SAITAMA – Due to their association with criminality, tattoos have long been stigmatized in Japan, but restrictions are loosening at public bathhouses around the country as facilities aim to benefit from the influx of tourists in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Most venues still ban people with “irezumi,” or traditional full-body tattoos sported by yakuza, which can be hidden under clothes but are particularly conspicuous in nude situations such as bath houses.
However, some facilities are allowing tattooed people to enter, provided their ink is covered by patches.
Ofuro Cafe utatane, a bathhouse near Omiya in Saitama Prefecture that receives around 250,000 visitors annually, started providing stickers to cover tattoos in August. It said the patches have been a success with Japanese youth and foreign tourists, who wear their tattoos as fashion statements or for religious reasons and are unaffiliated with organized crime.
“We want to spread the onsen (hot springs) culture to many people,” the facility’s manager said. “I think there will be a lot of debate about this, and so we want to continue to assess whether or not there are any complaints or trouble.”
Tattooed bathers can take a dip as long as they cover up with a 12.8 cm x 18.2 cm patch, which costs ¥200 (about $1.60). Staff in the reception area and inside the dressing rooms check to make sure the tattoos are out of view.
The company operating Ofuro Cafe, Onsen Dojo, based in Tokigawa, Saitama Prefecture, said several bathers have used the patches since August, adding that some have also used them to hide surgical scars.
According to the Japan Tourism Agency, in the first survey of its kind released last month questioning Japanese inns and hotels, 56 percent said they do not allow body tattoos in their bathing facilities. But 31 percent said they do not turn tattooed bathers away, while 13 percent said body tattoos are permitted under certain conditions.
The agency said it received responses from 581 facilities from the 3,768 survey questionnaires sent out in June.
As a condition for entry, some facilities said they will prepare patches for tattooed bathers to cover body art or said they are willing to allow guests to reserve private baths in certain cases.
A 24-year-old beautician from the city of Saitama who visited the Ofuro Cafe in late October said thanks to the patches she no longer has to worry about her friend’s tattoo getting them barred from entry.
“I haven’t been able to come with her to an onsen, but it’ll be okay because of this,” she said.
A 40-year-old company employee said he has no problem with people entering the bath with tattoos as long as they can be covered up.
“If it’s something extreme I’d be surprised, but I don’t mind as long as you can cover them to a certain degree,” he said.
According to Onsen Dojo, while there is no law against people entering bathhouses with body tattoos, many facilities have banned it to exclude members of criminal organizations.
The Japan Tourism Agency, for the time being, said it aims to avoid trouble and help forge mutual understanding between foreign tourists and Japanese bathing facilities.
Through its website and other means, the agency will aim to explain Japan’s traditional aversion to tattoos to foreign guests. At the same time, it hopes to foster an understanding at bathing facilities that in some foreign countries people get tattooed for religious reasons.