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What You Need To Know Traveling With Tattoos in Japan

Have you heard that tattoos in Japan are practically banned? Or maybe you’ve been told you won’t be able to visit a range of popular and awesome places, that you’ll be left out in the cold cause of the ink under your skin.

We are here to clear the air and separate truth from fiction. If you are heading to Japan with tattoos or just curious, we’ve got the answers to ensure you know what to expect culturally and how tattoos could affect your trip.

Are tattoos legal in Japan?

Tattoos are legal

The good news: There isn’t a ban on tattoos in Japan! Tattoos are not illegal, and you are likely to see people walking around with fashion tattoos. Both foreigners and Japanese people are to be seen showing off their tattoos in public.

Negative image and banned in certain places

Negative images of tattoos and banned

The bad news? Lots of people have a negative image of tattoos stemming from the 1960’s era of gangster films. During the era, Japanese films depicted yakuza members (Japanese mafia) with large, full or near full body covering tattoos. In copycat fashion, young wannabes, “bad boys”, and aspiring gangsters copied the style, feeding into the ethos that tattoos were connected to Yakuza, crime, or delinquency in some form.

Because of the perception tattoos are connected to the underworld, tattoos have been seen as a reason to keep out undesirable people, especially in places where your body might be seen. Such places, such as hot springs (onsen) and gyms, often have signs in English and Japanese clearly marking their tattoo policy. At times, the signs themselves feed into the mythos by showing tattoos reminiscent of the yakuza films.

You won’t be viewed negatively personally

Even though there are negative views towards Japanese tattooed people, the majority stemming from older people, as a foreigner the same view will not necessarily be taken of you. People are aware that tattoos have a different meaning abroad, especially in western culture. Tattooed Foreigners are often treated with curiosity, and younger generations are likely to think the tattoos are cool.

If you happen to feel uncomfortable, or are worried about stares, you could do what Japanese people do and cover up your visible tattoos. Wear clothing that completely covers the tattoo, arm covers, or if the tattoo is not large, a small bandage, etc. Just to be clear, we are not suggesting you should or must cover your tattoos. As we said, it is unlikely you will have a problem because of your tattoos unless you are visiting somewhere tattoos are explicitly prohibited.

Where can and can’t I go with visible tattoos in Japan?

Hot Springs

Unfortunately, there are Japanese hot springs that prohibit people with tattoos from bathing. There are also many tattoo friendly onsen.

Rules for some hot springs

Hot springs might not allow tattoos in Japan

Sometimes the rules are very straightforward, with an English and Japanese sign stating that all tattoos are not allowed. Others are more lenient.

It is not uncommon for a hot spring to allow small tattoos, while a really small tattoo could simply go unnoticed. Others only forbid exposed tattoos or otherwise visible tattoos. Then again, others only prohibit large tattoos. It completely depends on the establishment.

It’s always best to look for a sign, and if in doubt, ask the staff at the front desk or email ahead. If you have a small enough tattoo, slapping a bandaid or bandage on it is almost always enough to satisfy any establishment.

The rules are relaxing

Many of the famous hot springs are allowing tattoos without question these days. Some hot springs that allow tattooed visitors are

  • Zao Onsen Dai Rotenburo in Yamagata
  • Yamata no Yu in Chiba
  • Sekizenkan Onsen in Guma
  • Funaoka Onsen in Kyoto

Plus, there are many more!

Honestly, I traveled fairly extensively to onsens throughout the country with foreigners who had tattoos, and it was not much of a problem. Part of that was knowing where to go and calling ahead, and partly that regulations are relaxing, especially when it comes to foreigners. In fact, some of the biggest, most popular hot spring destinations don’t have any regulations at all anymore.

So, as far as hot springs are concerned, don’t let it worry you too much. You won’t miss out on the Japanese experience.

Research ahead

When you travel to Japan, if you’re worried about a location and tattooed guests, there are likely reviews online that will speak to the issue. If a place does not explicitly state it online, someone has probably left a review for their fellow travelers. You can also email locations and request information regarding their tattoo policy.

