Updated October 18, 2023
Living in Japan With Tattoos
Living in Japan as a foreigner can be tough for various reasons.
For one, the culture is so vastly different and unique that most of the time, you don’t know what may be perceived as offensive. Of course, it’s not like Japanese people are trying to take offense or anything, but still, some habits or actions we may be well used to can be perceived as rude or offensive in Japan even without realizing it.
Well, tattoos just might be among the most common of these cultural differences foreigners face when visiting or living in Japan. If you’ve ever visited Japan and are inked up, chances are you’ve already been warned about showing your tattoos in public at least once or twice.
And it’s not like tattoos are illegal in Japan or anything, either. It’s an entirely cultural thing that stems from various events in Japan’s history, but this interesting stance on tattoos may very well be perceived as strange to the outsider's eye.
You might not find the cultural background interesting, of course, but you do need to learn when and where you should avoid showing your tattoos if you’re staying in Japan to ensure a stress-free time.
It’s true that living in Japan with tattoos requires a bit of learning about the country’s culture and history, and you’ve come to the right place, as that’s exactly what I’ll teach you in this post.
So, let’s now start with the history of tattoos in Japan to give you some background on why tattoos are associated with a social stigma in Japan, as well as whether things have always been this way.
Tattoos in Japan: A Cultural Background
Before we delve into some handy tips and tricks regarding living in Japan with tattoos, let’s discuss the cultural background of tattoos in Japan and explain the stigma around them.
First of all, let me start by saying that tattoos didn’t always have a negative connotation attached to them. While it’s widely known today that tattoos are a no-go in Japan, the country’s history with tattoos is a rather complicated one, as tattoos took on different meanings throughout the different periods of the country’s past.
For instance, if we go back as early as the Jomon period, which was between 1400 and 300 B.C., when Japan was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer population, we see that figures drawn on faces and bodies were fairly common.
In fact, this unique tattooing style that involves cord-like patterns even has a name: Irezumi. This not only means “tattoo” in traditional Japanese but also refers to this style of tattooing as an ancient art.
So, what happened, then, if Japan even had its own style of tattoo art in its rich history? How did tattoos come to be frowned upon by the general public? If you ask anyone today, most will say that it’s because of the Yakuza connection, which I’ll also explain in a bit, but is that really it? Not quite…
Tattooing as a Form of Punishment
While tattooing was a form of art and a way to express oneself during the hunter-gatherer periods of Japan, this tradition sort of took a back seat in time, and it wasn’t until the Edo period of Japan that things took a weird turn.
I explained this before in my post on Japanese business cards, but the Edo period in Japan was between the years 1603 and 1868 when the military was in charge of the government. During this period, tattoos began to be used as a way to mark criminals, and the placement and shape of the tattoos would depend on the person’s crimes.
Due to this, tattoos quickly became a symbol of crime, and those who had tattoos were simply treated as social pariahs.
While this continued for a while, the winds of change that were brought upon with the Meiji restoration era, which signified the reinstatement of the emperor’s rule, changed the way tattoos were used as well.
During the Meiji period, tattooing flourished as an art form, and more and more people began to express themselves through body art. However, to the general public eye, tattoos still symbolized crime and would cause distress and panic when displayed in public, so by a disappointing misjudgment, the government decided to ban tattoos altogether.
By the time the Meiji era was over in 1912, the stigma around tattoos was quite prominent. In addition to already being a symbol of crime, tattooing was an outright illegal practice for decades at this point. Despite being legalized in 1948, the general public’s views didn’t really change.
Japanese Tattooing Rules Today: Are Tattoos Legal in Japan?
Finally, since 1948, tattoos in Japan have been legal. However, even while it was illegal, tattooing was still prominent among people of lower class, and people would come from other countries to get tattoos in Japan. So, we can at least rest easy knowing that the art form never really died in the first place.
Although the practice is legal today, there were still laws regarding tattooing until recently, which limited the practice to health professionals only. This caused tattooing to stay as an underground art, just like in the Meiji period, as most tattoo artists weren’t health professionals.
While this underground nature of the art made it even cooler, tattooing requires hygiene and care, which the forbidden nature of the act made it hard to provide.
Luckily, in 2020, Japan’s Supreme Court came to the verdict that people who aren’t health professionals could perform tattoo art as well. Thanks to this, a national tattoo artists association was able to be formed, and tattoo parlors became official, regulated businesses, which considerably decreased the health risks.
