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Maori tattoos prompt Japan hot spring city to urge rethink on inked bathers ban

New Zealand All Blacks players perform the Maori haka before a Rugby World Cup match on Sept. 21, 2019, at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. Tattoos are visible on the arms of a number of the players. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)

SHIBUKAWA, Gunma -- This city northwest of Tokyo is considering loosening onsen hot spring spa restrictions on tattooed bathers as it prepares to host the New Zealand team for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

The move was prompted by consideration of Maori ta moko tattoos, a sacred form of body art to New Zealand's indigenous people.

"We have to go beyond differences between countries and peoples," said Shibukawa Mayor Tsutomu Takagi at an Oct. 11 news conference. "We want to respect Maori culture and customs. We urge hot spring inns and others here to understand their meaning," he continued, calling on local bath operators to open their doors to foreigners with tattoos.

Many hot springs, public baths and even gyms forbid people with tattoos from entering or using bathing facilities.

Maori tattoos express a person's family lineage, their tribe's home region and other personal details. Parts of the tattoos can be seen on the arms of many All Blacks New Zealand national rugby team players, who are now in Japan for the Rugby World Cup.

Shibukawa is home to the famed Ikaho onsen resort area and other hot springs, and the local government expects the many New Zealanders who will stay in the city for the 2020 Games will be looking to take a dip. In one incident some years ago that highlighted the issue, a Maori woman invited to Shibukawa as a teacher was barred from entering a local hot spring because she had traditional face tattoos. The city is looking to avoid a repeat of this kind of conflict over a difference of culture and tradition.

The municipal government's sports section stated that it was considering calling on the Ikaho innkeepers' union and the tourism association for cooperation, explaining that tattoos are an expression of culture for some people, while also pointing out that such body art can be distinguished from Japanese gangster tattoos.

The Shibukawa Ikaho Onsen Tourism Association, however, has pointed out that it is standard practice among local hot spring operators to forbid entry to tattooed people.

"We would like to consider the issue once we receive a concrete request (on admitting inked visitors) from the city," an association representative said.

(Japanese original by Tetsuya Shoji, Shibukawa Resident Bureau)

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