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Tattoo taboo in Japan called into question amid surge in foreign tourists

The All Blacks New Zealand national rugby team performs a ceremonial Maori haka dance at the International Stadium Yokohama (Nissan Stadium) in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Sept. 21, 2019. Some members have tattoos on their arms. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)
A screenshot from the "Tattoo Friendly" website introduces the history of body ink in Japan.

TOKYO -- Deep-rooted sentiment against tattoos in Japan is being called into question amid a surge in foreign visitors thanks to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with more tourists set to flock to the country for the upcoming 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Freelance writer and magazine editor Miho Kawasaki, 46, started a website in May 2018 offering information about tattoo-friendly "onsen" hot springs, "sento" public baths, gyms, hotels, traditional "ryokan" inns, pools and beaches -- locations that often prohibit the entrance of guests with "irezumi," a Japanese term for tattoo that literally means inserted ink.

Although tattoos are part of the culture or fashion trends in many foreign countries, numerous facilities in Japan ban the entrance of people with irezumi as body ink is often associated with gangsters here. Kawasaki and several other similar minded people are voicing objections against such practices.

As of Oct. 7, the "Tattoo Friendly" website provided information in both Japanese and English for a total of 1,118 locations. Users can also search for facilities based on detailed conditions such as "all tattoos accepted," "covered tattoos permitted," "one tattoo only," and "tattoos accepted for foreigners only."

Kawasaki, of Tokyo's Sumida Ward, became interested in the topic during her late teens as she was surrounded by many tattooed friends. She did her best to learn about the practice such as visiting tattoo studios and studying foreign body ink culture, and was editor of a tattoo magazine until 2013.

All too often, facility websites and tourist information sites lack explanations on whether inked guests are welcome at a particular place or not, which contributed to a rise in demand for a single source of information on facilities that allow tattooed people to enter.

Kawasaki says she was asked by foreign tourists who were turned away from a facility as they did not know it banned customers with irezumi, and so decided to establish her own website. It can be accessed at: https://tattoo-friendly.jp/

According to Yoshimi Yamamoto, professor of cultural anthropology at Tsuru University and author of "Irezumi to Nihonjin" (Tattoos and the Japanese), humans all around the world have used tattooing as a method to decorate the body since ancient times.

The Japanese have held various perceptions on irezumi depending on the time and area, but tattoos began to be linked to organized crime syndicates due to their popular appearances in Yakuza films mainly in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, body ink is commonly associated with gangsters in Japan.

Furthermore, Yamamoto says facilities prohibiting the entrance of guests with irezumi increased with the introduction of a new law on the prevention of unjust acts by organized crime group members in 1992.

In September 2013, a Maori woman from New Zealand with a traditional facial tattoo was refused entry to a hot spring bath in Eniwa in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, sparking great controversy. Because the incident occurred just after Tokyo was selected as the host city for the 2020 Summer Games, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the time commented, "We need to carefully consider measures to welcome foreigners (with tattoos)."

The Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) conducted a survey on roughly 3,800 establishments across the country and announced in October 2015 that 56% of the approximately 600 respondents prohibited tattooed customers from bathing at their facilities. Based on the results, the JTA in March 2016 notified the Japan Spa Association and other bodies on ways to deal with tattooed foreigners.

Methods such as using stickers to cover irezumi and setting separate hours for tattooed customers and other guests were introduced on the premise that "people cannot be banned from using public baths just because they have tattoos" -- which was also approved by the Cabinet in February 2017.

According to a survey conducted on 1,000 men and women in their 20s to 60s in June 2014 by the Kanto Federation of Bar Associations, only 1.6% of respondents said they have tattoos or had body ink in the past. To a multiple answer question asking what irezumi reminded them of, 55.7% answered "outlaws" and 47.5% said "crime," while only 24.7% chose "art, festival and fashion."

Meanwhile, 95.5% of respondents said they have never been subjected to actual harm such as assaults and threats (not including emotional pain like feeling discomfort) from an inked person -- which reflects how the Japanese are judging people based on a misconception of tattoos.

Tsuru University professor Yamamoto points out that the controversy over the ban on tattooed guests at public baths and other facilities "is very similar to the problem of junior and senior high schools' outrageous rules," such as instructing students to dye their hair black.

Yamamoto stated, "It's the thought that like everyone else, you should put up with even absurd rules, which lack valid and explicit reasons why certain things (hair color and styles) need to be banned, for three years until graduation. This is making it a common practice to judge people based only on their looks and ignore their rights."

According to Yamamoto, this may be the reason why there is a tendency to make foreign tourists endure one to two weeks without going to public baths and other such facilities during their stay in Japan.

"People around me who have tattoos all have a warm personality, and none of them are gangsters," said Kawasaki. She added, "I can't deny the fact that some people feel uncomfortable about tattoos, but I suggest we stop excluding others based on negative, fixed concepts and begin by trying to get to know the other person."

(Japanese original by Tomotatsu Yamaguchi, Integrated Digital News Center)

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