Japan’s Problem With Tattoos

Japan’s Problem With Tattoos

15 million people visited Japan in 2015, setting a new record. Millions more are expected in the coming years, particularly with the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Many foreigners, eager to see the sights and spend cash, are tattooed. Most Japanese are not. This is where things get problematic.

This story originally appeared in March 2016.

Japan has a long, varied history with tattoos. It’s complex, and I go into much greater detail in Japanese Tattoos: History*Culture*Design, but some of that history is connected to punitive tattoos, meted out to brand and punish people for indiscretions. Other parts show how the working class embraced tattoos as a way to express themselves as well as protect their bodies. And yes, there is a tradition of gangsters getting them, too, but do not think only yakuza get tattoos in Japan. That is simply not true. People who are into tattoos get tattoos, and they come from all walks of life. There is also a tremendous variety in the types of tattoos Japanese people get, from more traditional pieces to avant garde and even geeky ones.

Most Japanese are not tattooed and even today, tattoos continue to be stigmatised in the mainstream. There are several reasons for this. One is the previously mentioned associations with organised crime. Another, however, is less obvious and is rooted in the Japanese subconscious.

Today, Japan is not a Confucian society, but Chinese culture has been extremely influential, especially from the 8th century to the 12th century. Ideas of filial piety continue to exist in modern Japan, which is why, even today, some people will say that they think getting their bodies inked is disrespectful to their parents who have bestowed said body.

In Japan, tattoos are often private. Traditional bodysuit tattoos, for example, are designed to be worn under clothing and covered. The rub becomes when those private tattoos enter a public space, such as a hot springs or bath house. You’re naked. Everyone else is naked. Hiding extensive work is difficult, if not impossible.

Japan’s Problem With Tattoos(Image: Narongsak Nagadhana / Shutterstock)

[Image: Narongsak Nagadhana / Shutterstock]

According to The Economist, the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA), a government agency, polled hot spring resorts and hotels around the country and found that more than half banned tattooed guests. But that same polled stated that a third of foreign visitors said Japan’s hot springs, or “onsen” (温泉) in Japanese, were one of the main reasons they visited the country.

In the past, when far fewer foreign tourists visited Japan, it was easier for these businesses to turn away inked locals. Not that it made such discrimination a-OK, but that’s how it’s been. Until now. Millions of foreigners are pouring into the country ready to see the sights and spend money. Today, rejecting tattooed tourists can be potentially embarrassing internationally, like in 2013, when a New Zealand scholar with traditional Maori tattoos was turned away from a hot springs.

All of this is probably why, The Japan Times reports, that the JTA asked hot springs owners to permit tattooed-foreigners earlier this month (full disclosure: I’m a columnist at The Japan Times). The association isn’t asking for similar exceptions for tattooed Japanese.

Japanese families visit hot springs and with the country’s pervasive skittish attitude about tattoos, the problem becomes whether the non-tattooed Japanese residents are understanding enough to patron hot springs that allow tattooed guests, even if they are foreign. The agency’s request runs the risk of alienating those Japanese hot springs visitors who don’t want to see tattooed people while bathing. But this is about learning about other cultures, says the agency.

Here’s The Japan Times:

Akamichi [a Japan Tourism Agency official] said the current no-tattoo policy at many onsen resorts had indiscriminately rejected people with tattoos, including foreign guests who wear them for fashion, religious or other reasons.

The vexing thing about this comment is that many of the Japanese people with tattoos also got them for fashion or religious reasons! It’s even more frustrating because this attitude neglects that foreign gangsters also have their own tattoo tradition, so in the Japanese government’s eyes, would that be OK?

Then, there are just intellectual inconsistencies. For example, there are many Japanese tattoo motifs with Chinese origins, so the agency is saying that a Chinese tourists could be similarly inked with those designs, but a Japanese patron could not?

There is historical precedent for special treatment of tattooed foreigners dating back to the late 19th century. When it became illegal for Japanese to get tattoos, that law didn’t apply to foreigners.

Japan’s Problem With Tattoos(Image: Hiro Komae / AP)

[Image: Hiro Komae / AP]

In Japanese, 中途半端 (chuuto hanpa) means “half-finished” or “half-arsed”. This whole plan is very chuuto hanpa. The baffling thing about this whole push is that while the JTA is trying to get hot springs owners to relax rules about tattooed guests, there’s currently a court case going on in Osaka to determine whether or not tattooing, one of the country’s most influential art forms, is even legal in Japan.

That’s the problem. All sorts of mixed signals are being sent out. The tourist agency wants to be respectful toward inked foreign visitors, while local Japanese authorities are trying to destroy tattooing. The contradictions are astounding.

[Image: AP]


  • I have tattoos and went to an onsen. Didnt have any problems, they had signs with banning tattoos but no one said anything. I guess it depends on the person and place.

    • This is often referred to as the ‘gaijin smash’ – basically, being a foreigner and actively ignoring the rules but getting away with it because you’re a scary foreigner and especially because of the language gap which is quite intimidating.

      It’s a country where everyone’s expected to know and follow the rules as a matter of course. When you act outside those rules they often don’t know how to react, because they don’t want to be seen to be rude and also because your a foreigner they think maybe you didn’t know it was a rule in the first place. If you’d actually asked someone, they’d tell you no and then be within their grounds to complain if you do it anyway. If you just do it – Gaijin Smash it – then you often will get away with it. They’ll secretly hate you though.

