For several decades, onsens have been an exciting part of Japanese culture. Essentially known as public baths, these spas welcome both locals and visitors alike. However, until recently, one type of visitor wasn't allowed into the onsens – tattooed tourists. If people visiting the country had any kind of permanent ink, they were prohibited from entering these types of baths. Thanks to years of blowback and lost business, that might all begin to change.
Unlike in America, tattoos have been controversial in Japan for a while. While tattoos are becoming more commonplace throughout the world, and are more widely accepted now than ever, some parts of Japan still look at these images as a bad thing. Why? The Japanese mafia, better known as the yakuza, has always been associated with tattoos. For the mafia, it's part of their traditions. Members are given their first tattoo upon initiation into to mafia, and then those tattoos are slowly built upon. Within about two years, yakuza members will have their full bodies tattooed. Usually a theme is involved, often based off of mythological characters in Japanese culture. The more patterns and colors the tattoo has, the more respect a member gets. While these tattoos are now done with a modern tattoo gun, they were performed using the stick-and-poke method for years. When members are completely tattooed, the only skin exposed between their neck and feet is a small space on their stomach.
"Unlike in America, tattoos have been controversial in Japan for a while."
A different view
While tattoos are a must among yakuza members, they aren't as common among the general public. Even though younger members of society are beginning to embrace tattoos, they are usually rejected by elderly people in Japan, who believe that having a tattoo is destroying a part of the body. Mainly their rejection of tattoos stems from the fact that they are common among gang and mafia members, and that people with tattoos are anti-social.
When it comes to the onsen, the spa owners want to make money and have a thriving business. When people with tattoos walk in, an owner with traditional beliefs might think that that person could discourage others in the bath from staying and they might leave, costing the spa business. As a result, they'd rather reject the one person than potentially lose several people because of it. A report from 2015 found that approximately 56 percent of all hotels and inns with onsens didn't allow people with tattoos in.
Taking a stand
However, many have spoken out about this rule as tattoos have gotten more popular and onsens have continued to be a large part of tourism. Naturally, most people's tattoos have no gang affiliation and simply are a way to express their beliefs. Even though Japan may have conservative views surrounding people who have tattoos, other countries don't have nearly as strict of rules, so more of the population might be willing to express themselves through tattoo art. As tattoos gain popularity in countries such as America, Japan has realized that keeping people with tattoos out of onsens has only hurt the tourism industry overall. While onsen owners might feel like they're making more money without people with tattoos in their spas, the country is losing money overall as more people with tattoos are visiting the country.
As a result, the Japan Tourism Agency is trying to change things so more spa owners are willing to open their doors to people with tattoos. After all, the people are there to learn more and appreciate Japanese culture, and getting rejected simply because of a tattoo on their body doesn't seem fair. However, the agency can only go so far with their reach. They know that ultimately, the decision is up to spa owners so they can't tell them to let tourists with tattoos in. However, a few agency workers, such as Shogo Akamichi, believe that their request that onsen owners open their doors to tattooed people may lead to some change. They hope that these spa owners will recognize that visitors and tourists come from countries with different cultural backgrounds than Japans, so tattoos are viewed completely differently.
"We hope they [tattooed tourists] can enjoy onsen in Japan," Akamichi told Mashable.