Spring and early Summer means relaxation, travel, and for many people, it also means a visit to an Onsen (温泉; natural hot springs).  As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of them, and visiting one is a must during a trip to the land of the rising sun.  This could prove a bit difficult for some, however, as Japan has quite stringent rules against Tattoos in Onsen, baths, swimming pools, and even on some beaches.  Those draconian rules present a big conundrum, as Onsen particularly are a part of Japanese culture many tourists from other countries, and inked Japanese alike, would like to experience.  There’s nothing quite like the ultimate relaxation of easing yourself slowly into the steaming bath and feeling the tension and stress leave your body, like the steam rising from the water all around you.  It’s a tradition the Japanese have revered for centuries, and thus the history of Onsen in Japan is quite long, as is the almost equally long history of a taboo on tattoos.

woman with full body tattoo bathing

Many people think since time immemorial, tattooed people have been banned from entering Onsen and generally shunned in Japan – at least that’s the Mantra that’s repeated over and over again on these shores. Ask anyone to explain the reason for this vilification and most will probably blame the Yakuza.  Those who are better-informed, might even trace the roots of the negative attitudes against Tattoos to the 17th century, when criminals were tattooed as a form of punishment.  Those explanations for Japan’s longstanding aversion toward Tattoos are, at best, an oversimplification, however.

With regards to the sudden influx of tourists, should Japan keep this custom/attitude, or should they adapt it to accommodate the almost universally changing societal norms regarding tattoos?  As Japan is looking forward to modernise and reinvent itself before, during, and after the 2020 Olympics, there’s currently a big debate raging, about whether or not to be more lenient of tattoos in Onsen.  We should note at this point, that there is a marked difference between true Onsen (温泉) and Sento (銭湯).  Sentō, or public baths are much more accepting of tattooed guests, and thus it’s not that uncommon to see people (perhaps even Yakuza members) there.  Onsen, on the other hand have barred Tattoos completely.

No Tattoos Sign

With the Olympics moving ever closer, the influx of not only tourists, but also foreign workers is already easily apparent in Japan. In most other cultures, tattoos don’t have quite the same kind of negative stigma they have here, and are actually more, rather than less socially accepted these days.
Tattoos and Japan, however, have had a love/hate relationship for a long time.  While a certain style of tattooing comes from Japan, and there are quite a few extremely talented Tattoo Artists on these shores; traditionally, people with Tattoos are barred from entering Onsen or public pools due to the associated imagery with the mafia.
  You see, it is said, in the olden days, apparently quite a few mafia members scared bathing guests, and generally caused quite a ruckus in public bathing facilities – especially in Onsen.  That behaviour, alongside the fear for one’s own personal safety, drove away the clientele, and since then, effectively all Onsen have banned anyone with a tattoo.  Seems like a simple enough explanation.  But this is the aforementioned oversimplification – there has got to be more to this story, right?
This is a uniquely Japanese belief, which many people from western countries in particular, have complained about – especially if they still possess both of their pinkies (more on that later). They simply cannot understand that even though its readily apparent that they aren’t in any way, shape, or form associated with the Japanese crime syndicate, their choice of body-modification is the only factor that separates them from the sweet bliss of bathing in the natural hot spring waters.

There are two sides to this whole debate:

Tradition: People are saying that it’s tradition to prevent people with ink entering an Onsen, since surely tattooed people are ALL bad and/or members of the Yakuza – probably both; even if they’re clearly not Japanese, or don’t speak a lick of Nihongo.
According to the latest statistics, a whopping 56% of Hotels bar visitors with tattoos from entering their bathing facilities.
Business Potential: A growing number of Onsen have seen the business potential tourists (most of whom are probably not associated with the Japanese Mafia, nor could spot a true Yakuza member if s/he stood right next to them) can bring, and have since implemented new policies which allow people with small to medium-sized tattoos to enter, provided they cover their tats. Some places even go as far as providing their patrons with patches to help cover up the tattoos.

The very ink, with which history is written, is merely fluid prejudice  -Mark Twain

With Japan’s aim of welcoming up to 20 Million tourists annually, is it still feasible to hold on to ancient beliefs and discriminate against all tattooed people, regardless if they are Japanese or not – especially in the modern world with rapidly-changing societal norms?

At this point, you may be wondering where this arcanely draconian no-tattoo policy originated. To understand the Japanese mind and its aversion to the permanently inked, we have to look at the history of tattoos in Japan.

Let’s try to shine some light on this subject:

Japanese man with full-body tattoo

Commonly referred to as Irezumi (入れ墨), lit. “to insert ink”, Tattoos actually have a long-standing history in Japan, dating back thousands of years:

Tattooed man sitting on a casket of Sake

5000 BC
Although there were references in scrolls, artefacts, and ancient places of worship for a long time before, the art of tattooing in Japan is thought to have officially started in the Jomon period (14,000 – 300 BC). Tattoos in this time-period were often used for spiritual and decorative purposes, and were widely accepted.

Around 297 AD
After thousands of years refining the art, In the Yayoi Period (300 BC-300AD), they became quite popular and were remarked upon by Chinese visitors (merchants, etc.). According to the ancient texts, “Japanese men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs.”  Due to the pain and the cost associated with them, Tattoos became a status symbol.  Although mentioned in various Chinese historical records of the time, they were almost always portrayed in a negative way, since the Chinese considered tattooing to be a sign of barbarism and used it only as punishment.

7th Century AD
By the time of early seventh century, the rulers of Japan had adopted much of the same culture, style and attitude of the Chinese, and as a result decorative tattooing fell into official disfavour.

