Freelance editor Lauren Hardie applied to join a fitness center when visiting Tokyo last summer but, before her membership was accepted, she was asked to sign a special contract that began with the following condition: “I am not a gangster.”
Hardie is no gangster, but she does have a small tattoo the size of a butterfly on her wrist. In order to use the facilities, Hardie was asked to sign a contract in which she agreed to cover up the tattoo while on the premises and stop coming to the gym if anyone noticed it.
It’s a good example of the country’s stigma against tattoos. Foreign residents and tourists with tattoos can come across widespread prohibitions posted at public baths, hot springs and even swimming pools. Such rigid rules also apply to Japanese folk as well.
And yet tattoos have long been a traditional part of the country’s culture. According to Donald Richie and Ian Buruma’s “The Japanese Tattoo,” people have been observed marking their skin since at least 200 B.C.
Well-known tattoo artist Horibun II once wrote: “Ever since Tokyo was still Edo, my ancestors have all been craftsmen. Back when all municipal firemen and many craftsmen had tattoos, we were there working at our trade.”
Therefore, at least historically speaking, tattoos have not always been the sole province of gangsters.
In modern Japan, however, people usually equate tattoos with organized crime — hence the crackdown on anyone who has them.
Tattoos are almost as common as pierced ears in many parts of the world these days, and the number of gangsters is reportedly decreasing. So isn’t it time to accept a bit of ink in order to allow everyone to engage in Japan’s favorite pastime?
Enter Omima M. Miki, an entrepreneur and former editor at All About Japan who sports a hobgoblin on her back.
Frustrated at being barred from using public bathing facilities because of her tattoo, Miki has decided to take matters into her own hands. She has been reaching out to prospective investors, architects and designers since last year in order to create a hot-spring facility that welcomes visitors with body art.
Miki is now in the middle of setting up a crowdfunding website on Indiego, and is seeking other investors to throw their weight behind the proposal.
She plans to open the facility during Golden Week in 2019. Named Mina Mizu (Everyone is Water), it is expected to welcome all bathers regardless of whether or not they have tattoos. Indeed, Miki says that no one — not even gangsters — will be turned away because of how they choose to decorate their skin.
“We want to incorporate not only the traditional style of the underground tattoo world but also to modernize it,” Miki says. “Besides standard female and male baths, the facility will also have a family (mixed) swimming pool, an izakaya and accommodation in the style of a traditional Japanese inn.”
The interior will feature feng shui elements and borrow from popular tattoo themes: Bodhisattva, carp, kabuki characters and, of course, dragons.
For those in Japan who have tattoos, it’s something to look forward to. The hot-spring facility will also have a small museum devoted to the history of Japanese tattoos.
“It’ll be a learning experience,” Miki says.
As yet, however, Miki has no plans to offer tattooing services on site. For the time being, you’ll just have to be satisfied with bringing your own.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.