Visiting Ryokan

Ryokan are a kind of traditional Japanese inn that often have hot springs attached. Some of the most beautiful and potentially romantic locations in Japan are the scenic views from ryokan onsen pools.

Ryokan can be more traditional than other locations, and might have stricter policies regarding tattoos. Again, regulations are relaxing for Ryokan, too, so it’s not a given tattoos are still not allowed.

Often Ryokan offer private hot springs you can rent. In this case, there are no restrictions as no one but your private party will see you. Private onsen are often a way around the regulations if you don’t mind paying a bit more. Private experiences are also a recommend whether or not you have body art you wish to hide. Something else to keep in mind to try!

Sento public baths

The sento public bath is an establishment existing for the purpose of hygiene. Stemming from the rapid population growth and urbanization of the boomer period, they feature large baths and a multitude of wash stations.

Other than generally being less for relaxation, thus having a different atmosphere, they also don’t use the natural hot spring water that would classify them as onsen. On the other hand, they at times can be quite elegant, featuring many pools, earning the name “super sento.”

Because of the more local and traditional mindset of the sento, many sento are likely to have signs banning tattoos. It is possible to find sento that allow tattoos, but less likely than onsen.

The Gym and swimming pools

Gyms and swimming pools are more likely to forbid tattoos. Fellow gaijin (foreigners) report that regulations for these establishment are not going the way of the Japanese onsen. The rules are there to stay, for now at least.

For many of the gyms, inked patrons may find they are not allowed to use the sauna or other bathing facilities, but may still workout. Others may be allowed as long as you cover up your tattoos.

Amusement Parks

No, Disneyland isn’t going to kick you out for having a tattoo. Foreign tourists are aplenty at the large parks, and you are undoubtedly going to see some larger tattoos, even. Not allowing tattooed guests at similarly sized parks would be a financial loss and difficult to imagine happening.

However, if rumors have got you worried, be safe and wear long sleeve coverings. If in hotter weather, try a wind breaker.

You might want to be more careful at water parks. While not a given, the tattoo taboo could extend to some of the aquatic themed locations. At the very least, staff is likely to request you cover your tattoos.

Beaches

Beaches might not allow tattoos

If you already read through our guide on the best time to travel to Japan, you know how beautiful the beaches there are.

Some beaches have signs prohibiting showing tattoos, and others do not. It is often unclear if these signs are a law or a strong suggestion. In either case, you are bound to see a Japanese person or two, or more, ignoring the sign.

Japanese people are sometimes a little bold with rules and foreigners. If you decide to go to the beach uncovered and have tattoos, don’t be too surprised if a Japanese person points out the rules to you.

Shrines and temples

This is more a question of etiquette. It is rare to find signs explicitly banning tattoos at temples or shrines. If asked, a Japanese person would likely tell you that you should cover your tattoos out of a sign of respect.

Counter point: It is difficult to imagine worrying about this at all if you were to visit somewhere like Kyoto on a hot summer day, for example. The immense crowds combined with the humidity and heat don’t create an atmosphere for worrying about tattoos on a foreign person.

However, if visiting smaller temples where you are more likely to stand out, you might consider covering up your tattoos as a sign of etiquette.

What are some tips for covering tattoos?

Many places are becoming tattoo friendly. Still, there can be times in Japan you might cover up the body art. Here are a few tips to consider if you find a need to cover up tattoos in Japan:

  • Smaller tattoos may be covered with a bandage or bandaid.
  • Arm covers, such as a long sleeve shirts or arm “jackets”, work fine for sleeves.
  • Aqua tattoo covers are another method for medium to large tattoos.
  • Liquid tattoo covers.
  • Makeup for tattoos.
  • Scarves work well for the neck area.

How can I get a tattoo in Japan?

If you are visiting Japan, it is now possible to find a Japanese tattoo artist, unlike pre 2020 when, for legal reasons, tattoo artists and parlors kept to themselves. While many artists still work by word of mouth only, tattoo lovers can search for tattoo shops online in areas such as Tokyo.

