Marks of Beauty, Marks of Shame

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

For Westerners traveling in Japan, it is sometimes hard to anticipate or conform to Japanese customs and culture.  Of course, the Japanese are very forgiving of guests and most Westerns can learn to adjust to the fundamental rules of Japanese life.  However, there is one rule that Westerners just have to accept: If you have a tattoo, you are forbidden to enter many public and private facilities. At hot springs, pools, gyms, hotels and resorts, even Universal Studios Japan, it is common to see a sign barring entry by anyone with a tattoo. More than 50% of Japanese hotels and ryokans nationwide bar entry to their bathing facilities by guests with tattoos, according to a survey by the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA).


In Japanese, Irezumi (入れ墨), horimono (彫り物), shisei (刺青), and tattoo (タトゥー) all mean “tattoo”, although Irezumi is the most common word. The Japanese taboo against tattoos has been around for hundreds of years. Even today, some people will say that they think getting their bodies inked is disrespectful to their parents who have bestowed them their bodies.  Many Japanese people feel that tattoos are “low class” or “dirty”.  In the Edo Period, the government wrote tattoos on criminals’  bodies to show what they had done to others. As population started to rise in cities during the Edo period, the government started to use tattoos to distinguish the criminals.  At the same time, sex workers would tattoo their bodies with the names of favored customers.  During the Meiji period, in 1872, until 1948, tattooing became illegal. Today, under Japanese law, tattooing is a “medical procedure” and requires a license to practice medicine. 


New bans are also appearing recently. In 2014, the Zushi city council passed an ordinance that includes a host of restrictions at its beach, which is regularly packed on weekends with young adults from the Tokyo region during summer. Zushi is a 10-minute train ride from Yokosuka Naval Base, making its beach one of the most accessible for American sailors.  Part of the ordinance that bans the display of tattoos that allegedly scare other beachgoers. 


Although this policy may appear to target Yakuza gangsters, ironically, due to a series of laws cracking down on organized crime, the yakuza themselves are ordering their members to remove tattoos or not get them in the first place. One yakuza boss and tattoo artist laments, “All of my customers now are straight people (katagi). No yakuza in his right mind gets a tattoo now. You can’t do business that way. You can’t rise up the underworld ladder.”’


Meanwhile, Japan has also perfected its own unique style of tattooing that has become renowned worldwide. Tattoo culture in Japan dates back to ancient times. A Chinese historical record written at around 300 A.D., during the Jomon period, said all Japanese men tattooed their faces and bodies.  The Okinawan Ryukyu kingdom as well as to the Ainu people had an extensive tattoo culture.  Priests also applies tattoos to ward off evil spirits.  Even during the Meiji era, Japanese technique was highly praised overseas, and it is said that Prince George and Prince Albert of England were tattooed in Japan. Today, Japanese tattoo artists practice their art without legal authority; on several occasions, the government has prosecuted tattoo artists for operating without a medical license. 


Recently, Japan is facing mounting pressure to change its ancient ways.  In May 2012, the mayor of Osaka and founder of the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), created a huge controversy by ordering all public employees to confess to whether they had tattoos or not. When he launched his anti-tattoo campaign, Hashimoto said at the time that “citizens feel uneasy or intimidated if they see tattoos (on workers) in services and it undermines trust in the city.” However, in December of 2014, the Osaka District Court ruled that the order was illegal and constituted an invasion of privacy.  The court handed down the ruling in a damages suit filed by a 56-year-old city bus driver, Tadasu Yasuda, who was transferred to a desk job after he refused to answer questions on whether or not he had a tattoo


In Osaka, tattooist Taiki Masuda is challenging Japan’s tattoo laws, arguing that he is practicing what he considers a form of art.  After police arrested him for running his tattoo shop without a license, instead of paying his 300,000 yen (US$2,445) fine, Taiki is taking this fight into the Japanese courts.  In March, the the Japan Tourism Agency asked hot springs owners to permit tattooed-foreigners, although the association isn’t asking for similar exceptions for tattooed Japanese.


If you have tattoos and are planning on visiting Japan, you might run into problems at, for example, hot springs and public pools. You should probably cover your tattoos with bandages or band-aids (if possible!) or rent rooms at hot springs that come with a private bath. For business trips, unless your work is connected to the arts, it might be good to discretely cover your ink (if possible). Here are some links for some tattoo-covering stickers:


Oppose the tattoo ban?  Timeout Tokyo has a petition online to save Japanese Tattoo culture here:




The Japan Times


Stars & Stripes