Who doesnt have a tattoo? 98% of Japan!
Tattoos long ago lost their taboo in most of the world. Many people have them and it rarely is an obstacle to any day-to-day activity. With one exception, visiting Japan. This post is for the inked travelers and what you need to know about tattoos in Japan. We are here for you!
Tattoos in Japan: A Brief History
There is still overt prejudice and discrimination against people with tattoos in Japan. The intolerance stems historically from the fact that gangsters in the yakuza criminal syndicate have had tattoos and criminals in the Edo Period (1603-1868) were tattooed on their face. In other words, people with tattoos were seen as scary outcasts who should not be bothered.
One study shows that, even nowadays, only 2% of the population in Japan has any sort of tattoo. And more than 80% of these people say they regret having a tattoo and want it removed because of societal pressure and condemnation. You cannot be a police officer, fire fighter, or Japan Self-Defense Force officer if you have any tattoos. They will strip you down during the interview process to see if you’re inked.
Tattoos in the Western World
When you look at global stats, a 2018 study by Dalia Research concluded that 38% of the world population has at least one tattoo. Italy is the number one tattooed country with 48% of the population, and the list goes on to Sweden (47%), USA (46%), Australia (43%), and Argentina (43%). Interestingly, none of the top 18 countries were in Asia.
So what happens when travelers with tattoos come to Japan? While 40 million foreign visitors are expected to visit Japan by 2020, how is the country dealing with inked visitors?
Well, the reality, and somewhat good news, is that Japan has been tolerant and open-minded to travelers with tattoos. Not necessarily welcoming or unbiased, but doors are opened to inked visitors. But problems may rise when your tattooed skin is exposed in a public setting or when you’re traveling to Japan in the summer.
Tattoos and Japanese Baths
The biggest challenge for tattooed visitors to Japan is to go in an onsen, or natural hot springs. Onsen is a huge part of the Japanese culture, and relaxing in one is a must-do while you’re there. There’s also sento, or public baths, that is not a hot spring, but a huge bathhouse you can go to. There has been a gradual open-arms policy for tattooed customers within the bathhouse industry in recent years, and the impetus seems to be hosting the Rugby World Cup this year and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Before you go in the baths, ask if they allow people with tattoos. If they say yes, go enjoy yourself in a nice, hot bath. But even if they allow tattoos, that does mean the people who are taking a bath with you will like it. So just be courteous and say “arigato” (thank you) and “sumimasen” (excuse me) when you need to. People tend to be nice to people who are kind to you.
What to do when no tattoos are allowed
If they tell you, no tattooed customers are allowed, please respect it. Same with any signage saying “no tattoos.” They do exist. It is upsetting to be rejected, but that’s the reality in Japan.
If you don’t want to be bothered and hide your tattoo, conceal them with bandaid or taping. If the tattoo is small enough, cover with a hand towel. Just do not use a concealer or foundation to cover up your tattoo when you go in the bath. The purpose of Japanese baths is to be squeaky clean from head to bottom. You may already know that you’re not allowed to wear a bathing suit, and you have to be completely naked to enter the washing area or soak in a tub. So having any sort of makeup on will “pollute” the bath water, which is a big no-no.
Tattoos in Japanese Inns
If you’re staying at a small-scale ryokan, or a Japanese-style inn, they may accommodate you and close the baths for private use. Ask the ryokan owner to see if you can enjoy the bathtubs all to yourself. Also, consider staying at a ryokan with a bathtub in your room. It’s not only a luxurious way to lodge in Japan, but also you won’t be bothered by tattoo rules and other customers who might not like that you’re inked.
Tattoo Friendly is a website where you can check to see if a certain bathhouse welcomes people with tattoos. You can search by region, city, and the type of facility. It’s also a great resource to find tattoo friendly pools, beaches, and gyms.
Gyms, Pools, Beach, Massage, Summer Travel
In addition to what to expect in onsen and sento in Japan, similar rules for tattooed visitors apply when you’re at a gym, pool, and beach. There may be signs that prohibit people with tattoos in the area. If they don’t allow you to go in, please respect it whether or not you agree or disagree. You can hide your tattoo if you want to avoid any possible confrontation. If you feel fine to show off your tattoo, feel free to do so.
There have been anecdotes on social media and Reddit that people with tattoos had a terrible time getting a massage. If you’re getting a massage, it is good to let the hotel or massage parlor know about your tattoos beforehand. We have heard stories where the massage therapist wouldn’t touch the person’s skin directly and massaged over a towel.
It gets difficult when you’re traveling to Japan in the summer when you’re dressed light and your skin is more exposed. We have heard stories where a couple of travelers were told to leave a temple because their tattoo was exposed and was making other visitors uncomfortable.
The bottom line is that you’ll be fine with tattoos in Japan, but you may encounter uncomfortable situations here and there. Respect the local culture and rule whether or not you agree with it. What’s a shame is that Japanese tattoos and tattooing technique are revered as the best in the world. Its artistry and craftsmanship is like no other. Yet the country’s history with tattoos and criminals makes it difficult it become more accepted even in this day and age. Wear your tattoo proudly, but be courteous of others who may not appreciate it like you do.
TattooEd in Japan Help!
We will ask you in our first call if you need help finding tattoo-friendly onsens and public baths. Don’t fret.
We also have a number of recommendations of traditional tattoo parlors if you are looking to increase your body’s work while traveling Japan. Consider creating your custom trip with us to design your trip around your goals.
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