change of thinking.

Still, the old perception of “tattoo equals bad” is not entirely gone just yet. In fact, quite many facilities bar tattooed people from entering even today, most notable hot springs, public baths, and swimming pools. International tourists who are not fully aware of this, run into that issue, thinking “I came all the way to Japan, but now I cannot experience hot springs just because I have a tattoo?”

The number of international tourists is increasing each year with staggering speed, also fueled by the 2019's Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Games in 2020. And even after that, the number of visitors is only going to increase, so Japan will probably have to become a more diverse country as well. Asking itself this very question, the Japan Tourism Agency conducted a survey, asking tattooed people about their experience with bathing facilities across Japan. Based on the results, efforts are made to encourage these facilities to improve circumstances.

In the following, we will not only take a closer look at the survey results of the Japan Tourism Agency, but also at the current efforts within Japanese society, and hear from a female expat with tattoos about her experiences in Japan.

The Survey Results: 56% of All Bathing Facilities in Japan Ban Tattoos?

The Survey Results: 56% of All Bathing Facilities in Japan Ban Tattoos?

With the number of international tourists rising every year, there aren’t few cases of trouble between a tattooed visitor and a bathing facility. In order to prevent such conflicts in the future, the Japan Tourism Agency conducted a survey on how Japanese bathing facilities respond to international tourists with tattoos. This survey was sent to about 3,800 spots across Japan, also including hotels and traditional hostels. About 600 replied. The summary of the survey is as follows:

Question 1) How do you handle people with tattoos?
・ We refuse entry. (~56%)
・ We allow tattoos unconditionally. (~31%)
・ We allow tattoos if they are concealed, such as with an adhesive patch. (~13%)

Question 2) Why do you refuse guests with tattoos?
・ We judge independently in regard to hygiene and public morals. (~59%)
・ It is based on the rules of the industry and local businesses. (~13%)
・ Because of requests/recommendations by the police and municipality. (~9%)

The number of bathing facilities flat-out refusing tattooed people is surprising, with another 59% saying “We judge independently in regard to hygiene and public morals” as to why they uphold such a tattoo ban. Referencing morals and hygiene undoubtedly is connected to the old image of “tattoo equals bad,” a remarkable proof that this way of thinking still exists in modern Japan.

As mentioned earlier, there once was a custom of tattooing criminals. This tradition is likely one of the reasons that are directly connected to the image of a lack of morals. Another reason might be the fact that in the past, members of criminal organizations used tattoos to show their loyalty to that organization. This is what formed the thinking of “tattoo = bad/evil” and ultimately led to many bathing facilities refusing people with tattoos to ensure the safety of their other guests. This is also the root of the other two answers to Question 2, namely “It is based on the rules of the industry and local businesses (~13%)” and “Because of requests/recommendations by the police and municipality (~9%).”

Looking at the responses to Question 1, it becomes clear that about more than half bathing facilities in Japan ban people with tattoos from entering. That does not only strip many international visitors from the chance of experiencing Japan’s bathing culture, it is also a loss for the country, as Japan is going to focus more on inbound tourism. That’s why the Japan Tourism Agency put together notes and countermeasures specifically regarding international tourists with tattoos visiting bathing facilities, urging the individual spots to follow through. This is what the Japan Tourism Agency suggests:

Things to Keep in Mind
・ Keep in mind that people may be tattooed for various reasons, such as religion, culture, fashion, etc.
・ Keep in mind that you need to deepen your understanding in regard to your guests.
・ Keep in mind that having a tattoo does not impact hygiene and sanitation.

Case Study on Bathing
(1) Seeking Common Ground
・ Allow guests to cover their tattoos with adhesive patches so that other guests cannot see them. (This includes sanitary bathing suits, etc)
・ If the tattoo is small (the size of one’s palm, for example), abstain from requesting special measures if the tattoo is not intimidating other guests.
(2) Encourage Special Time Zones
・ Encourage tattooed guests to visit during hours when there are few families using the facility.
(3) Introducing Reserved Baths
・ If you have multiple baths, designate one for tattooed guests.
・ If you have a private bath, encourage tattooed people to use it.
・ In the case of an accommodation, encourage tattooed guests to book a room with a private bath.

The Tattoo Issue—People Don't Mind, but Bathing Facilities Do?

The Tattoo Issue—People Don't Mind, but Bathing Facilities Do?

But what does the reality look like: what kind of experiences do tattooed people have in Japan?

We asked a female expat with tattoos about her experience with bathing facilities, how regular Japanese people react to her ink, how she perceives the current situation in regard to tattoos, and what measures she takes in response. I, the Japanese writer of this piece, have a tattoo myself, but I have hardly come across some of the things my expat interviewee tells me about. This interesting exchange might be a good glimpse into the reality of tattoos in Japan.

―How have you feel when displaying your tattoo in public here? Like do you feel like people are staring at you or something? I think some people who have ink even think showing off their tattoos in public in Japan is already a bad thing – but I think that is not necessarily the case. Could you tell our readers what they need to know and is there anything they have to prepare, like bandages to conceal it or something?

