Tattoos – Why can’t they become “just fashion” in Japan

From tribal designs and ancient runes to meaningful lyrics and memorable dates, chances are high that either you or someone close to you has at least one tattoo. These special, personal artistic adornments are incredibly popular in the West and have become increasingly common in modern years, yet there are still many countries and groups around the world who view them negatively. 

Whether you’ve been to Japan before or simply done a little bit of research while planning your ideal trip, you may already be aware that Japan is not considered a tattoo-friendly country. While body modifications and artwork such as tattoos and piercings are not illegal and many people do have them, tattoos do hold very negative connotations for the Japanese and as such people with them are openly banned from many gyms, pools, water parks and even onsen across Japan. While some tattoo-friendly establishments do exist, they can be hard to find and particularly expensive to enter – something that frustrates both tourists and expats alike. 

But why do the Japanese view tattoos so negatively, and will this ever change? What’s more, should people with tattoos avoid visiting Japan? 

Japanese tattoo artist in action (Image: Photo-Ac)

The History

In the early 1990s, scientists working on the Italian-Austrian border stumbled across the frozen remains of ‘Iceman’, a heavily-tattooed man believed to have died around 5,200 years ago. Other examples of early tattooing, such as tattooed female Egyptian mummies from around 2000BC, serve as proof that the practice of permanently marking skin with ink or pigment is most certainly not a modern craze. 

During the Edo period, tattoos were common in Japan – however, the reason was a negative one. At that time, criminals would be marked with tattoos as a form of permanent punishment that would make it easier for law-abiding citizens to identify (and stay far away from) them. Additionally, some sex workers would also get tattoos in order as a symbol of their loyalty to regular customers. These two practices helped to create the negative stigma of tattoos that still persists within the country today. 

A Yakuza group proudly showing their tattoos during Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa (Source and details: Wikipedia)

Modern Perceptions

While Japanese criminals are no longer forced to receive tattoos as atonement for their crimes, body art remains popular with members of Japanese gangs known as ‘Yakuza’ and, as a result, the perception of people with tattoos remains negative. In the hopes of keeping ‘troublemakers’ away, many bars, pools, gyms, onsen and even capsule hotels have developed rules banning people with tattoos from entering and, while very few Japanese people would mistake a tattooed tourist for a member of a Japanese gang, these rules are upheld regardless of who you are or what you look like. 

For tattooed tourists hailing from ink-friendly countries around the globe, the Japanese attitude towards body art can seem outdated and divisive. In response to the upcoming Tokyo Olympics some establishments have decided to re-examine their own rules in regards to tattoos, but the determination to keep gangs from entering their premises has meant that many will continue to uphold their tattoo bans. 

With that said, the global view of tattoos as fashionable ways to express personality is slowly changing attitudes within Japan, particularly amongst young Japanese people. The number of people in their early 20s getting tattoos is slowly rising, although it may be a while before sleeves and full back-pieces become more visible on the streets; those who have tattoos tend to go for something small in a location that can be easily covered, and waterproof skin-tone bandages available in shops across the country are commonly used to cover any art in order to allow discrete use of pools, onsen and gyms. 

Image: Photo-Ac

Should I Visit Japan?

If the idea of being turned away from an onsen or capsule hotel has put a downer on your plans to visit Japan, try not to worry. While tattoo bans are common across the country, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy Japanese culture regardless of how much art covers your skin. 

In areas commonly visited by tourists, it’s easier to find facilities willing to cater to foreigners with tattoos. Some of these establishments will require you to cover your body art with plasters or a t-shirt, while others are fine with them being on display for all to see – the policy varies widely depending on where you go, so it’s always wise to check what the rules are before you start to disrobe. Additionally, websites such as tattoo-friendly.jp make it easy to search for local establishments and facilities, and to read their rules in English before you visit them. 

Attitudes in the countryside and rural destination may be slightly more strict in regards to tattoos, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy cultural-staples such as onsen during your trip. Many traditional Japanese inns (known as ‘ryokan’) offer private in-room baths, which can be slightly more expensive than shared-bath facilities but allow you and your tattoos to soak privately, away from judging eyes. If you’re travelling on a tour organised by a Japanese tour company such as Heartland JAPAN, then this all becomes even easier – tour operators are experienced with tattooed customers, and will be able to create tours that suit your personal needs. 

If you’re interested in exploring the countryside but don’t want your tattoos to get in the way of the adventure, reach out to us today – we’re always happy to help! 

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