No onsen for you: Why tattoos are stigmatised in Japan

Ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, players and supporters alike have been advised by World Rugby to cover their tattoos during the tournament.

Many inked-up tourists have experienced a level of culture shock when travelling in Japan – where tattoos are highly stigmatised and can see you unable to enter some of the country’s most popular tourist activities.

People with tattoos are banned from most onsen (hot springs), sento (public baths), ryokan (traditional inns), pools, gyms and even capsule hotels.

In 2013, Erana Te Haeata Brewerton, a Maori academic visiting Hokkaido for an indigenous languages conference, was denied entry to a hot spring due to her facial ta moko.

The incident caused controversy in Japan and saw one senior cabinet minister say greater respect needed to be shown for foreign cultures – in particular, ahead of events like the Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The current stigma around tattoos is largely due to the association of ink with Japanese organised crime syndicates, or Yakuza. Japan has two tattoo cultures – Western and Yakuza – and while it seems unlikely that a foreign tourist would be confused with one, the rules generally exist to keep gang members out of certain spaces.

However, these attitudes date back to the Edo period (1603-1868), where criminals were punished with tattoos. In the same era, sex workers – known as “Yuujyo” – would also get tattoos to show romantic devotion to their regular customers.

Tattoos started to become illegal in the Meiji period (1868-1912) and were only legalised in 1948 by occupying forces. However, this rule did not apply to foreigners.

While the stigma undoubtedly remains, facilities are beginning to open up to people with tattoos – although a lot of the time, this only applies to tourists and tattooed Japanese people are still locked out.

Having visited Japan while sporting several large tattoos – including a prominent black cat on my forearm – I found myself resigned to being unable to have a good hot spring soak, until I did a bit of research.

Wth a bit of research, I found a tattoo-friendly capsule hotel to stay at – Anshin Oyada Luxury Capsule Hotel in Ogikubo, Toyko. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a sign outside the hotel reading “some of our guests have tattoos, please respect our international visitors”.

So far, so good – I enjoyed a good soak in the hotel’s artificial onsen that night, with all my tattoos on full display.

Attitudes are even beginning to change among the locals, with more younger Japanese people getting inked – albeit quite discreetly most of the time and not necessarily with traditional designs.

And during my trip, one of my nicest interactions was through that black cat tattoo. I was taking my bags up on an elevator in the Ikebukuro train station in Tokyo when a very elderly man pointed at it and said, “tattoo… nice”, before saying “nyanko” – the Japanese word for “kitty”.

So if you’re visiting Japan with a significant amount of ink, be prepared to be turned away from some places, but don’t be too disheartened. The times, they are a-changing.

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