An onsen bathhouse is where people with tattoos tend to encounter difficulties. Rules will often specify tattoos are not permitted. And they normally enforce pretty strictly, unwilling to make an exception for foreign travellers.
At best, they will ask you to use plasters or tape to cover up. At worse, you could be shown the door. It’s not a blanket ban and some bathhouses will allow tattooed customers. But in general a large, conspicuous tattoo could be a problem. The same applies in swimming pools and fitness clubs.
In the UK, one in five people are estimated to have at least one tattoo, and that figure goes up to one in three when just looking at 16 to 44 year olds. People of all backgrounds are joining in. Even Samantha Cameron, the wife of the former prime minister, has gone under the tattoo needle.
In Japan tattoos are not as mainstream because they have a long association with criminality. Japan’s yakuza gangs use ornate full body tattoos as a marker of group loyalty. It’s a rite of passage and an initiation into that underworld. And it’s hard to deny the art in yakuza tattoos is spectacular, taking inspiration from classic Japanese motifs – dragons, lotuses, deities, shoguns.
Anti-tattoo sentiment in Japan bubbled in Osaka in 2012. The right-wing mayor asked 30,000 city employees to reveal whether they had tattoos. Fewer than 100 employees replied in the affirmative, but the mayor said they would need to have the tattoos removed or find jobs in the private sector. The mayor, Toru Hashimoto, is of course the son of a senior yakuza member who was probably covered in tattoos. Freud would have had plenty to say about his vendetta.
There is a feeling in some quarters that the anti-tattoo rules need updating. There have been calls in Hokkeido, famous for its hot springs, for a debate about lifting the ban on tattooed clientele. An increasing number of young Japanese people are getting tattoos that have nothing to do with gangs. But it’s a question of balancing the sensibilities of customers who may be put off by tattoos with the rights of customers with tattoos to enter. In most cases, sticking with the status quo is easier.
It’s largely a generational issue. The older generation finds it harder to shake off the longstanding association of tattoos with criminals. And even if not associated directly with criminality, tattoos are seen as anti-social.
The irony is that tattoos have been a part of Japanese society for centuries. Their tattoo artists gained a reputation for being the best in the world in the 19th century. Such was their reputation that King George V, Tsar Nicholas II and other European royals had tattoos done while on official visits. George V apparently had a red and blue dragon etched into his arm.
In the early 20th century the first crackdown on Japan’s tattoo artists began and carried on until after the Second World War. Post-war tattoo artists kept a low-profile, eeking out a living without earning approval from society. It’s a position that hasn’t really changed much since.
A national crackdown on organised crime in the 2000s forced the Yakuza to rethink whether tattoos are a good idea. According to Japanese police chiefs, the next generation of Yakuza members are “cleanskins”, avoiding tattoos and keeping a lower profile. Tattoo parlours in Japan report that the proportion of Yakuza customers is falling, but the drop is being compensated for by growing interest from normal customers.
As Japan’s tattoo culture changes and the number of non-yakuza getting tattoos increases, the acceptance of tattoos is also likely to change in time. Tattoos are unlikely to ever be as common as they are now in the West. But the association with criminality will at some point soften.
Japan is not at that point yet. So if you’re on a Japan tour and have a tattoo on display, be prepared for a few odd looks! Then get ready to smile, charm, conceal or accept the rules when a bathhouse kicks up a fuss.
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