Why Is There A Tattoo Stigma In Japan?

Why Is There A Tattoo Stigma In Japan?
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Public pools. Gyms. Resorts. It’s common to see “no tattoos allowed” signs at establishments like this. In Japan, there is certainly a stigma towards tattoos. But why?

The easiest explanation, of course, is that Japanese gangsters (the yakuza) traditionally mark their bodies with tattoos. But not everyone who has tattoos in Japan is in organised crime. Regular folks have them. Celebs, too. Some have them for the same reasons that people do in the West, whether that’s fashion or simply because they are interested in body art. And this stigma isn’t a recent phenomenon.

Japan has had a long tattoo history. As The Japan Times points out, there’s a theory that tattoos were important in the country’s Jomon Period (10,000BC to 300BC). There isn’t any physical proof that the Jomon people tattooed themselves; however, a Chinese historical record written at around 300AD said all Japanese men tattooed their faces and bodies. This history is marked by a love-hate relationship: In the 17th century, for example, criminals were tattooed to blatantly mark them in shame instead of punishment through mutilation. As VanishingTattoo points out, some criminals even had the Japanese for “dog” (犬) inked on their foreheads.

During the following century, however, tattoos became fashionable.

However, tattoos were banned in the mid-to-late 19th century as the country opened up to the outside world. The fear was that the custom might seem primitive to foreigners or mocked abroad. The Japanese government saw tattoos as “barbaric” and certainly not part of their program to modernize. It wasn’t until after World War II that the legal prohibition against tattooing was lifted. By then, the stigma had once again set in.

Recently on 2ch, Japan’s largest forum, there was a thread on why Japanese people were against tattoos. As mentioned above, there are many regular folks in Japan who aren’t! However, tattoos are far more of a rarity in daily life in Japan than abroad.

Via 2ch, here are some of the reasons why tattoos aren’t accepted in Japan. As these are forum comments, take them for what they are: forum comments.

However, the sample of comments, which range from negative to positive, might provide an inside look at how some in Japan view tattooing.

“They’re dirty.”

“There’s a long history of them being proof people are criminals.”

“Tattoos were used to identify criminals.”

“For a long time in Japan, tattoo has equaled ‘yakuza’ or ‘hoodlum.'”

“Even among foreigners, gangsters and bad dudes getting inked is cool, but when normal people do it, it’s lame.”

“In Europe, tattoos are a working class thing.”

“I think you all don’t get it. They’re fashion. People like you in dorky clothes are far more unpleasant.”

“Girls who get inked are cool, and that’s why I like them.”

“If you go to Shibuya, tattoos are normal.”

“I heard you cannot get an MRI if you have a tattoo. That true?”

“If you get a tattoo, then you cannot get a MRI, and then you can’t detect cancer early!”

“Those who showed their tattoos to your parents, what reaction did you get? Did they cry?”

“It’s come to this because there are lots of idiots with preconceived notions who think that tattoos equal scary. The majority of Japanese, with their preconceived notions, are quivering cowards.”

“Tattooing is part of Japanese culture.”

“The colour (of tattoos) is dirty. The only thing it resembles is moss.”

“People are free to do what they like, right? I don’t have one, though…”

“When ever I see tattoos show up in pornos, I go limp.”

“You can’t erase them!”

“More than tattoos, I hate people who hide the tattoos they had removed.”

“Abroad, having a tattoo is proof you were in the military. In Japan, it’s proof you are low class.”

“It’s fine if people want to get them. Just don’t put them out in front of others.”

“Because in Japan, if you’re not respectable, you’re a criminal.”

Before someone in comments posts it, here is the MythBusters episode on tattoos and MRIs.

Note: If you have tattoos and are planning on visiting Japan, you might run into problems at, for example, hot springs and public pools. Either cover your tattoos with bandages or band-aids (if possible!) or rent rooms at hot springs that come with a private bath. For business trips, unless your work is connected to the arts, it might be good to discretely cover your ink (if possible).

なぜ日本人は刺青に否定的なのか? [2ch]

Photo: Nagashima Onsen


  • “I think you all don’t get it. They’re fashion. People like you in dorky clothes are far more unpleasant.”
    So true and funny.
    Tattoos are super expensive and people with nice “expensive” tattoo are usualy very intelligent and educated people. It’s the junkie types with ratty backyard jail tats that ruin it for the normal people. Both my sleeves cost me a total of $10,000 and you can tell – even old ladies in small japanese villiages will compliment me because Japanese tattoo can be beautiful too.

    loved this comment “When ever I see tattoos show up in pornos, I go limp.”
    Though I have tattoo I generally don’t like them on girls – weird?

    • Tattoos are super expensive and people with nice “expensive” tattoo are usualy very intelligent and educated people. It’s the junkie types with ratty backyard jail tats that ruin it for the normal people.

      I know plenty of broke retards covered in really well done/expensive tattoos. The best tattoos I’ve ever seen were on a heroin addict. To say they’re usually very intelligent is just as dumb as dismissing people with tattoos as idiots. There’s no real barrier for entry. If you have money and the common sense to shop around you can get a great tattoo if you want one.

      • valid point. i don’t think a persons intelligence or income has anything to do with it. some smart rich people will get good tattoos and crap tattoos and dumb, broke junkies will get good work and shit work.

      • Heroin is actually really expensive, so your junkie mate was obviously a dealer or good theif, so obviously he can afford good tattoos. Most junkies that look like junkies don’t have money. your broke “retards” are broke because all their money goes towards tatts. The people with good tattoos are more intelligent because they clearly did their research instead of going to Bali. I’m sorry, but I don’t know any Junkies with nice tattoos and people do dismiss people with Tattoos – thats society in most places.

