Should Japanese Onsens Relax The No-Tattoo Rule?
My tattoo is colorful and it occupies a good half of my left shoulder. But, it hardly makes me a yakuza member.
Think back to the one time you felt embarrassed, as in red-faced embarrassment, the kind people with a fear of public speaking feel every time they stand in front of a roomful of strangers. Then multiply that feeling by 10.
That would be exactly how I felt when I got asked to leave an onsen last year.
You probably guessed it by now that the reason was because of my tattoos. Well, I’ve had tattoos since I was 21. When I accompanied my Japanese clients to review onsen inns, no one ever took issue with my tattoos. In fact, this was what my client said to me, when I first expressed my concerns about them, “Nowadays, people are more open-minded, especially when it comes to tourists.”
So, imagined my surprise when, there I was sitting buck-naked inside a sauna, a receptionist from Westin Rusutsu came in and told me, “Sumimasen, but because you have tattoos, you cannot use the onsen. Gominasai.”
What can one do in situations like this? When in Rome …
This year, even though my friends with tattoos were successfully admitted into the onsen at Westin Rusutsu, I decided not to try at all. I figured the type of tattoos also have a role to play in whether you’d be accepted into the onsen. Tribal, geometric, and even line tattoos are okay … colorful ones? Not so much.
The No Tattoo rule at onsens stemmed from the fact that they want to keep members of the yakuza (Japanese mafia) out. Yakuza tattoos, as you can see from the image below, cover large areas of the body. They are also luridly colored. The tattoo on my shoulder, unfortuately, is about the size of my palm and vividly painted in blue, purple, and green. Although it’s not a dragon or a devil, the mandela pattern makes it look kinda “religious”.
Although I kept away from onsens this year, I can’t help but wonder if this rule is outdated and due for a facelift.
1. Tattoos are hardly an accurate mark of a criminal today
Criminals in the Edo period were inked to make it hard for them to reenter society and find work. In the past, it was obligatory for yakuza members to get “branded”. However, these days, many of them are opting to maintain a “clean” skin to better blend in with the rest of society.
2. A different rule for “gaijins” maybe?
A survey by the Japanese Tourism Agency in 2015 showed that 56 percent of onsen inns would refuse entry to tattooed guests. The agency felt that since tourists (gaijins) would want to visit onsens, it wouldn’t make sense to impose the No Tattoo rule on them. What’s more, the tattoos on tourists are unlikely to be associated with criminal activities in the first place. Perhaps onsens can be bit more forgiving towards foreigners?
I had hopes that I would be able to use the onsen at the Air Terminal Hotel at New Chitose Airport. After all, it’s an airport with loads of foreigners coming and going through it every day. But when my husband cheekily mentioned to the receptionist that I have a “biiiiig tattoo” on my shoulder, she politely folded the instruction sheet about where to locate the onsen and took back the pass that entitled guests to use the facility for free.
While I was definitely disappointed that I could not make use of the awesome onsens in Japan, I don’t regret my tattoos. The shoulder piece is a cover-up for 2 older tattoos that I felt were too “rough” and “tribal” for a woman my age. I guess over time, maybe the rule will become more forgiving. Until then, I will have to do my research and find out where the tattoo-friendly onsens are.
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