Photo:Jason Lander on Flickr

What To Expect When Traveling To Japan With A Tattoo

Japan is a country of tradition. While that has led to it preserving its culture for generations, the adherence to tradition has some downsides. One of these downsides is the attitude towards people with tattoos.

So what can you expect when traveling to Japan with a tattoo? Well, the simple answer is a lot of mixed responses. A drunk salaryman may tell you in a bar that your tattoo is total cool and then you head out to an onsen and be informed that you are not welcome as your tattoo may ruin the water. It is hard to say for sure if these will happen though. You may walk into an onsen, start chatting to another person in there, then after they leave, you to get approached by a staff member and informed they had received a complaint from the person who just left (this has happened to a friend of mine). 

So, it is hard to give a definitive answer, but that doesn’t mean I cannot provide some insight into travelling Japan with a tattoo. I also recently had my first every tattoed done in Japan, so this is the perfect time to give you a glimpse of what to expect when you make your journey to Japan.

A Brief History of Tattoos in Japan

Photo by Dorotheum on Wikimedia Commons

Before we look at some of the things you can expect having a tattoo and traveling in Japan, let’s have a very brief, and I mean very short, look at the history of tattoos in Japan.

Time ago, tattoos were used as a form of punishment with criminals branded with marks representing the crimes they committed. The brand was usually on their face or other parts of the body where it would be hard to hide. Having one of these brands would essentially mean you are ostracized from communities and avoided. This history alone would be enough to give tattoos a negative stigma, but being used as a brand is not the only thing that influences Japan’s opinion on tattoos.

Photo by Jason Lander on Flickr

The Yakuza, Japan’s mafia, is very well known for their connection to tattoos. When the art of decorative tattoos came to Japan, it gave criminals the chance to hide their brands within the art of a much grander tattoo. Thus, the tradition of Yakuza members being inked began. Members of the group saw their tattoos as symbols of courage and strength and a pledge of allegiance to the Yakuza way of life, but that didn’t stop them furthering the publics association of tattoos with criminal activity. The Yakuza are involved with some of the worst crimes in Japan from sex trafficking to murder. These ties to Yakuza activity has also helped cause fear of tattoos. 

Okay, history lesson over, let’s have a look at how tattoos are viewed in modern-day Japan and how this will affect inked travellers.

Modern Japanese Thoughts on Tattoos

Photo by kill on Flickr.

Opinions on tattoos in modern japan are quite a mixed bag. As you just read, the history of tattoos gave them such a strong connection with criminal activity, that a lot of modern members of the Yakuza forego getting tattooed at all as it would hinder their operations too much. Even removing the connection to criminals, some Japanese people see the art of tattooing your body as an act of disrespect to the body given to you.

The fact is that Japanese society as a whole still views tattoos negatively. Some significant employers will ban their employees from having tattoos, and some government officials seeking to ban all public servants from working with tattoos. Finally, just as recently as 2017, it was made illegal for anybody other than medical doctors to tattoo another person.

Foreigner Power!

Photo by Cassandra Santori on Flickr

All that being said, all that negativity may have you worried about coming to Japan with tattoos, but there is a massive exception to Japanese views on tattoos, and that is foreigners.

Being a foreigner in Japan can sometimes feel like a superpower, as Japanese people are aware that their customs differ significantly from more Western countries and allow much more than they would for a fellow Japanese native. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to tattoos. Most Japanese people know that the negative stigma of tattoos is something exclusive to their culture and therefore are more open to foreigners displaying tattoos. 

Photo by istolethetv on Flickr

This acceptance means that coming to Japan as a tattooed traveller should be a relatively smooth experience. You will still be able to grab conveyer belt sushi, tour Akibahara and get lost in the sea of people that flow through Kyoto as well as many of the countless other reasons people are drawn to Japan. 

Foreigner Power T's and C's

However, there are conditions and limits to foreigner power that you will still need to be aware of during your travels. There are a few restrictions of who can make the most of this power and also areas where this power is not very useful. 

The most critical condition of gaining this power is you have to look foreign. I am sorry to say that those of Japanese heritage that may have been born and raised in Western countries like The United States are unable to claim this power. The reasons are that this power requires that Japanese people can instantly judge that you are not from Japan and therefore do not know their customs. 

Now before we finish up this article, let’s have a look at places where foreigner power may fail you and your tattoos could be a problem.  

To Onsen or Not to ‘Onsen’

Photo by David Stanley on Flickr

Onsens are one of the most beautiful parts of Japanese culture. Experiencing an open-air hot spring is a great way to end any day traveling in Japan. Unfortunately, for tattooed travelers, this may be a hard experience to have. While more and more hot springs are welcoming foreigners with tattoos, they are in the minority. You may be told that your ink will make the water impure or that you will scare the others in the bath, but either way, be realistic and prepare to be rejected from entering and if you’re lucky enough to get in then it’s a bonus on to your trip. 

Beaches are Crazy

Photo by Basile Morin on Wikimedia Commons

If you are planning to travel to Japan in the Summer and are thinking about visiting a Japanese beach to cool off and relax, you may want to rethink this as a tattooed traveller. While most beaches are public spaces, the public in that space may not be too happy with you displaying your tattoos so openly, and a public official may ask that you leave. Just like the previous location, this is dependent on the people surrounding you and their tolerance of tattoos. 

Ryokan More Like Ryo’can’t’

Ryokan, traditional Japanese inns, are definitely on most travelers to Japan’s hit list, but travelers with visible tattoos might want to reconsider depending on the ryokan for accommodation. You are more likely to get away with staying in a ryokan with a tattoo than visiting an onsen as you can, ordinary decency says you should be more covered up in a ryokan than an onsen. Yet, I have highlighted it as you may not be able to stay in one even after booking in advance if you have visible tattoos. 

At The End of the Day

In summary, what is it like traveling in Japan with a tattoo? It’s fine. As a tourist, there is very little you will not be able to do because of having a tattoo, and even the things I have listed are doable in the right places. I have had a tattoo for over a month, and I have to keep it hidden at work, but my colleagues know about it and think it looks great and are very curious about it. I have also been to an onsen, and a ryokan with fellow tattooed friends. All of these friends have had issues with tattoos, but they do not worry about it too much. 

My piece of advice is that coming to Japan with tattoos as a foreign is not much different than coming to Japan without tattoos, but do remember that the more visible a tattoo is, the more likely it may cause trouble. That trouble could mean missing out key parts of Japanese culture.

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