Tattoos in Japan

A Complex Relationship with Tattooed Individuals

Many people in the West have tattoos and wonder if it is possible to travel or to live in Japan for them.

Several types of tattoos

Nowadays, there is a distinction between two types of tattoos, by their design rather than the inking technique:

  • Wabori (和彫り) of Japanese style, and,
  • Yôbori (洋彫り), all the others, generally of western style.

The Japanese traditional tattoo is made with tiny needles set at the tip of a small shaft, which the tattoo artist uses to insert the ink quickly under the skin in a back and forth movement. This technique is more painful than the usual western "modern" method.

A custom still stigmatized

On the archipelago, tattoos have always been warily considered, even today as they are closely associated with the yakuza’s world (Japanese mafia). As a matter of fact during Edo period, tattoos were a form of punishment for criminals. Tattoos were illegal during Meiji era, with a prohibition law enforced from 1872 to 1948.

Be they of Japanese style or not, even small, discreet and without any link with mafia, tattoos are therefore often forbidden, especially in:

  • Natural hot springs (onsen),
  • Gym, swimming pools, and aquatic parks,
  • And even in some traditional hotels (ryokan) when the baths are shared.

Usually, establishments do not discriminate the type of tattoos and tourists can be turned down the entrance to shared baths, even if the ink is covered by a bandage.

However, sento public baths offer more flexibility and provided some simple rules are followed (covering the ink, visiting at a specific time range, etc.), tattooed individuals are usually welcome.

These are important points to consider when planning your visits and accommodation for a travel in Japan. There is also the option to book private baths to avoid any frustration.

Since June 2015, the Japanese government has started to think about how to soften those rules for foreign visitors, especially as tourism is expected to increase with Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 (2021).

Nowadays, the easiest and safest way to admire traditional tattoos on yakuza’s bodies is to take part in Sanja Matsuri, an outdoor Shinto festival, very popular among Japanese people and foreigners (about 2 million visitors over 2 days), held in Asakusa’s famous Senso-ji in Tokyo, on the third weekend of May each year.

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