If you visit Japan as a tourist you may not be allowed on beaches, at spas, in public swimming pools or at the hot springs if you have visible tattoos. Originally, this was to keep away criminals and gang members, who often had tattoos, but has grown into a modern problem for tourists, as well as a younger generation of Japanese people who want to embrace body art. While Japan is becoming more accepting of tattoos, particularly for tourists, the country still holds a strong perception that tattoos are a sign of gangs, crime and violence and should not be allowed. Despite this, Japan is home for some of the greatest tattoo artists in the world and the country holds a prominent place in the art and images used in tattoos.

The history of Japanese tattoos

The taboo of tattoos in Japan was reinforced in the 17th century when the association with crime grew strong as people who broke the law or were deemed morally wrong would be marked with the words of what they had done wrong, such as ‘thief’ and ‘adulterer’. Slaves were also marker with their master’s name to show ownership, giving further negative connotations. The 19th century saw a complete ban on tattoos until 1948 when American forces lifted it. Gangs started to use tattoos again to proudly show off what crimes they had committed and who they were loyal to. Today, many Japanese people believe in Confucian values, which revolve around Chinese ethics and family. In line with these beliefs, a person shouldn’t disrespect or alter their body in any way as it is considered a gift passed down to them from their parents.

Is tattooing illegal in Japan?

While it is frowned upon to have a tattoo in Japan, it’s considered even worse to be an artist giving tattoos as you’re enabling people and practicing a condemned profession. There are no specific laws around tattooing in Japan, but it is considered a medical procedure and therefore should only be carried out by a doctor. This means that tattoo artists are violating the Medical Practitioner’s Act, so are technically illegally inking people and can face imprisonment or a hefty fine. Due to this, a lot of shops and parlors are set up from artists own homes or underground, meaning health and safety isn’t being prioritized. Becoming a licensed medical practitioner costs a lot of money and takes a long time, so it isn’t a practical option for tattoo artists. Instead, they are pushing for a change in the law that accepts tattoos as a form of self-expression and focuses on the health and safety standards that should be met.

Tattooed tourists in Japan

With the upcoming 2020 Olympics being hosted by Japan, the country is set to see a lot of competing athletes and foreign tourists with tattoos. Foreigners who are clearly tourists who have tattoos tend to be more accepted than a local Japanese person with tattoos, partly because Japanese people will accept that the culture is different where tourists come from. However, many public swimming pools, spas and hot springs do not allow entry for anyone with visible tattoos and many tourists will still be treated with apprehension and as outcasts, depending on which part of Japan they visit. For foreigners going to Japan for work, such as teaching English as a foreign language, they are seen to be in a position of authority and so need to meet the expected standards for appearance, including hiding tattoos. It’s not uncommon for parents of students to request the school to dismiss teachers with tattoos if they find out.

The taboo is changing

Japan is becoming more open minded about tattoos, especially for tourists, and it’s likely that the 2020 olympics will assist with this. One third of tourists visit Japan specifically for the hot springs, known as onsen, yet more than half of the springs ban tattooed guests from entering. Increased tourism in Japan means there are more people wanting to spend money to visit the onsens and owners are being pushed to accept them. The Japanese Tourism Agency asked onsen owners to permit tattooed tourists to enter springs in 2016, showing a shift in their attitudes.

However, they can still ban Japanese locals with tattoos from entering. This discrimination towards Japanese people with tattoos dates back to the 19th century when it became illegal for Japanese people to get tattoos, but the same law didn’t apply to tourists.

The 2020 Olympics will likely to have a big impact on the Japanese attitudes towards tattoos as they see a huge increase in tourists visiting the country, many of whom will have tattoos. While the Japanese government are encouraging tourist attractions to be more accepting of tourists with tattoos, their opinion of local guests with tattoos remains the same. However, the increase of tourists may help to alter opinions, along with artists pushing for a change in the law and a younger generation that are more accepting and open minded.