720 AD The first record of Japanese tattooing as punishment was mentioned in a historical text: “The Emperor summoned before him Hamako, Muraji of Azumi and commanded him saying: You have plotted to rebel and overthrow the state. This offence is punishable by death. I shall, however, confer great mercy on you by remitting the death penalty and sentence you to be tattooed.”

17th Century
By the early seventeenth century, there was a generally accepted codification of tattoo marks used to identify criminals and outcasts in Japan. Outcasts were tattooed on the arms: a cross might be tattooed on the inner forearm, or a straight line on the outside of the forearm or on the upper arm.
By the end of the seventeenth century, penal tattooing had been largely replaced by other forms of punishment. One of the main reasons is that decorative tattooing became popular, and criminals covered their penal tattoos with larger decorative ones. This also marked the historical origin of the association of tattooing and organized crime in Japan.

18th Century
Pictorial tattooing flourished during the eighteenth century with the popular culture of Edo (Tokyo), which influenced many aspects of the Japanese culture: Kabuki, Ukiyo-e, and Woodblock Prints are just some examples. Early in the 18th century, publishers needed illustrations for novels, and theatres needed advertisements for their plays, which led to the development of  the Japanese wood block print; which paralleled, and had great influence on, the development and cultural popularity of the art of tattooing. Because of the now common association between tattooing and criminal activity, tattooing was outlawed on the grounds that it was “deleterious to public morals.”
Tattoos, being as resilient as they are, continued to flourish with firemen, labourers, and other people not belonging to the upper classes, however.  Due to the pain involved (especially at the time) with getting a tattoo, and the permanence of them, the Yakuza adopted this practice as a proof of courage.
Right around the middle of the 18th century, the popularity of tattooing was further stimulated by a popular Chinese novel, Suikoden, in which many of the heroes were extensively tattooed.  The Japanese version of it was illustrated by a variety of artists, and featured new interpretations of the tattoos described in the novel.  This novel (and especially the new illustrations) had a huge influence on all Japanese arts and culture.

19th Century
After restoring an emperor to the throne, The laws against tattooing were strictly enforced because the new rulers feared that Japanese customs would seem barbaric and ridiculous to Westerners (whom they were now doing a lot of business/trading with).  Ironically, there was a loophole in the anti-tattoo laws at the time: Japanese Tattoo Artists were not forbidden from tattooing foreigners.  This was great news, as many went on to establish quite profitable Tattoo Parlours around Tokyo and Yokohama.  Word quickly spread of their skills, and they garnered some very high-profile clients, including the Duke of York (George V.), and Czar Nicholas II, just to name a few.

20th Century
As the war with China broke out, tattooing was once again made completely illegal, since people (men) with Tattoos were thought to have discipline problems and thus could not be drafted.  As a result, the Tattoo Artists went underground, so to speak, and continued to work in secret.  The laws against tattooing and having tattoos have been mostly lifted since the war ended, but the stigma still remains to this day.

The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have tattoos, and those who are afraid of people with tattoos.

-Anonymous

You see, due to cultural indoctrination, to the average Japanese person, seeing a tattooed individual (especially in a public bath) is like seeing Ozzy Osbourne at a Bat exhibit in a Zoo.  It might be Ok, but there’s the slight hint of a possibility that things could escalate to head-biting levels pretty quickly – at least in their minds.

Now that we know the (extensive) history, where does that leave modern Japan?  Is the “tradition” really as sound and unchanging as most people would have you believe?
More and more Japanese people are getting tattoos these days, as the stigma of criminal association is getting less with each passing year.  As a matter of fact, some rumours are flying around that the Yakuza are now actually discouraging their new members from getting inked.  Let’s recap: More regular people (including many businessmen and women) are getting tattooed, while the Yakuza are advising new members against it.  Funny how times change, ey?

While I personally believe that maybe a pinkie check at the door might be a more effective anti-yakuza deterrent than barring people with Tattoos altogether, some brave Onsen owners are slowly changing their tune and taking that first step by allowing inked people to enter, IF (and only if) they agree to cover up their body art.  Some places even provide waterproof stickers for this very purpose: As long as a single sticker, measuring approximately 8cm x 10cm manages to fully cover your tattoo, you’ll be granted access to the bathing facilities.  A good first step in the right direction?  -Perhaps.

Tourism in Japan has seen a huge jump in recent years, and sensing a huge potential income loss by not allowing tattooed people access, even the Japanese Government has recently encouraged hot springs to ease their tattoo restrictions.  Of course, full-body, or basically anything bigger than CD-size is still very much frowned upon, as those kinds of tattoos cannot be easily covered, but (cue Dylan) “the times they are a changing”…

Tattoo artists have confirmed the lessening popularity of tattoos among Yakuza. Their diverse new clientele includes businessmen, female executives (often requesting climbing carps to inspire their struggles versus corporate sexism) and relatives seeking permanent memorials for those loved ones they lost to the recent two great Japan Earthquakes.

Overall, there seems to be a resurgence in tattooing that suggests it is as widespread and popular today as it was in its Edo-era glory days. Perhaps the current inspiration is the same as in those days — unprecedented frustration at an entrenched governing class that stifles the majority into unyielding, intransigent social roles.

There’s even a website (in Japanese) now, which categorises tattoo-friendly Onsen in Japan:  Tattoo-Spot.

Now it’s finally your turn to voice your opinions on this.  Do you think Japan’s traditional Onsen policy should remain as permanent as dermal ink, or should they relax their “no tattoo” policies in light of the recent social changes, and the projected huge boost in tourism?

Let us know in the comments section below.

Photo credit: via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA