Japan is famous for its spas (or “onsen”) featuring luxurious hot springs or mineral baths. Many tourists travel to Japan just for the spa experience, or at least discover the appeal of the country’s hot bath obsession soon enough.
Those who happen to sport a tattoo, however, have not been so lucky. Inked patrons are usually denied entry to Japanese spas—often with explicit signage—and that includes foreigners.
The reason for the tattoo taboo in Japan is that body ink, or “irezumi,” is most commonly associated with the unsavory of society, either yakuza organized crime syndicates or generally anti-social people.
But the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) wants to change all that.
On March 16, in a bid to attract more tourists, the JTA asked spa operators across the country to start admitting foreigners who have tattoos.
The JTA says the initiative is based on a survey it conducted last year of 3,768 hotels and ryokans (traditional Japanese style hotels). They found nearly 70 percent of those surveyed would bar someone with a visible tattoo from bathing at their facility.
Specifically, 56 percent said they have a ban in place, and 13 percent said they allow tattooed guests as long as they cover them up; 31 percent said they do allow guests with tattoos.
With foreign tourism starting to soar in Japan—traditionally domestic tourism has been a much bigger market share—the government wants to ensure all overseas visitors feel welcome.
The JTA offers several suggestions to spa operators for how best to implement the change so as to not frighten their Japanese guests, such as providing stickers to bathers to cover up their tattoos and setting special times when inked foreigners can use the facilities.
Historically in Japan—from about the Kofun period (300-600 AD) to the Edo period (1600-1868)—tattoos were branded on criminals as a kind of Scarlet Letter, although the practice fluctuated over time. During the Edo period, decorative tattooing as an art form became a fashionable thing, but in the Meiji period (1868-1912), tattoos were banned outright and thus became associated with criminal elements, which has carried forward until today.
Most spa operators in Japan are unaware that there are different cultural norms surrounding tattoos in other countries. But the JTA is hoping to change that.