Body tattoos have long kept some people out of public bathhouses in Japan, but that ban is starting to show signs of easing. Recently Hoshino Resort Company announced a new policy that will allow people to cover their tattoos with a free sticker at their hot spring resorts. This small, hesitant step was big news in Japan, perhaps the only country in the world with such a tattoo ban.

The explanation long given for such a ban is that “normal” people would be frightened or discomforted by tattoos, because of their association with members of criminal organizations who wore them. However, nowadays a small butterfly or heart on a young woman is hardly a sign of criminal connection. For most people, it is another way of expressing oneself.

The social stigma against tattoos runs deep. The mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, even demanded that all city workers reveal whether they have tattoos. That demand moved the issue from stigma to violation of privacy rights. It seems anomalous that what is more or less a fashion statement could serve as a reason to deny someone work, or a simple bath.

In one absurd case several years ago, a Maori woman was denied entry to a bath in Hokkaido. Ironically, tattoos have been part of the indigenous, traditional culture of the Maori people for hundreds of years. In Japan, China and Korea, too, tattoos have a very long history with many different meanings attached to them for thousands of years.

One motivation to change the ban is tourism. Hoshino Resort runs many different types of bathing facilities at hot springs all over Japan, and so is in the customer-service industry. Banning foreign tourists, whose numbers reached well over 13 million last year, from entering hot spring baths, saunas, gyms, swimming pools, public baths, or tanning salons no longer makes much economic sense.

Polls of Americans have found that somewhere between 24 and 40 percent of young people have tattoos. That is a large potential customer base to automatically exclude on the basis of a single non-threatening reason.

It’s commonplace for university students to remove the ear pierces and dyed hair when they start job hunting, but tattoos are not so easy to get rid of. More and more young people in Japan have tattoos, and display them openly. Associating tattoos with violent gangs or immoral behavior no longer makes much sense. Because of that, several Japanese websites already maintain listings of hot springs and public baths where tattoos are no longer banned.

It is doubtful that many Japanese will ever become highly tattoo friendly, but at the very least, Japan needs to become more tourist friendly. Hoshino Resorts is breaking new ground in that regard, and discarding old beliefs at the same time.

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