Why Are Tattoos Not Allowed in Onsen?

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Any traveler visiting Japan yearns for that feeling Japanese public bath/hot springs, the onsen.

An onsen is a term used in Japan to refer to hot springs.

Tattoos in Japan baths
Tattoos meaning in Japan

However, if you have a tattoo, it won’t be easy to enter an onsen.

Although bathing in an onsen is glorious and relaxing, some rules must be observed. Having a tattoo is one such rule.

Key Takeaway – You cannot enter an onsen in Japan with a tattoo. However, there are some exceptions, such as covering your tattoos or going to tattoo-friendly onsen.

Reasons Why Tattoos are Not Allowed in Onsen

Yakuza style tattoos criminal
Yakuza style tattoos

Bad Impression of Tattoos among Japanese  

At first, Japanese tattoos depicted social status.

They signified a form of protection and spirituality. However, after they were banned during the Meiji period, the Yakuza (an underground crime syndicate) adopted them.

Thus, they were associated with criminal activities and delinquency.

Additionally – During the Nara Period, tattoos were used as a form of punishment, and all criminals were required to have their bodies tattooed. The marking of criminals and enslaved people with tattoos was a permanent punishment for easy identification.

The other aspect of why tattoos are viewed negatively by the general public is the groups they are linked to.

Apart from the Yakuza and criminals, sex workers also tattooed their bodies to signify loyalty to their regular customers.  

Gradually, tattoos became taboo, thus creating a bad impression of Japan as a country and its people.

Visit Nosawa Onsen Hot Springs in winter
Nosawa Onsen

After Japan opened its borders in the mid-to-late 19th century, it banned tattoos as it viewed them as barbaric.

Good to Know: The government wanted to create an image of civilization and sophistication. Although the ban was lifted in 1948, the stigma around tattooing has remained.

Criminal Past of Tattooing 

The practice was used to mark and ostracize criminals permanently.

Therefore, the practice and its history have nurtured a long-standing social stigma related to:

  • delinquency
  • criminals
  • gangs
  • and social outcasts

Although, as a result of globalization, the younger generation has changed this narrative, those traditional beliefs are still eminent for conservatives and the older generation.

In Japan – Tattooing can be traced back to 5,000 BCE. During this period, tattooing was only done by men, and it was only done as a sign of beauty. However, during 720 CE, the craft was used to punish criminal activities rather than a form of art.

However, between 1603 and 1868, it was adopted by the larger society, and it entailed having a full-body artwork (irezumi).

Take a quick look – 10 Best Onsen Destinations In Japan

During the feudal era, tattoos represented a rebellion against the upper class, resulting in the development of the Yakuza.

Yakuza is the largest crime syndicate in Japan, comprised of poor and outcast individuals.

Adopting tattooing by the Yakuza forced the government to ban the practices as it was seen as barbaric.

Using Onsen if you have a tattoo rules
Using Onsen

Its association with criminal activity has forced people with tattoos to be excluded in certain public facilities such as onsen to date.

Gangs are still rampant in Japan, and they still maintain their tattooing traditions. Although, attitude towards tattoos has changed among most Japanese who consider them as outdated and divisive.

Interesting Fact: Most people have tried to re-examine their rules regarding body art, but the determination of keeping criminal gangs from accessing their facilities has resulted in upholding the tattoo bans.

Yes, tattoos are legal across Japan.

However, the stigma surrounding the art has made them be banned in certain public places.

Some places where tattoos are banned, and any forceful access can result in a police case include:

  • public bathing areas
  • beaches
  • gyms
  • hot springs (onsen)
  • and pools

But, if you can cover them, access to these areas is guaranteed.

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Can I Use an Onsen Even If I Have a Tattoo?

Yes, you can still have access to an onsen even with a tattoo.

However, access is limited to certain onsens or if certain measures are put forth to cover your tattoos.

Onsen tattoo rules and tips
Onsen tattoo rules

Before accessing their baths, certain facilities will ask you to cover your tattoos with a bandage or any other body covering materials.

However, it is important to check wisely on rules and policies of where you are going because they are not universal.

For Example – The countryside and rural destinations have stricter attitudes regarding tattoos. Thus, it will be difficult to access an onsen in those destinations.

If you want to enjoy the onsen feel, several traditional Japanese inns referred to as ‘ryokan’ provide private in-room baths.

The ryokan allows tattooed people to soak privately, but on the downside, they are slightly expensive compared to public baths.

On a good note, there are chances that some onsen will not chase you away, even if you have a tattoo.

Female Onsen etiquette rules
Peaceful Female Onsen

In a survey conducted by the Japan Tourism Agency in 2015, 31 percent of the surveyed establishment said they do not refuse guests with tattoos.

Although the number is still small, it is clear that the negative attitude towards tattoos is fading.

It is important to ask or talk about your tattoos before your visit to avoid humiliation.

Excellent Advice: Although Japanese are strict rule followers, when approached in a friendly and courteous manner, they can give you access to the onsen regardless of your tattoo.

Will Tattoos Be Accepted in Onsen?

With globalization, Japan has experienced an increase in the number of tourists.

Most tourists are from western culture, where tattoos are a norm, and almost everybody is inked.

Female Onsen bath rules
Female Onsen bath

Therefore, if the country is not maintaining the flow of tourists, certain measures are likely to be placed to allow tattooed people to have access to an onsen.

Most tourists get tattoos for various reasons, either as a form of fashion statement or religious significance, not necessarily related to criminal activity.

Additionally – Younger generations in Japan are getting tattooed, and soon, the taboo will automatically fade.

On the other hand, the Japanese Tourism Agency is developing a framework for onsen to forgo the no tattoo policy to entice foreigners who want to enjoy Japanese nature and culture.

Although it might take a while, in the future, it is evident that more onsen will open doors to tattooed visitors.

Final Thoughts

At the moment, trying to access an onsen with a tattoo can be difficult due to their no tattoo policy.

However, there are tattoo-friendly onsen and ryokan that you can access, but they will cost you more.

Locating a tattoo-friendly onsen can be difficult because they rarely advertise as so.

However, those that forbid tattoos have clear signs. Therefore, if you find one without a sign, you can enquire if they are tattoo-friendly.

On the other hand, if you have a small tattoo, it is advisable to cover them before entering an onsen.  

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