Change could lead to a significant increase in foreign visitors, proponents argue.
Over time, international travelers’ willingness to experience certain parts of local culture can change remarkably. Not so long ago, it wasn’t unusual for visitors to Japan to feel squeamish about eating raw fish or baffled at the idea of waiting in line for a lowly bowl of noodles, but now most would argue that your Japan experience isn’t complete without sampling the country’s amazing sushi and ramen.
Likewise, more and more foreign travelers are showing an interest in dipping a toe in Japan’s hot spring, or onsen, traditions, even if communal bathing isn’t something that’s done in their own countries. This presents a bit of a problem, though when the West’s growing acceptance with body art bumps up against Japan’s preexisting images about tattoos.
For generations in Japan, it was almost exclusively yakuza who had tattoos. Recently, more young Japanese people than in the past have been showing an interest in tattoos from a fashion and personal style standpoint, but inked flesh is still far more common in Japan’s criminal underworld than the law-abiding sectors of its society. Because of this, hot springs in Japan commonly bar individuals with tattoos from entering their baths, since the relaxing atmosphere that draws onsen fans tends to be somewhat disrupted when sharing the tub with a mobster.
However, these restrictions also can also cut off visiting tourists’ access to hot springs. Since the Japan Tourism Agency, part of the government’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, is all about making it easier for people from abroad to travel to and in Japan, the organization recently released a statement encouraging hot spring operators to relax their no-tattoo policies. Such a move would not only expand their potential customer base, but would also make Japan as a whole a more attractive travel destination for tattooed tourists. If hot spring operators are reluctant to allow the open display of tattoos, the agency suggests giving bathers the choice of placing adhesive covers over their ink, or at least allowing them to use private bathing facilities.
The economic fortunes of an onsen are heavily dependent on the purity of its water, but the Japan Tourism Agency asserts that the ink from a tattoo poses no contamination threat. As for the mental images of yakuza that tattoos can conjure up, membership in Japan’s organized crime syndicates is predominantly Japanese and virtually entirely Asian, so an obvious foreign national with “Go Lakers!” tattooed across his bicep or a butterfly on her calf is unlikely to produce extreme uneasiness among the other bathers.
However, hot spring operators are understandably averse to the idea of putting up notices stating “Tattoos are OK…but only if you’re a foreigner!” Still, proponents of relaxing restrictions feel that even if tattooed people of any nationality are allowed to use the onsen, inked Japanese will refrain from doing so, out of consideration to existing cultural attitudes, and thus a change in policy will not result in an increased yakuza presence in the baths.