The Japan Tourism Agency has asked spa operators to allow tattoo-sporting foreign tourists into their facilities in a bid to get more overseas visitors experiencing the nation's onsen.
While there is currently no blanket ban on tattoos at hot springs, many spa operators opt to turn away people with tattoos for fear they will scare other customers.
In Japan, tattoos have often been associated with yakuza members.
The latest request — the first of its kind by the agency — urges onsen operators to give more consideration to the cultural backgrounds of tattooed non-Japanese tourists, Shogo Akamichi, a Japan Tourism Agency official in charge of tourism promotion, said Thursday.
The number of foreign tourists is increasing, and "with that change, we hope they can fully enjoy onsen in Japan," Akamichi said. He added that the request will be "nonbinding," meaning the decision is ultimately up to each operator.
The request does not extend to relaxing the rules for Japanese with tattoos.
Akamichi said the current no-tattoo policy at many onsen resorts had indiscriminately rejected people with tattoos, including foreign guests who wear them for fashion, religious or other reasons.
The agency asked operators to take measures such as offering stickers to cover tattoos and setting certain time frames for tattooed tourists to bathe, so as to separate them from other visitors.
The no-tattoo policy has often been a source of friction between spa facilities in Japan and foreign visitors due to differing views regarding the body art, the agency said.
In 2013, a spa facility in Hokkaido turned away a Maori woman from New Zealand with traditional facial tattooing, provoking a controversy about what tattoos mean to both Japanese and non-Japanese.