Changing Perceptions of Tattoos in Japan

Stigma towards tattoos in Japan sounds pretty unpleasant, right? Artists being arrested, fear, gangsters, and banned from hot springs. It doesn’t sound possible for a country that has so strongly influenced tattoos as an art the world over. From the media, movies, surveys, and reports it seems as though the prejudice towards tattoo culture is pervasive and insurmountable. The good news is, it’s not.

Attitudes towards tattoos in Japan are changing. Although tattoos are not yet as commonly found as in North America and Western Europe, and perhaps it never will be.  But by and large there is a noticeable increase in the number of Japanese youth getting tattooed. As little as ten years ago shops could be hidden or difficult to find but now it’s not uncommon to see a brightly lit, well-advertised studio in the midst of a busy city.

A sign indicating that tattoos are not allowed in the facility. There is a cartoon person with a tattoo on his arm. He is covered in a red circle with a line through it diagonally indicating a negative attitude towards tattoo culture in Japan.

A sign indicating that tattoos are not allowed. Despite seeing these signs from time to time, tattoo culture in Japan is changing.

Tattoo Culture Changes in Japan

Without any official surveys or statistics to corroborate this shift it’s difficult to pin down how significant a change is occurring.  But by all accounts it’s a new world. In 1990 there was an estimated 200 tattoo artists in Japan.  That’s in the whole country! Today that number is projected to be around 3,000. More artists are generally indicative of more artwork.

It’s been reported that since a police crackdown and public backlash yakuza are avoiding tattoos and the fancy clothes. And the Japanese youth of today are more frequently getting tattooed, but not necessarily with traditional designs. ‘Fashion tattoos’ have become more popular. This is the general term for smaller Western style artwork that you will find frequently tattooed on the young people in large urban centers of Japan.  Small pieces have been seen on a few Japanese celebrities.  Tattoo culture in Japan has a long and storied history, but it appears to be slowly changing.

Change Amongst Japanese Tattoo Artists

Many traditional tattoo artists in Japan have indicated that not only are there fewer yakuza getting under the needle but their newer clientele often include people from all walks of life – including the white collar world. In fact an increasing number of artists in large cities (Tokyo and Osaka in particular) have foreigners make up anywhere from a third to over half of their total client base.

It is also increasingly apparent that many tattoo artists in Japan are no longer following the traditionally rigid master/apprentice system.  And a growing number of artists are specializing in both Western and Japanese style tattoos. Although a strong Japanese tattoo culture when it comes to theme is still readily apparent.  These changes could have many potential consequences for Japanese tattoos as an industry and an art. Only time will tell.

What does an increase in tattoo artists and number of people getting inked mean over all? By all accounts you would assume we could expect a general trend similar to what we’ve seen in the United States. But the signs prohibiting tattooed people from entering the hot springs are still up and you’ll still get looks if you have ink visible. So has anything really changed? What can a tattooed visitor expect when travelling around the country?

Horimitsu applying tebori style tattooing to a client. A representation of traditional tattoo culture.

Horimitsu applying tebori style tattooing to a client. A representation of traditional tattoo culture and something we see less and less of.


Foreigners with Tattoos in Japan

Foreigners tend to get away with a lot in Japan. It’s important to remember that Japan is mostly a monocultural society.  And as such those visiting from abroad won’t be expected to conform to many cultural norms. It’s really unlikely that you’re going to be scolded for not bowing properly or being unable to use chopsticks. You might earn a laugh or two.

Tattoos are a little different than your inability to remember taking of your shoes. The best you can hope for is keeping any visible tattoos covered if you feel you are likely to offend anyone. But this isn’t possible in some situations, like visiting a swimming pool, the beach, or a hot spring.  Or maybe you’re traveling in the summer and simply aren’t crazy enough to risk dehydration and heatstroke at the expense of other people’s sensibilities. Crazy, I know… At the same time it’s important to remember that as a visitor we shouldn’t be expecting others to conform to our judgment of what is and isn’t appropriate.

Walking that fine line between respecting another culture and not limiting ourselves from enjoyable activities is a line that is set from person to person. Personally I would hate to think that someone that has never experienced an onsen would keep themselves from that bliss.  It’s a must!  But what about all those reports of being turned away or kicked out of bathing facilities?

A photo from the waist up of a man with two half sleeve tattoos including the chest. The black background has brightly coloured koi fish splashing amongst waves. A turtle is also visible. The contrast between the colours in the foreground and the dark backs in the background is quite vivid.

Foreigners are increasingly willing to overcome the barriers that exist to be tattooed by Japanese artists in Japan.

Articles on Tattoo Stigma in Japan

Many of the articles reported online or in English language newspapers love to point out the tattoo stigma in Japan, and they often include some personal anecdote of being refused entry at one onsen or another. This is part and parcel of the seemingly never-ending desire to highlight cultural differences – it makes for good reading even if it does exacerbate the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’. These stories are undoubtedly true but it’s important to remember that they’re likely not aware of all the times that didn’t happen. One negative experience is not the norm.

Many – everyone I’ve spoken to – tattooed foreigners visiting or living in Japan will quickly tell you that they’ve never had issue with taking the bus and train or visiting an onsen, beach, or hotel (pools can be a different issue as there are usually lots of children present) even the ones sporting ‘tattoos prohibited’ signs.

This could be due to the fact that most Japanese people understand tattoos are largely accepted in the Western world. It could be due to the fact that they don’t want to deal with confrontation.  Especially where there may be a potential language barrier. Maybe they have a sign but don’t actually care enough to bother enforcing a rule they feel is silly.

I’m willing to wager that it’s actually a combination of those factors and because the attitude towards tattoos in Japan is slowly changing. In this day and age most of those in the hospitality industry readily accept that tattooed individuals aren’t unclean or dangerous. Or that they are… insomuch as anyone else.

Will You Be Okay With Tattoos in Japan

So in general, you’re going to be fine sporting your tattooed skin out and about as a visitor.  Japan has to be one of the safest places to travel. You’ll get some stares and people may make predetermined judgments about your character.  But they were going to do that anyway. But don’t be surprised to occasionally be denied entrance to an onsen or public swimming pool.

If you can, make your case politely.  Otherwise leave.  You’re a guest and will do more to help combat tattoo stigma by smiling and being polite.