Japan’s Complicated Past with Tattoos

Tattoos have been a part of human culture for centuries, with various meanings and symbolisms attached to them. However, in Japan, tattoos have a negative connotation and were often associated with criminal activities in the past. This cultural stigma against tattoos has been prevalent in Japan for a long time, and it is not uncommon to see signs at public places such as hot springs, public pools, and gyms that prohibit people with tattoos from entering.

The reason for this cultural stigma can be traced back to the Edo period (1603-1868), where tattoos were used as a form of punishment for criminals. This practice continued until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, where Japan opened up to the Western world and outlawed tattooing. Despite the ban being lifted in the late 1940s, tattoos continued to be associated with criminal activities, such as the yakuza, a Japanese organized crime syndicate. Today, although tattoos are becoming more accepted in Japan, they are still often associated with criminal activities and are not widely accepted in many public places.

Historical Context of Tattoos in Japan

Connection to the Yakuza

Tattoos in Japan have a long and complex history, dating back to the Jomon period (10,000 BCE – 300 BCE). However, in modern times, tattoos have become associated with the yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicate. The yakuza have used tattoos as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of society and to show their loyalty to their criminal organization. The pain of getting the tattoo is seen as a test of faith to the organization.

Because of this association, many Japanese people view tattoos as a symbol of criminality and violence. As a result, many businesses in Japan, including public baths, gyms, and even some hotels, prohibit customers with visible tattoos from entering their establishments.

Tattoos and Social Order

In addition to their association with the yakuza, tattoos have also been seen as a symbol of rebellion against the traditional Japanese social order. In the Edo period (1603-1868), tattoos were used as a form of punishment for criminals, and were also associated with the working class.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan underwent a period of modernization and Westernization, and tattoos were seen as a symbol of Japan’s past. As a result, tattoos were banned by the government in 1872, and were only legalized again in 1948.

Today, while tattoos are legal in Japan, they are still viewed with suspicion by many Japanese people, particularly those in positions of authority. Despite this, there is a growing movement in Japan to reclaim tattoos as a legitimate art form, and many young people are getting tattoos as a form of self-expression and rebellion against traditional Japanese norms.

Cultural Significance and Public Perception

Stigma in Modern Society

In Japan, tattoos have long been associated with organized crime groups known as yakuza. As a result, tattoos have become stigmatized in Japanese society, and many public places such as hot springs, public baths, and swimming pools prohibit individuals with visible tattoos from entering. This stigma has caused many Japanese people to view tattoos as a symbol of criminal activity and has led to a negative perception of those who have them.

Tattoos and Religious Beliefs

In addition to the association with organized crime, tattoos are also seen as disrespectful in Japanese culture. Many traditional Japanese religions such as Shinto and Buddhism view the body as sacred and believe that it should be kept pure and unaltered. Tattoos, therefore, are seen as a violation of this belief and are often frowned upon by those who practice these religions.

Despite the negative perception of tattoos in Japan, some young people are beginning to embrace body art as a form of self-expression and rebellion against traditional societal norms. However, even among this group, tattoos are often kept private and not openly displayed in public.

Overall, the cultural significance and public perception of tattoos in Japan are deeply rooted in history and tradition. While attitudes towards tattoos are slowly changing, it may take some time for them to become widely accepted in Japanese society.

Legal and Social Restrictions

Ban on Tattoos in Public Facilities

Japan has a long-standing cultural aversion to tattoos, which is reflected in its legal and social restrictions. One of the most significant examples of this is the ban on tattoos in public facilities such as onsens, pools, beaches, and gyms. This ban is enforced by law, and those who violate it may face fines or even imprisonment.

The ban on tattoos in public facilities is rooted in Japan’s association of tattoos with criminal activity. Historically, tattoos were used to mark criminals as a form of punishment. While this practice has long since been abolished, the association between tattoos and criminality remains strong in Japanese culture.

As a result, many public facilities in Japan prohibit individuals with visible tattoos from entering. This can be a significant inconvenience for tourists and foreign visitors who may not be aware of the ban or the cultural significance of tattoos in Japan. Luckily if your tattoos are on the smaller side you may be able to cover them with special waterproof covers. Many onsens also offer private facilities for those with tattoos, they are however more expensive to use.

