11 Sep 2019 in Discover Japan
Are tattoos always taboo in Japan? Discover tips on travelling with tattoos.
Japan has a famously complicated relationship with tattoos. If you have visible tattoos, you may find yourself banned from certain traditional institutions, such as ryokan inns and hot spring baths (onsen). But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out.
Some onsen, including those at Hoshino Resorts, welcome guests who cover their tattoos with stickers, and, by planning ahead, you should be able to avoid negative reactions to your inked art. What’s more, young people are increasingly open, and tattoos won’t raise too many eyebrows in contemporary environments, including most big cities.
But why are many Japanese mistrustful of tattoos? What is the history of inked art in Japan? And how can tattooed travellers make the most of their visit while remaining respectful of local culture?
We investigate the history and culture of tattoos in Japan.
A complex history
You may have heard that tattoos are associated with the yakuza (Japanese mafia). And, while that is true, the Japanese suspicion of tattoos is much more deep-rooted than that.
Despite the relative rarity of tattoos in Japan, the country actually has a long tradition of the art form and played an important role in their worldwide development. It is thought that Neolithic people used to tattoo their faces, and there is written evidence of people in Japan being tattooed for decorative and tribal purposes from the 3rd century.
Over time, the image of tattoos changed, and by the 18th century, the art form came to be seen in a dim light, associated with the lower classes and with criminals, who were tattooed as part of their punishment.
By the end of the 19th century, the Meiji government had banned tattoos for Japanese people, although foreign sailors continued to be tattooed and helped spread the popularity of Japanese-style tattoos around the world.
It wasn’t until 1948, under American occupation, that tattoos were relegalized – but the negative connotations remained. And their image was further worsened by the adoption of tattoos by the yakuza.
While attitudes are slowly changing, especially among the younger generation, tattoos are still banned in most places where you are required to display your body, such as onsen, pools and gyms. Many companies also require employees to cover their tattoos during working hours.
The art form itself has an unclear legal status, as it is not licenced or regulated. One tattooist in Osaka was famously prosecuted in 2015 under an obscure law requiring a medical licence for anyone using a needle to pierce skin.
And yet, Japan’s current crop of tattoo artists are highly regarded, especially those practicing traditional tebori irezumi, a time-consuming style that involves tattooing by hand using a wooden rod with a metal needle. Artists such as Horiyoshi III have found fame exhibiting their work internationally.
Tips for tattooed travellers
If you’re visiting Japan with tattoos, there are a few precautions you can take to make sure you make the most of your stay and don’t upset anyone.
If you need to temporarily cover up your tattoo, clothing accessories are your best option. Keep a lightweight scarf, long-sleeve top or arm covers in your bag so you can slip them on when necessary. It’s a handy solution when visiting a temple, for example.
Planning to visit a ryokan or onsen? Then check ahead, as many have a complete ban on tattoos. Fortunately, a number of ryokan and onsen will accept guests that cover their inked art.
Hoshino Resorts revised its policy several years ago, enabling guests to stay at Japanese-style ryokans such as Hoshino Resorts KAI Nikko and enjoy the public hot spring baths if they cover their tattoos with complimentary stickers.
You can choose from a range of different-sized “foundation tape” stickers to cover your inked art, with the largest measuring 95 x 140mm. No more than 4 stickers can be used, but if you have full-body tattoos, you can still enjoy the hot spring experience by reserving a private onsen.
Many resorts offer rooms with a private onsen. On the Izu peninsula, for example, Hoshino Resorts KAI Ito is a recently-renovated ryokan with rooms adjoined by hot springs on a private wooden terrace or a private garden.
As a tattooed traveller in Japan, you may have to think ahead a little, but by respecting the local culture and being prepared to cover up occasionally, you’ll find that you get even more from your stay.