The change in the law

A law existing since the days of the American occupation forces stated tattoos could only be performed by those with a medical license as tattoos require needles. However, in 2020 a Japanese tattoo artist who was not medically licensed challenged the edict after the Japanese government raided his house. The case went all the way to the supreme court, where the judges ruled in favor of the tattoo shop.

Since 2020, certifying organizations have sprung up in Japan offering training and hygiene standards, further standardizing and expanding the legitimacy of the tattoo art form and tattoo artists.

Finding a tattoo artist in Japan

You can now find artists online fairly easily before visiting Japan. A quick search of “tattoo artists in Japan” will reap hundreds of options, many within Tokyo. Even more than individuals, there are now even chains of tattoo parlors in Japan having multiple locations, multiple artists, and are accepting of foreigners.

Some of the websites have straightforward pricing based on tattoo size and English options for navigation. Featuring hundreds of rating from both foreigners visiting Japan and Japanese clients, you are bound to find a talented artists that’s the right match for you.

What is the history of tattoos in Japan?

The art of tattooing, called irezumi, most closely associated with Japanese society began in the Edo period some 250 years ago. A famous woodblock print of a Chinese novel, Suikoden, released in 1757 that featured men covered in intricate designs of animals and fantastical beasts. The print started something a of a craze and demand for the illustrations as tattoos.

The tools originally used were the same as those to create woodblock prints. Woodblock printers were also some of the first Japanese tattoo artists. Some scholars believe tattoos started becoming a symbol of wealth due to the the time consuming and labor intensive work require of traditional Japanese tattoos. Others believe many common folk were among the first tattooed men in Japan.

Fast forward a hundred years, and we come to the opening up of Japan and the Meiji restoration. Now concerned with their international reputation, the Japanese government criminalized tattoos, forcing the traditional Japanese style tattoos underground.

Since the Meiji times, irezumi has retained its association with the underworld, specifically the yakuza, despite being legalized in 1948. However, many of the younger generation are fascinated with tattoos, or at least accepting. A survey in 2021 found that 60% of those in their 20’s favored relaxing the rules around tattoos, and an increasing number of young people are open to the idea of getting a tattoo. The younger generations often associate tattoos with fashion statements versus criminality.

In modern Japan, it is possible to find both traditional Japanese tattooing and modern methods of creating the art in a tattoo parlor.

How many Japanese people have tattoos?

Recent data in English being sparse, we’ve turned to the Japanese side. A 2021 report from Japan Tend Research (日本トレンドリサーチ) asked 1200 Japanese participants evenly distributed across age groups about their tattoos and feelings regarding tattoos.

Percent of people with a tattoo in Japan

First, according to the survey, about 3% of Japanese people reported having a tattoo. While that number itself is a fairly small, another 10% on top of that number reported they had considered getting a tattoo in the past. So, while the the number of people with tattoos may be small, its fairly common in Japan to be interested in getting a tattoo.

Youth perception of tattoos in Japan

As mentioned earlier, people are beginning to view tattoos in a more positive, or at least neutral, light. In response to the question, “Do you think the rules should be relaxed for tattoos?” 60% of those in their twenties and 41% of those in their 30’s answered in the affirmative.

Some of the reasons given for answering in the affirmative were

  • It’s the same as having a piercing
  • The times have changed. Tattoos are about making a fashion statement
  • It (having tattoos) is cool
  • Having tattoos don’t mean someone is a bad person

Summary

Tattoos in Japan are generally accepted on foreigners, and except for some specific establishments, are unlikely to be of any concern. There are plenty of ways to either cover a tattoo, or alternative locations that are open to tattoos in the case of popular destinations, such as onsen.

The most important thing is that you enjoy your trip, tattoos or not. And if you interested, getting your next tattoo in Japan could be part of your adventure.

Enjoy your travels and adventures in Japan.

If you’re a smoker, you’ll also want to check out our guide on smoking in Japan as well.

Jonathan Mcnamara

Jonathan is a veteran of the Japan and Korean expat life. He lived in Japan and Korea for almost 10 years, and speaks Korean and Japanese. A blogger, a writer, website maker who's had his share of relationships while living abroad, he's now turned his attention to helping others navigate traveling, living, working, and relationships in Japan.

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