Impact on Tourism and Foreign Relations

The ban on tattoos in public facilities has also had a significant impact on Japan’s tourism industry and foreign relations. Japan has been actively promoting itself as a tourist destination in recent years, and the country’s tourism industry has been growing steadily. However, the ban on tattoos has been a major obstacle for many foreign tourists.

For example, in 2018, the Japan Tourism Agency issued guidelines to hotels and other accommodation providers, urging them to be more accommodating to foreign visitors with tattoos. The guidelines were issued in response to complaints from foreign visitors who had been turned away from onsens and other public facilities due to their tattoos.

The ban on tattoos has also caused friction with other countries. In 2017, the New Zealand rugby team expressed concern about the ban on tattoos in Japan ahead of the Rugby World Cup. The team’s players have a tradition of getting tattoos to commemorate significant events, and they were worried that they would not be able to use onsens or other public facilities during their stay in Japan.

Similarly, in 2018, the Chinese government issued a travel advisory warning its citizens about the ban on tattoos in Japan. The advisory urged Chinese tourists to be aware of the ban and to avoid getting tattoos before traveling to Japan.

Overall, the ban on tattoos in public facilities in Japan reflects the country’s cultural aversion to tattoos and their association with criminal activity. However, the ban has also had a significant impact on Japan’s tourism industry and foreign relations, highlighting the need for greater awareness and understanding of cultural differences.

Changing Attitudes and Future Trends

Fashion and Self-Expression

In recent years, Japanese fashion has become increasingly influenced by Western styles, leading to a growing acceptance of tattoos among younger generations. Many young Japanese people view tattoos as a form of self-expression and individuality, and are willing to defy traditional cultural norms to get inked. This shift in attitudes towards tattoos is reflected in the increasing number of tattoo artists and studios opening up in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

Influence of Globalization

The rise of social media and the internet has also played a significant role in changing attitudes towards tattoos in Japan. As more and more young people are exposed to global trends and cultures through the internet, they are becoming more open-minded and accepting of tattoos. This has led to a growing number of foreigners and tourists getting inked while visiting Japan, further contributing to the normalization of tattoos in Japanese society.

According to a report by The Japan Times, the number of tattooed people in Japan is increasing, and the stigma associated with tattoos is slowly fading away. However, there is still a long way to go before tattoos are fully accepted in all aspects of Japanese society.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the deal with tattoos and onsens in Japan?

Onsens, or traditional Japanese hot springs, have strict policies against tattoos. This is because tattoos in Japan are often associated with organized crime groups, known as yakuza. Many onsens ban patrons with tattoos as a way to prevent yakuza members from entering the premises. However, in recent years, some onsens have relaxed their policies and now allow guests with small tattoos or those who cover their tattoos with bandages.

Can foreigners with tattoos visit Japanese bathhouses?

Foreigners with tattoos may be allowed to visit some Japanese bathhouses, but it’s important to check the specific policies of each establishment. Some bathhouses may allow small tattoos or those covered with bandages, while others may have a strict no-tattoo policy. It’s also important to be respectful of Japanese culture and cover any tattoos that may be visible in public places.

How does Japanese culture perceive tattoos?

In Japanese culture, tattoos are often associated with yakuza and other criminal organizations. Because of this association, tattoos are generally viewed negatively in Japan and can be seen as a symbol of rebellion or nonconformity. However, attitudes towards tattoos are slowly changing, especially among younger generations who see tattoos as a form of self-expression.

What’s the history behind Japan’s tattoo stigma?

Tattoos have a long history in Japan, dating back to the 3rd century. However, during the Edo period (1603-1868), tattoos were used as a form of punishment for criminals. The practice of tattooing was later adopted by yakuza members as a way to show their loyalty to their gang. Because of this association, tattoos became stigmatized in Japanese society.

Are there ways to conceal tattoos while in Japan?

If you have tattoos and plan to visit Japan, there are several ways to conceal them. Wearing long-sleeved clothing or using bandages to cover tattoos are common methods. Some people also use tattoo cover-up makeup to hide their tattoos. However, it’s important to note that some public places, such as onsens and swimming pools, may require patrons to be completely tattoo-free.

In what situations are tattoos especially frowned upon in Japan?

Tattoos are generally frowned upon in any situation where they may be visible to others, such as in public places or at work. In Japan, many companies have strict dress codes that prohibit visible tattoos. Tattoos are also not allowed in many public places, such as onsens, swimming pools, and gyms. It’s important to be aware of these cultural norms and be respectful of Japanese customs while visiting the country.

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