Relax: The Japanese Government is Chill With Your Tattoos

Relax: The Japanese Government is Chill With Your Tattoos

It’s dark outside, and I’ve found myself bent over a toilet seat with a hand on my bum and a foot in my face. Grunting softly, my companion pushes harder on my exposed posterior – the Band-Aid just won’t stay put. Meanwhile, our other accomplice is gingerly bandaging up her ankle, inspecting for any signs of ink peeping out from the sides.

Our mission? Cover six tattoos using just four Band-Aids (impossible, just in case you were wondering).

Our purpose? To bathe in a traditional Japanese onsen.

Onsen are public bathhouses that source their water from natural hot springs, and are said to improve cardiac health and clear the skin; however, many people simply visit for some good old R&R. Public bathhouses that use heated tap water are called sento, and although generally not as luxurious, they are pretty much indistinguishable from onsen to the untrained Western eye. Whether you plan on visiting an onsen or a sento, you will likely run into the same problem if you have tattoos.

Tattoos in Japan are taboo due to their association with the Yakuza, Japan’s notorious organised crime gang. To paint a picture of how tough these guys are, many members are missing a pinky finger thanks to an initiation process somewhat akin to an extreme college hazing ritual. Naturally, many Japanese citizens are wary of the Yakuza and try to have as little to do with them as possible.

The Yakuza’s association with tattoos came about in the days when tattooing in Japan was used as a form of punishment by law, both for the physical pain it inflicted and the shame it symbolised.

However, middle fingers held firmly to the law, the branded criminals began to reclaim their tattoos by transforming them into individual pieces with their own designs. This was the genesis of irezumi, or the full-back tattoo that many Yakuza members still sport today.

It is because of this tie between tattoos and Japan’s underworld that my friends and I found ourselves in hot water. Because interestingly, although the Yakuza is almost exclusively a men’s only club, the nation-wide prejudice against tattoos also extends to women with ink. Despite wanting to experience bathing in a natural hot spring at the base of Mount Fuji in the nude, we didn’t want to be those baka gaijin (stupid foreigners) disrespecting local customs by strutting in with our inked-up skin. So we continued to tear Band-Aids in half with our teeth and even contemplated drawing blood with the onsen restaurant’s complimentary toothpicks so we could ask for more without sounding suspicious.

For an Australian, it may be hard to understand this fear of the inked. Down Under, getting a tattoo is not exactly a “Fuck the police” statement, but rather, a “Fuck you Mum, I’m 18 and I can do what I want” statement. But in a land that holds dear to cultural traditions, tattoos continue to represent deviance and crime.

Irezumi are designed so that they are undetectable when the owner is wearing a suit, which is handy in pretty much every situation except for one: the public bathhouse. The last thing a bathhouse owner wants is little old men fleeing from the tub when, through the steam, a beefy, inked-up Yakuza emerges wielding a scrubbing brush. The easiest way for bathhouse owners to prevent gang members from scaring off their clientele is to put a blanket ban on tattoos.

But the Japanese government is trying to convince public bathhouse owners to relax their attitudes towards tattoos. A quick browse through Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism website shows a statement from 2016 reading:

“While the number of foreign travellers is expected to increase further in the future, satisfaction is necessary to reduce troubles and to enjoy the hot springs, which is an important tourism resource in Japan.”

Upon reflecting on my bathhouse visits in Japan, the reason for needing to attract tourists became glaringly obvious: the baths are used predominantly by elderly Japanese people. The reason for this was explained in an article in the Japan Times, stating that after WWII, many citizens were left without a place to bathe when their homes were destroyed, which led to scores of public bathhouses being hurriedly opened. This was labelled the “Golden Era” of public bathhouses, with the number of establishments peaking in 1970. Although most houses in Japan are now fitted with baths, public bathing had already developed into an important ritual amongst those who grew up in the aftermath of WWII, serving not only as place to wash, but also a means to socialise and rejuvenate.

But once this generation kicks the proverbial bucket, what will become of the bathhouses they used to frequent? In order to survive, bathhouse owners need to cater to young people and tourists, and the government has recognised that allowing tattoos will be a significant factor in achieving this.

The Japanese government hopes to reach a target of seeing 40 million international tourists visit the year of the Tokyo Olympics. It is concerned though, that by barring tattooed tourists, bathhouses are denying a significant contribution to Japan’s economy. Luckily for any athletes sporting the classic Olympic ring tattoo, there are encouraging statistics to suggest that tattoo-friendly bathhouses are on the rise. A 2015 survey conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency of 660 Japanese bathhouses, found that 31 per cent of facilities allowed tattoos, with a further 13 per cent permitting tattoos if they are covered.

During my time in Tokyo, I came across Saito-Yu onsen, a modest yet salubrious establishment which has been tattoo-friendly since its opening in 1934. A staff member (who preferred not to be named), kindly agreed to answer some questions about the relationship between tattoos and onsen.

He told me that over the past three years, the number of tattooed tourists coming into Saito-Yu has increased to around 10 per day. At around 500 yen per visit, that means tattooed tourists are bringing 5,000 yen per day, which equates to 1,825,000 yen per year, or around $22,000 AUD – a significant contribution to Japan’s economy for just one of the many bathhouses in the country. It is understandable that the government is desperate to find a solution that both gives tourists the right to bear ink, and bathhouse owners peace of mind that they won’t be barraged with felons once they open their doors to tattooed patrons.

Some of the government’s recommendations for addressing this include bathhouses providing patches for patrons to cover their tattoos with, listing separate opening times for people with tattoos and delegating certain bathing areas to people with tattoos. Although the core issue here is bathhouse owners not wanting to attract Yakuza members, the Government recognises it would be immoral to create different rules for tourists and locals. Of course, any kind of cultural change is always going to take time (especially in a profoundly traditional country such as Japan), but while the issue of organised crime in Japan is tackled separately, the recommendations seem like a good place to start.

As my friends and I descended into the steamy spring water, I felt a pang of guilt for dishonouring the “no tattoo” rule. Was I really any better than those American tourists dissing the custom that prohibits speaking loudly on the train, whilst speaking loudly on the train? But while some rules are clearly created for the good of society, others are made to be broken. So if you’re planning a trip to Japan in the next few years, don’t cancel that tattoo appointment – Shinzo Abe gives you his blessing.

Cover by Oskar Krawczyk 

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