Japan is in the midst of a massive tourist boom. The administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has made promotion of tourism a priority, and sees it as a lynch-pin of Japan’s economic growth. And it’s no wonder: a combination of world-renowned hospitality, a deep history and rich tapestry of traditions, and the abundance of wonderful food make Japan a must-see for any world traveler.
But with great tourism comes great travail. The country’s declining population means its businesses are chronically short-handed – which has led some tourism-related industries to resort to technology to boost their labor supply. The boon has also led to some friction between residents of Japan and tourists, with residents complaining of rising prices, and of foreigners who are unaware of local manners and customs.
Perhaps one of the most interesting culture clashes, however, involves tattoos.
Tourists who flock to Japan tend to gravitate towards Japan’s famous onsen (温泉), or hot springs, which are plentiful in the volcanically active island nation. According to a study by the Ministry of Tourism, some 26% of all visitors to Japan report wanting to go to a hot spring. Of the 33% who did go on a given visit, 41% reported wanting to go back – making hot springs a great source of repeatable tourism revenue for the nation.
Naturally, more than a few of these tourists have one or more visible tattoos; in some cases, they’re covered with them. That poses a problem for entering a hot spring in Japan, where tattoos remain a major cultural taboo. While tattooing is now accepted as a form of art and self-expression in the United States and other countries, the practice is shunned in Japan, and is in fact strongly associated with the yakuza (ヤクザ), members of Japan’s organized crime groups.
As a result, many hot springs outright prohibit anyone with tattoos from entering a hot spring or a public bath. Because they’re so strongly associated with crime, Japanese residents who spot someone adorned with tattoos suspect they’re bathing with yakuza – which makes for a less than relaxing soak. This rule is rapidly becoming an issue for hot springs, which stand to lose tourist dollars if they turn away visitors from countries with a different cultural outlook on tattooing.
Branded as a Bandit: How Tattoos Became Criminal
How did tattoos earn such a bad rep in Japan in the first place?
According to Japanese informational site AllAbout, tattooing is thought by some historians to be a practice dating back to the Jomon era in Japan. As we discussed in another article, the practice is also prevalent among Ainu women in Hokkaido, who tattoo their hands before marriage, and then tattoo their lips with a dark black ink once wedded.
But in the Nara and, again, the Edo eras of Japan, customs changed, and tattoos were used for another purpose: branding criminals. In the old state of Kishuu (present-day Wakayama), a criminal would have a tattoo put on their arm to signify their criminal status to the public. If they were a habitual offender, they would have either the character 大 (dai; great) or 犬 (inu; dog) permanently etched into their foreheads.
Tattooing was made explicitly illegal in 1872 by an order of the Grand State Council of Meiji Japan. Although the law was repealed in 1948, the association with organized crime lingered. It was reinforced as yakuza used the practice of tattooing to prove their loyalty to their syndicate. It’s a stigma that remains in Japanese culture to this day.
Asa result, according to the FNN article linked above, some 55.9% of all hot springs forbid people from entering with tattoos. Of those polled, 58.6% say the prohibition is for “health and sanitary reasons”; however, it’s impossible to say whether that’s a real reason, or a safe-facing excuse to cover up a general unease over tattoos.
Oita Prefecture Welcomes Your Tattooed Ass
Now, obviously, Japanese business owners aren’t stupid. The growing awareness around the importance of tourism to the Japanese economy is causing many to rethink their tattoo ban, leading to a greater number of hot springs that welcome foreigners regardless of tattoo status. However, it can be hard for non-Japanese-speaking visitors to know which facilities can accommodate them.
One Japanese municipality that’s gone whole hog in tackling this problem is Oita Prefecture (大分県). Oita, known as the “onsen prefecture”, is home to a number of spectacular hot spring resorts in cities such as Beppu. Oita is also hosting the 2019 World Cup in October, which means it expects a huge influx of foreign tourists.
In response, both the prefecture and its cities have started an intense campaign to educate foreign visitors on the hot spring resorts in the area that eagerly welcome the inked. Recently, Beppu introduced a web site explaining the issue to foreigners in English. The site is accompanied by a map that lists the 100+ hot springs in the area where people with tattoos won’t be turned away.
Now the prefecture itself has announced that, on March 18th, it’ll unveil a Web site for the whole prefecture giving tourists a guide to “Tattoo OK” hot springs in the entire prefecture. It’s the first time a Japanese prefecture has led such an extensive effort. The head of Oita prefecture’s International Tourism unit, Kawshima Eiichirou, says the decision came out of an international hot springs resort owners meeting hosted in Beppu last year, with the meeting leading Oita officials to conclude that Japan’s “hot springs prefecture” needed to set an example for the rest of the country.
Cultural biases are hard to shake, so it’s understandable that the tattoo issue has been a tough nut to crack in Japan. Hopefully, with Oita Prefecture leading the way, more tourists can feel at ease taking advantage of Japan’s amazing onsen.