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Oita Pref. hot springs mull lifting ban on tattooed visitors amid cautious sentiment

Sakthibalan Balathandautham, who has a tattoo of a world map on his back, soaks in a hot spring at a facility in the Oita Prefecture city of Beppu, on March 30, 2019. (Mainichi/Kenta Miyahara)

BEPPU, Oita -- A 26-year-old university student from Singapore enjoyed an open-air hot spring bath in one of the few facilities in Oita Prefecture currently allowing people with tattoos to bathe in their hot springs.

"It's hot, but that's the good part," stated Sakthibalan Balathandautham, who came to Japan four years ago and is currently attending a university in the city of Beppu. The western Japan prefecture, famous for its hot spring resorts and one of the locations where the 2019 Rugby World Cup will take place in September, is ambivalent about how to welcome tattooed foreign tourists who come for a natural bath.

Balathandautham soaked in the bath just like other Japanese visitors on March 30. However unlike many Japanese, he has a tattoo of a bird, a symbol of freedom, on his left chest, and another tattoo of a world map on his back because he loves to travel. "They are memories that will stay on my body for my whole life. I have no intention to scare others (with my tattoos)," he explained.

While many hot spring facilities across Japan prohibit tattooed customers from bathing, body ink has become embedded in European and Oceanian culture -- areas where rugby is considered a popular sport.

"We need to seize this occasion to attract more foreign visitors from Europe and Oceania in addition to the usual tourists from Asia," stated Oita Gov. Katsusada Hirose in a prefectural assembly meeting last June. Hirose emphasized his idea of using the upcoming Rugby World Cup as an opportunity to put efforts into attracting people of diverse nationalities.

According to the prefectural government, 856,445 foreigners stayed overnight within the prefecture in 2017, which was 2.5 times more compared to 2014. By nationality, 65% were from South Korea, followed by 12% from Taiwan. However, people from countries outside of Asia accounted for less than 3%.

Visitors from Europe and Oceania are believed to have high vacation expenditures per capita, and an increase in such tourists can lead to the further development of Oita. The prefectural government's major objective is to use this occasion to create a new market.

In a bid to promote the prefecture and its hot springs to visitors from Europe and Oceania -- places from which many are expected to visit Oita during the approaching Rugby World Cup -- the Beppu Municipal Government picked 100 hot spring facilities including those with footbaths that allow tattooed customers to enter, and began efforts to introduce these establishments in English via the internet.

Still, there is deep-rooted sentiment against tattoos in Beppu. According to an association of traditional Japanese "ryokan" inns and hotels in the city, 70% of such accommodations generally do not accept tattooed people in their hot springs. Though some facilities have decided on a set time to allow such people to bathe, there are continuing cases in which customers who happen to be in the public bath during that time frame complain about being surprised to see tattoos. Therefore, almost none of the facilities view the September Rugby World Cup as an opportunity to lift the ban, according to the association.

"There are some customers who feel uncomfortable seeing tattoos, and they can have an impact on the class of an inn. Because administrative agencies are not responsible for taking care of customer complaints and other problems, accommodations have no choice but to become cautious about lifting the ban," said a 41-year-old executive of a well-established hotel.

Some point out that elderly local residents tend to have the impression that tattoos are symbols of antisocial forces, as many people linked to gangsters -- who in Japan were, until recently, the only ones to adorn their bodies with tattoos -- hung out in the city during the period of Japan's postwar economic boom when tour groups crowded downtown Beppu.

In 2017, more than 80% of those who stayed overnight within the prefecture were Japanese. The association's 67-year-old executive director Seiji Hori stated, "We want to seek ways in which facilities can show respect for Japanese customers and also provide chances for foreigners to enjoy soaking in hot springs."

Those involved in the hot spring resorts of Oita are currently engaged in a trial and error process to find a method to keep longtime fans of hot springs satisfied and at the same time provide "omotenashi," or Japanese-style hospitality, to foreign visitors.

(Japanese original by Kenta Miyahara, Political News Department, and Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu News Department)

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