"I don’t think twice about showing my ink, most of the time I am not even aware that it is there. I feel like people do look at them more in Japan than back home, but they don’t look in a negative way here. In my experience, Japanese people seem very curious about my tattoos, and that is not a bad thing.

Kamakura, Kanagawa (Cred: Colin Hui / Shutterstock.com)

"However, inked tourists need to be aware that some places forbid you from showing tattoos, not just onsen. My very first encounter with that was at an amusement park in Tokyo, where I ended up having to wear a wool shirt in August to cover my arm tattoo. That was not fun. Beaches, too. You’re supposed to cover your ink at a lot of beaches near Tokyo, for example in Kamakura*. I have to admit that I simply ignore that if the beach is not private (because what are they going to do, kick me off a public beach?), but I suppose that is not something we should recommend... Instead, I would advise people to always bring a light shirt or jacket with them and wear long pants, if they really want to be on the safe side."

*One of the most popular day trip destination from Tokyo which have some cool beaches

――Have you ever experienced any troubles in Japan because of having tattoos on your body?

"Besides what I mentioned above, literally every person who I talked to about my tattoos had a positive reaction. I especially remember my very first time going to an onsen (we had to book a private hotel because of our tattoos), and we shared the bath with three obaasan (older Japanese). They were super nice and specifically complimented my friend and me on our tattoos, themselves saying that they don’t quite understand why tattoos such as ours (obviously not gang-related) are forbidden at so many places.

And because everyone reacts so positively to them, it makes it even more frustrating that this tattoo ban is still a thing. From my personal experience, I honestly feel like nobody cares if someone is inked or not."

――Lots of travelers with ink who come over to Japan want to soak in hot spring (or just a swimming pool). But most of those kind of places don’t accept people with tattoos let in because it is said tattoos were a thing for criminals in the past. What advice would you give to people? (I personally have been to so many hot springs before with having couple of tattoos on my arms but never really had problems, but I don't know if that’s because I am Japanese or people generally don’t care so much?)

"I already talked a tiny bit about that in the first spot, but that wasn’t specifically about onsen. For onsen and sento, smaller tattoos can be covered with patches, best skin-colored. However, I have encountered some weird places in that regard as well, telling me that even covered tattoos are forbidden. I was asked to leave public baths because of my tattoos before... I think it really depends on how strict a place is, you can be lucky and no one will care even if it’s technically forbidden, but you can also be unlucky and run into someone who is NOT having it.

To be safe, I think it’s always best to spend a night at an onsen resort. I usually recommend Hakone to my friends, there are reasonable options there and you get a nice traditional ryokan experience with it. It’s just so much nicer to enjoy bathing without having to constantly worry about being kicked out..."

――There are many people who are admitted to tattoos lately, especially a lot of young folks’ have a deepened understanding, but what do you expect for Japanese people/society in the future?

Shinjuku, Tokyo (Cred: f11photo / Shutterstock.com)

"I know so many Japanese Millennials who are tattooed and I actually do have a lot of faith in that generation. To me, it’s fairly obvious that this society does not think tattoo equals criminal anymore, not even older people (see the obaasans I talked about above!) It’s just a matter of time until things really change. That doesn’t just go for tattoos, but also about issues such as LGBT rights, globalization, and so on. The internet generation is more open to change, not only in Japan. In pretty much whichever country, Millennials and younger generations are generally progressive, aren’t they? In 20 to 30 years, I think that tattoos will be a matter of personal taste instead of a societal issue like it is now. At least that’s what I hope."

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts

Although Japanese society is not at a point of full acceptance in regard to tattoos yet, the opinion seems to shift in a positive direction. With the Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Games just at the doorstep, even more international visitors will come to Japan and both the government and various industries are making large strides in regard to inbound tourism. The recommendations and advice for bathing facilities by the Japan Tourism Organization will hopefully also do its part to change Japanese society little by little.

Undoubtedly, “culture” should be protected as “culture.” Japan still boasts many traditions that are still alive today, and it is important for the country to also incorporate new cultural aspects while passing down old traditions. I personally think that this is one of the most prominent parts of what makes Japanese culture so great. However, culture can also be redefined. Japan’s history is filled with examples of old traditions changing and merging into something new and improved. Once, Japan did not even allow people from other countries to cross its borders, so why are people still hanging on to the old belief that tattoos equal something bad and evil? If you ask a Japanese person, they probably don’t have an answer to that.

One thing I would like to stress once more for everyone planning to come to Japan is that during your visit, it is very rare for someone to directly be uncomfortable with your tattoos. Also, bathing facilities that accept tattooed guests continue to increase year by year.

Contrary to a situation in which people’s awareness gradually changes, keep in mind that you might encounter the subconscious thinking of “in Japan, tattoos are bad in general because of old Japanese traditions.” With that, I hope that you’ll have a wonderful time in Japan.

Written by: Keisuke Tsunekawa

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