      • Was this term created by the blog with the same name or was it around before then?

        Also is there a term where you do this in your own culture?

        • I’m fairly sure that he coined the term, yes.

          And I think that the term when you do it in your own culture is “being a tremendous asshole”

          • Ignore my comment; didnt realise the NZ was the person darren was replying to, and also the person replying to darren xD

      • Best example I saw of your “Gaijin smash” was at a Kyoto temple.
        There was a really old “trough” filled with water being pumped in from underground.
        My wife and I stood back (I partially have to thank my wife who is Malaysian and Buddhist by extraction so she knew something was up) to see what the Japanese people would do.
        A group of 4 American guys walk straight up to the trough and start drinking noisily straight from it. It was hilarious, the Japanese were staring gob-smacked without actually trying to look directly at them.
        Suffice to say, once they were finished the Japanese stepped up and washed their hands before walking into the temple.

      • I’m heading to Japan in a couple of weeks. Friends of ours mentioned the whole ‘gaijin smash’ thing. Wasn’t something I had heard of before.
        Can you accidentally gaijin smash? I can totally see me doing that.

        • If you intend on taking a taxi, do NOT touch the doors. They open (and often close) automatically or the driver will let you in and out. I made this mistake. My friend (who speaks fluent Japanese) still hasn’t told me what the driver called me. LOL

          • Hahaha. Yeah I know that one. 🙂
            I know the basics like that and not sticking chop-sicks in the rice standing up etc.
            And not walking and eating.
            So stuff like that I’m good but I am so going to stuff something up somewhere I’m sure.

          • Yeah I’m not going to go out of my way to be an idiot but it’s such a different culture that I am sure I am going to do something wrong at some point.

          • Everyone does. It’s cool.

            Tourists coming in and being obnoxious makes it really hard for foreign residents who deal with the fallout. Just be polite and 99% of people will forgive you for any faux pas.

    • Me too. Just be calm and humble and they will generally make an exception. And I have a lot.

    • Yeah, I’ve got to say, while I normally don’t mind the articles focused on Japanese culture that have nothing even remotely to do with gaming, having an article that does this while also acting a preview of an author’s new book (together with a link to said book) really doesn’t sit well with me.

    • It’s Bashcraft. He’s shameless. And Kotaku won’t do anything about it. I mean, they’ve got ads everywhere already, so one more ain’t gonna hurt, right? Lol.

  • Large bombs seem to alter their culture quite well. Maybe throw in a tsunami for good measure?

  • Yeah, poor fashion tattoo people clashing with the older conservative Japanese culture…

  • Well you’re always free to dig out your own hotspring somewhere and make it a tattoo-only place.
    I don’t really like this sterilization-of-the-world kind of vibe I’m getting. If Japanese onsen joints are all forced to change their minds, like hurrah for the tattooed people, but haven’t we also kind of lost a little something that makes Japanese onsen culture unique, and haven’t we then made tattooed people ever-so-slightly less distinctive?
    People want to have their cake and eat it, too.

  • – Other countries have different cultures.
    – Business owners reserve right of entry.
    – Tattoos are a choice. Choices have consequences. They aren’t always nice, they aren’t always fair.
    News at 11.

  • I have been to Japan twice and I also have a full sleeve Japanese tattoo and the right side of my stomach is tattooed with a Japanese design.

    I’ve never been denied from an Onsen because of my tattoos, mostly because I’ve gone in winter and when I entered the Onsen I was fully covered. But I have had one experience where I clearly offended some older Japanese men.

    Onsen had two areas, outside and inside, my friends and I went straight to the outside part, where there were 3-4 older Japanese men already in the water. They looked straight at my arm, spoke to each other quite quietly in Japanese and then about 30 seconds later got up and left. I felt a little upset that I had offended them and made them leave.

    After that I was a little more careful about who may have already been in the pools before I entered.

    • Given the Ariana Grande fun of the last ~24 hours, I suspect they thought it was worth a repost, if only to fill a gap.

    • To be fair I reckon Kotaku “Australia” is probably down to just Alex now isn’t it? Hence why we essentially just see reposting of existing articles, US propoganda and Ashcraft with his once a week article on anything Japan.

      Ohhh and I forgot the 600% increase in advertising in the last 6 months.

      • Yeah, we haven’t been in a great position here. There’s not a whole lot of Australian content at the mo. And Bashcraft articles don’t really get the Australian community frothing in a positive manner. I find discomfort in a lot of his work because of how half-arsed/phoned in it seems. Cringey stuff sometimes. And then he wants us to buy his book?

        There’s also an element of “I live in Japan and whatever I say about it you have to believe” when it’s not black and white like. Most outgoing, younger Japanese people (i.e. not message board slobs) will simply accept, tolerate and embrace your gaijin-ness and enjoy the ride of you not know WTF you are doing and teach you along the way.

        When you’re there, you are foreign. People can respect that, and if they don’t, fuck em. Empathy goes both ways.

    • In fairness this issue has popped up again because of Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup this year.
      So there is an effort to make things more friendly for the flood of tourists that will come. Especially when you think about all the players with Polynesian ancestry who will likely have cultural tattoos.

        • To be fair, Beppu has one thing that draws a crowd and that’s onsen.

          This is more just them trying to keep their city from collapsing than any real love of foreign tourists.

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