Japan is in the midst of a massive tourist boom. The administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has made promotion of tourism a priority, and sees it as a lynch-pin of Japan's economic growth. And it's no wonder: a combination of world-renowned hospitality, a deep history and rich tapestry of traditions, and the abundance of wonderful food make Japan a must-see for any world traveler.

But with great tourism comes great travail. The country's declining population means its businesses are chronically short-handed - which has led some tourism-related industries to resort to technology to boost their labor supply. The boon has also led to some friction between residents of Japan and tourists, with residents complaining of rising prices, and of foreigners who are unaware of local manners and customs.

Perhaps one of the most interesting culture clashes, however, involves tattoos.

Tourists who flock to Japan tend to gravitate towards Japan's famous onsen (温泉), or hot springs, which are plentiful in the volcanically active island nation. According to a study by the Ministry of Tourism, some 26% of all visitors to Japan report wanting to go to a hot spring. Of the 33% who did go on a given visit, 41% reported wanting to go back - making hot springs a great source of repeatable tourism revenue for the nation.

(JP) Link: The Popularity of Hot Springs with Foreign Tourists...Is There Common Ground on the "Tattoo Problem"?

外国人旅行者の温泉人気…「タトゥー問題」の“着地点”はあるのか - FNN.jpプライムオンライン
FNN.jp編集部 外国人旅行者に人気がある「日本の温泉」 国内のホテル・旅館の過半数がタトゥー「入浴お断り」 「受け入れを進めるためには“先進例”が必要」 2018年、約3,119万人にのぼった訪日

Naturally, more than a few of these tourists have one or more visible tattoos; in some cases, they're covered with them. That poses a problem for entering a hot spring in Japan, where tattoos remain a major cultural taboo. While tattooing is now accepted as a form of art and self-expression in the United States and other countries, the practice is shunned in Japan, and is in fact strongly associated with the yakuza (ヤクザ), members of Japan's organized crime groups.

As a result, many hot springs outright prohibit anyone with tattoos from entering a hot spring or a public bath. Because they're so strongly associated with crime, Japanese residents who spot someone adorned with tattoos suspect they're bathing with yakuza - which makes for a less than relaxing soak. This rule is rapidly becoming an issue for hot springs, which stand to lose tourist dollars if they turn away visitors from countries with a different cultural outlook on tattooing.

Branded as a Bandit: How Tattoos Became Criminal

How did tattoos earn such a bad rep in Japan in the first place?

According to Japanese informational site AllAbout, tattooing is thought by some historians to be a practice dating back to the Jomon era in Japan. As we discussed in another article, the practice is also prevalent among Ainu women in Hokkaido, who tattoo their hands before marriage, and then tattoo their lips with a dark black ink once wedded.

But in the Nara and, again, the Edo eras of Japan, customs changed, and tattoos were used for another purpose: branding criminals. In the old state of Kishuu (present-day Wakayama), a criminal would have a tattoo put on their arm to signify their criminal status to the public. If they were a habitual offender, they would have either the character 大 (dai; great) or 犬 (inu; dog) permanently etched into their foreheads.

Tattooing was made explicitly illegal in 1872 by an order of the Grand State Council of Meiji Japan. Although the law was repealed in 1948, the association with organized crime lingered. It was reinforced as yakuza used the practice of tattoing to prove their loyalty to their syndicate. It's a stigma that remains in Japanese culture to this day.

(JP) Link: Why Can't You Enter a Public Bath or Hot Spring with Tattoos? The Reason Behind the Prohibition

なぜ入れ墨(タトゥ)をしている人は銭湯や温泉で入場拒否されるのでしょうか? 実は江戸時代には、入れ墨は罪人に対する刑罰でした。その後、明治時代に刑罰としての入墨刑が禁止される一方で、装飾用の入れ墨が禁止されました。こうした経緯が、入れ墨に対するネガティブイメージを定着させたようです。今回は、今でも公共の入浴場において入れ墨拒否されるのはなぜなのか、日本の歴史からその理由を探ります。

Asa result, according to the FNN article linked above, some 55.9% of all hot springs forbid people from entering with tattoos. Of those polled, 58.6% say the prohibition is for "health and sanitary reasons"; however, it's impossible to say whether that's a real reason, or a safe-facing excuse to cover up a general unease over tattoos.

Oita Prefecture Welcomes Your Tattooed Ass

Now, obviously, Japanese business owners aren't stupid. The growing awareness around the importance of tourism to the Japanese economy is causing many to rethink their tattoo ban, leading to a greater number of hot springs that welcome foreigners regardless of tattoo status. However, it can be hard for non-Japanese-speaking visitors to know which facilities can accommodate them.

One Japanese municipality that's gone whole hog in tackling this problem is Oita Prefecture (大分県おおいたけん). Oita, known as the "onsen prefecture", is home to a number of spectacular hot spring resorts in cities such as Beppu. Oita is also hosting the 2019 World Cup in October, which means it expects a huge influx of foreign tourists.

In response, both the prefecture and its cities have started an intense campaign to educate foreign visitors on the hot spring resorts in the area that eagerly welcome the inked. Recently, Beppu introduced a web site explaining the issue to foreigners in English. The site is accompanied by a map that lists the 100+ hot springs in the area where people with tattoos won't be turned away.

100 Tattoo-allowed Hot Springs in Beppu, Japan - Enjoy Onsen
Many of Japan’s hot springs and public baths have rules against tattooed people entering the bath. Although recently in Western culture, tattoos are very fashionable and popular, for many Japanese people tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, the name of the organized crime syndicate in Japan. These gangsters were traditionally covered in tattoos, and because of that tattoos are now seen as a sign of a criminal, meaning that there is discrimination against them. For a Japanese person, if they go to an onsen and see people with full body tattoos, it may be hard for them to relax and enjoy the bath due to these preconceptions. Because the goal …

Now the prefecture itself has announced that, on March 18th, it'll unveil a Web site for the whole prefecture giving tourists a guide to "Tattoo OK" hot springs in the entire prefecture. It's the first time a Japanese prefecture has led such an extensive effort. The head of Oita prefecture's International Tourism unit, Kawshima Eiichirou, says the decision came out of an international hot springs resort owners meeting hosted in Beppu last year, with the meeting leading Oita officials to conclude that Japan's "hot springs prefecture" needed to set an example for the rest of the country.

Cultural biases are hard to shake, so it's understandable that the tattoo issue has been a tough nut to crack in Japan. Hopefully, with Oita Prefecture leading the way, more tourists can feel at ease taking advantage of Japan's amazing onsen.