More bathhouses allowing tattooed patrons, provided body art is ‘patched’


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.

  • J.P. Bunny

    What about those who are disturbed by body patches? How do I know that the person with several patches isn’t covering up some awful, festering skin disease? “We want people from all over the world to discover and enjoy traditional Japanese bathing. But please cover up your body art as we may mistake you for a traditional Japanese gangster.”

  • Yuki

    I’d be kind of freaked out if I got in an onsen and there was someone with a tattoo there… but the patch is kind of not much better, bee you know there’s one beneath it.

    • blondein_tokyo

      I’m 155cm, 56kg, blonde, blue eyes. I have a fairy tattooed on my shoulder.

      Does that scare you? Just wondering.

  • Yuki

    I’d be kind of freaked out if I got in an onsen and there was someone with a tattoo there… but the patch is kind of not much better, bee you know there’s one beneath it.

  • GBR48

    Tramp-stamped caucasians are unlikely to be members of Japanese crime syndicates. It may have been a convenient way to exclude Westerners, presumed to not know the unwritten rules of behaviour in such intimately communal places. If you don’t speak someone’s language, it is difficult to ask them to stop lathering up their armpits in your onsen.

    Most of us do research local cultural issues before first arriving in a foreign country. For lazier tourists, a multilingual guide might suffice.

    A temptoo is a fashion statement, because fashions change and so can they. Tattoos are for life. If you wouldn’t want to wear the same item of clothing or necklace, or have the same hair style every day for the rest of your life, you might want to think twice about getting one.

    Whilst traditional, high-end body art can be outstandingly beautiful, it is pleasant to be in a nation where most people don’t feel an irrepressible need to graffiti themselves.

    • thedudeabidez

      Your preferences should not be confused with people’s rights.. There is no law against getting tattooed, therefore, there should be no reason to bar such people entry from a place of business. To dislike tatts aesthetically is fine; to actively discriminate against people in terms of employment (as Hashimoto tried to do down in Osaka) or access to public spaces (Zushi Beach) is not.

      If a majority of Japanese people find obesity offensive, would it be ok to bar entry to the overweight? Once you start disregarding the law, there is no end to prejudices that can be applied as barriers.

      • GBR48

        There is no law to stop me attending a funeral in a mankini, drunk and bursting into song, but I wouldn’t do it because it would be culturally inappropriate. If you are in an onsen then you’re not in Kansas any more.

      • wayfound

        GBR48’s tone makes it tempting to disagree with him, but referring to a tattoo as a permanent piece of fashion is spot on.

        If you consider a tattoo being a piece of (permanent) clothing and a choice, an onsen banning tattoo’s becomes no different than a bar/lounge in Japan refusing you entry when you do not dress smart casual instead but show up in shorts and flipflops instead.

      • blondein_tokyo

        No, it’s really not. Tattoos aren’t equivalent to flip flops. That’s terrible reasoning.

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    (sigh) Typical Japan; wants the tourists money without the actual tourist.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    This article is ambiguous about the difference between “onsen” (natural hot spring) and “sento” (heated water bath house). In my experience tatoos (including full back yakuza type) are not a problem in a majority of sentou, in fact with declining number of clientele there patronage is likely very welcome. I can’t ever recall seeing a no-irezumi sign, except in onsen.

    “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” — surely this is talking about onsen, not sento.

  • thedudeabidez

    So, the onsen owner know that not every tattooed foreighner coming for the Olympics is a yakuza, what progress! They then proceed to stigmatize tattooed people anyway by charging them extra to wear a soggy bandage during thei bath on the grounds that these people are somehow “offensive.” And what if the patch doesn’t cover your tatt? Well, you’re out of luck and sitting in the lobby while your freiends bathe,