Planning to visit Japan with tattoos? 👘 Get a guide to the cultural attitudes towards tattoos and what to expect as a foreigner with visible tattoos ☝️
The intricate art of Japanese tattooing, known as irezumi, has a long and complex history in the island nation. Tattoos have gone from being associated with criminals to becoming fashionable among young people in modern Japan. However, visiting Japan with tattoos can still present challenges due to lingering negative perceptions. This guide covers the origins of Japanese tattoos, current attitudes, rules, and tips for tourists.
What is the History and Meaning of Tattoos in Japan?
The art of Japanese tattooing, known as irezumi, has a rich history and distinctive aesthetic. Traditional irezumi covers large areas of the body in elaborate imagery from folklore, nature, history and the spiritual world. Common designs include dragons, koi fish, cherry blossoms, temples, tigers and Buddhist deities. Irezumi is created using a hand tattooing method called tebori, which involves manually inserting ink under the skin using steel rods. While time-consuming and painful, tebori allows for intricate designs and smooth gradients. True mastery of tebori takes years of extensive apprenticeship.
Tattooing has existed in Japan since around the Jomon period (10,000 BCE – 300 BCE), with clay figurines depicting people who were tattooed. Among the Ainu people of northern Japan, women wore tattoos on their mouths and arms as a rite of passage. Tattoos were also present among the lower classes in the Edo period (1603-1868).
However, from the Kofun period (250-538 CE) up until the Meiji era (1868-1912), tattoos were often used as a punishment for criminals. People who committed serious crimes were tattooed on visible parts of the body as permanent marks of their transgressions. This created the enduring association in Japan of tattoos with criminality and deviance.
During the Edo period, decorative tattooing became popular, particularly among laborers, craftsmen, and firemen. The intricate Japanese tattoo art known as irezumi developed, often covering large parts of the body with elaborate imagery from folklore and nature.
Tattoos were especially prominent within the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Yakuza members would get large, intricate tattoos to demonstrate courage and loyalty to the organization. A ban on tattoos was implemented in the Meiji period to appear “civilized” to the West. This drove tattooing underground.
It was not until after World War II that tattooing was legalized in Japan, in 1948. However, the activity was still regulated and retained an aura of criminality. Even today, giving and receiving tattoos in Japan occurs in a legal grey area, leading to occasional arrests of tattoo artists.
What is the Current Attitude Towards Tattoos in Japan?
In modern Japan, Western tattoo influences have led to more compact styles including letters, quotes and minimalist images. However, traditional Japanese motifs remain popular. An irezumi sleeve following classical style can take dozens of sessions over several years to complete. Top artists are greatly respected, but often maintain a low profile due to the persisting taboos.
While tattoos have become fashionable globally, including among younger Japanese people, traditional stigma toward people with tattoos persists in Japan. A 2020 survey found that around 60% of Japanese people still consider tattoos to be associated with gangsters.
Tattoos remain taboo or controversial across many sectors of Japanese society. A visible tattoo can harm employment opportunities. Many Japanese with tattoos keep them covered in public. There are still bans on visible tattoos in places like public bathhouses, beaches, pools, gyms and traditional inns.
However, acceptance is gradually increasing, especially among youth. A 2015 survey of over 1,000 Japanese people under the age of 29 found that over 60% supported relaxing rules prohibiting tattoos in hot springs. Around 15% reported having at least one tattoo.
Foreigners with tattoos generally face more acceptance than locals. While tattoos on visitors can still cause discomfort, they are usually perceived as merely cultural differences rather than marks of criminal intent. The Japan Tourism Agency recognizes this and encourages facilities to accommodate tattooed tourists.
What are the Rules Regarding Tattoos in Japan?
There are no nationwide laws banning tattoos in Japan. However, local authorities and businesses often impose restrictions. Public baths, gyms, beaches, onsens and sento frequently prohibit customers with visible tattoos.
The most common justification is to prevent association with criminal organizations like the yakuza. Concerns around hygiene and exposing children to nudity are also cited. Rules arise from local ordinances, business policies or social norms rather than national laws.
Penalties for violating rules range from being denied entry or use of facilities to removal by security or police. While relatively rare, fines have also been issued in some areas for using prohibited facilities.
In 2015, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that banning tattoos is not unconstitutional and businesses have the right to refuse customers with tattoos. However, bans must be clearly displayed and reasonable in scope. For example, requiring removal of clothing to check for tattoos was ruled unjustifiably invasive.
Tips for Tourists With Tattoos Visiting Japan
If you plan on visiting Japan with visible tattoos, here are some tips to help avoid problems:
- Research specific destinations in advance and contact venues to ask about policies. Many now accommodate tattooed foreign guests.
- Book private onsen or baths at hotels, ryokans or resorts for relaxation without public exposure.
- Cover up tattoos when possible in traditional environments like temples, shrines, restaurants and historical sites.
- Use clothing, bandages, rash guards or other methods to conceal tattoos at pools, water parks and public baths.
- Soak in hotel room bathtubs rather than communal facilities if rules are overly strict.
- Remember that rules arise from culture and history, not personal discrimination. Be respectful.
- If visiting onsen, go during less crowded times to avoid making others uncomfortable.
- Consider getting tattoos in less visible spots if possible when traveling in Japan.
Places With Tatoo Bans in Japan
Various places in Japan enforce tattoo bans, including:
- Public baths/onsen
- Pools, beaches, water parks
- Gyms, sports clubs
- Spas, massage parlors
- Amusement parks
- Hotels, ryokans (may prohibit use of baths)
- Some restaurants/bars
Rules arise from policies or local norms rather than national law. Signage may explicitly prohibit tattoos or have more subtle messages about needing a “clean appearance.” Having tattoos doesn’t prevent visiting Japan, but does require caution regarding exposures.
Bathing in onsen (hot springs) and sento (public baths) is a beloved part of Japanese culture. However, tattoos can cause issues at these facilities. Bathhouses often prohibit customers with visible tattoos due to the association with criminality. Rules vary – some places forbid tattoos entirely, while others allow small, discreet ones. Penalties range from denied entry to removal by staff.
To avoid problems, research policies online or by phone before visiting. If rules are strict, consider covering up tattoos, booking private baths or visiting during off-peak hours when it’s less crowded. Tattoo-friendly onsen do exist. The Japan Tourism Agency publishes lists of facilities that allow tattoos. While working to promote understanding, they recommend bathhouses provide tattooed foreign visitors with early/late hours or private baths.
Will Tattoos Ever Be Fully Accepted in Japan?
The younger generation of Japan is leading a major shift in attitudes towards tattoos. A 2019 survey of over 1,400 people found that around 1.4 million Japanese in their 20s and younger have tattoos. Approval is steadily increasing with greater exposure abroad and shifting societal values.
However, the change is gradual. Traditional norms and beliefs persist, especially among older generations. Places of public nudity present barriers due to discomfort exposing tattoos. Full acceptance will likely take considerable time as cultural changes occur slowly in Japan.
While rules and norms continue evolving, visitors should adapt to present conditions and be respectful of local sensibilities. With some discretion and care, tattooed travelers can experience the incredible beauty, history and culture Japan has to offer. A bit of research and planning helps maximize the experience.
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Over time, Japan appears to be moving towards greater acceptance of body art. But for now, tattoos remain controversial and require some delicacy. Be aware of policies, ready to cover up, and understanding of cultural complexity. Patience and cooperation from outsiders combined with pressure from progressive Japanese youth can hopefully integrate tattoos into mainstream society.