        • You know stereotypes go both ways, right? You don’t want people to think everyone who has a tattoo is a junkie but you’d be fine if they all thought you were really rich and didn’t have to go out of your way to tell everyone your sleeves cost 10 grand each.

          I will say again what you tried to iterate: “some”, not everyone who has a good tattoo is intelligent.

        • Just because you personally don’t know anyone like that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.

          I remember before tats were cool.

        • You’re reconfirming the stereotype of people with sleeves are generally very angry and ignorant!
          Why are you even throwing in ‘junkies’ into the mix- how do you know they only got their tattoo’s ATER they hit rock bottom in their lives. You shouldn’t generalize.

          Isn’t it safer to say, people with good tattoo’s care more about the art on their bodies than those people who get tattoo’s on a whim and just go to the closest shop

    • i always laugh when people show me a tattoo and say something like “i got this cheap in bali” and i think to myself “i can tell” haha. idiots.

      like you said tattoos are expensive (unless of course you have connections). you get what you pay for. they’ve become so popular here which is dissappointing because there’s so many shitty artists out there and so many people getting crappy designs.

      on the plus side all the crap ones make you appreciate the awesome ones more.

    • logical fallacy. expensive tattoos are not an indicator of intelligence, in the same way tattoos themselves are an indicator of criminality.

    • even old ladies in small japanese villiages will compliment me because Japanese tattoo can be beautiful too.
      It’s as though you don’t know what ‘omote’ is.
      The “compliments” you get from old ladies are their way of telling you that your tattoos make you stand out, and not in a good way.

  • Probably for the same reason atheists, motorcyclists, homosexuals, people who don’t want kids, and any other people who can think for themselves are discriminated against in our own country:

    A population primarily composed of beige cardigan-wearing cowards, governed by more of the same.

    • I’m an atheist, I have tattoos, I have a beard, I ride a motorcycle and I don’t want kids… I seem pretty fucked.

      • I’m an atheist, I have tattoos, I don’t have a beard, I ride a motorcycle and I want children. I will probably be labled a bad parent by the truely bad paents because I have tattoos and ride a motorcycle.

    • I read something years ago, that the old ink’s used to be metal based, and this would cause issues in old skool MRI machines, not sure how true it is mind you.

  • A friend of mine came back from Thailand not long ago, he got a nice looking tattoo while he was over there, he also got HIV from the gear they used.
    Not really relevant just a bit of a warning, don’t get a tattoo in Thailand.

    • No offense to you or your friend, but if he didn’t have the wherewithal to choose a clean and sterile place, it’s his own fault. I’ll fix your warning – Don’t get a tattoo in any place they reuse gear / fail to sterilize. Regardless of Country.

      • What’s your checking point: “Do you sterilise your gear”…. “Yes”… “Bring it on”.

        I’d agree that I personally probably wouldn’t get a tattoo in Bali/Thailand but it’s a pretty bad situation for the guy… no point dropping your dad wisdom.

        • Implying that all tattoo parlors in Thailand are bad by tacking on “don’t get a tattoo in Thailand” is a cop-out. How about using some common sense.

    • That really sucks for your friend.

      But there are plenty of people who have tattoos done in Thailand, and they’re certainly don’t all catch HIV. I hope your friend contacted the Thai Police with details so that they could investigate.

      • Getting stuck by a HIV injected needle doesn’t guarentee you will get HIV. And symptoms don’t start appearing until quite a bit later aswell. Pretty icky

  • The thing that gets me is people who complain about not having any money and living day by day to make enough for the family and then boast on facebook about their new tatt that cost them $300.00 just for the outline and in 2 weeks getting it finished for another $300.00, not much intelligence there or the ones who get the japanese sayings and tell me its means pride and honour, i say, no its actually says you’re a idiot.

    • Idiots like this piss me off. I didn’t get a tattoo until I could afford one and would still be able to support myself comfortably. People honestly have no idea about setting priorities for what is more important in life.

  • I actually got a straight answer about the tattoo thing from the owner of an onsen once. A friend of mine had a small tattoo on her leg and was refused entry for it. I asked the owner to turn a blind eye because my friend was a tourist and she told me that making exceptions wasn’t possible.

    She told me that they don’t want Yakuza in there, but saying “No Yakuza” is an easy way to have your business come down with a bad case of “burned to the ground”, so the owners of establishments started putting bans on tattooed people with the excuse that it was to keep branded criminals out. This had the positive side effect of keeping the Yakuza out, without giving them a reason to feel targeted. It now has the negative side effect of making them look like jerks when tourists want to do cool Japan stuff.

  • My one and only piece of advice for getting a Tattoo.

    Don’t get a Tattoo in a Language you can’t read.

  • i did see the signs around when i was there but normally the proprietor’s turned a blind eye because i was gaijin. only got turned back once at a capsule hotel so we went to an actual hotel and saved some money anyway.

  • I don’t get it, it looks bad, it’s permanent, it cost money and its painful, hard to get off if your ideas or fashion taste/or whatever change with time, may get a disease even in supposedly “clean & aseptic” ink workshops, some.designs are so common you may run into another person having the same one. You had an unique design?, no worries it can be copied too ? and worst part of all, in my case, it is a deal breaker, as i dont feel attracted to tattoed girls, it just make my boner a goner ?

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