This development has helped the tattoo scene in Japan immensely and has even brought the ancient Irezumi art back in style, as people from all over the world come to Japan to have the famous cord patterns tattooed on their bodies.
However, all of this still doesn’t mean that tattoos are publicly accepted and celebrated in Japan. In fact, even in the present day, you might often be required to cover your tattoos in many public spaces. Let me explain.
The Yakuza Connection
While the story about tattoos as a punishment and a symbol of crime is enough to make the subject a big taboo in Japan, there’s a more recent and more prominent reason why tattoos are frowned upon, and that is the Yakuza connection.
In case you don’t know, Yakuza is the collective name of organized nationwide crime groups in Japan, and it’s akin to what you might know as gangsters or the mafia in the West. Founded in the 17th century, Yakuza members are known to have tattoos on their bodies, which are assumed to date back to the times when criminals were marked with tattoos.
This is not to be confused with tattoos that were meant to be punishments, however, which is a practice that predates the Yakuza by a long shot.
While it’s believed that the members of the Yakuza all carried markings on their bodies as a symbol of a life entangled in crime, tattoos came to be fully embraced by the Yakuza in time in an unrelated fashion. Soon enough, Yakuza members began to get tattoos to symbolize their way of life, and this is still very much a thing in today’s Japan.
Living in Japan With Tattoos Today: Can You Have Tattoos in Japan?
So, as you’d expect, considering Japan’s complicated past with tattoos, most people in Japan still see tattoos as a symbol of the Yakuza or simply as a sign of crime and violence.
This is despite the fact that Yakuza members usually tattoo parts of their bodies that aren’t frequently visible to the public. In a Vice article that covers one of the biggest tattoo artists in Japan who tattoos Yakuza members, even the artist explains how he refuses to tattoo above the neck or on the hands.
So, don’t get weirded out if you have large, visible tattoos and people around you shy away from you or seem distressed. Instead, if it’s not too much of a hassle and your tattoos aren’t in visible places, it might be best to cover them whenever you can when you’re in public.
While this is, of course, considerate on your part, unfortunately, some places may straight up ban you from entering if you have visible tattoos.
That said, if you live in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, you’ll find that you won’t have much of a problem in the majority of the places you frequent. Of course, some places require you to cover your tattoos up, which I’ll provide some tips for later, but it’s safe to say that you’ll be generally fine living in Japan with tattoos as a foreigner in Japan today.
But what about Japanese people? Do they have tattoos? Is there a difference in the way tattooed Japanese people are viewed in Japan? Let’s find out.
Do Japanese People Have Tattoos?
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are only a few countries with a history and culture as strong and rich as Japan’s, but if there’s one downside to this, it’s the fact that tattoos still can’t become mainstream among the country’s citizens.
While most old customs and traditions are still alive today in Japan, sadly, the stigma around tattoos is very much alive as well. I talked about this in my post on “Is Japan safe?”, but this is why most Japanese people still refrain from getting tattoos even today.
I’m not saying tattooed Japanese people don't exist, of course. There are many young people who do have tattoos, but most still prefer to get them where they’re the least visible to avoid going against public opinion so… publicly.
Besides, most people are also afraid to miss out on jobs, as traditional Japanese companies care a great deal about the candidates’ looks, and visible tattoos are considered to be a big no-no. I talked about some other things you may want to watch out for with these companies, which you can check out in my post on outfit tips for job interviews in Japan.
All of this isn’t much of a surprise, however, considering the fact that tattoos were only allowed to be administered by health professionals up until as recently as 2020.
In fact, only a few years ago, in a controversial turn of events, the mayor of Osaka, who’s known to have right-leaning political views, expressed his concern regarding government workers with tattoos, stating that they should disclose their tattoos even if they aren’t visible.
So, Japanese people do seem to have it worse when it comes to tattoos compared to foreigners living in Japan, but there are still some tips and tricks that can make living with tattoos in Japan easier.
Having Tattoos in Japan as a Foreigner: What You Need to Know
I can imagine how everything I told you so far has painted a picture that might seem a bit too bleak, but generally speaking, tattoos only become a problem in Japan when they’re visible and if you’re working at a government agency or a traditional Japanese company.
As long as you stick to tech companies and companies that are more modern, like the ones we feature on the Japan Dev company list, it’s safe to say that your daily life won’t be affected as much. Still, here are some facts and tips that might come in handy if you have tattoos and are considering living in Japan.
Know When to Cover Up
Whether you’re just visiting or are living in Japan, you’re eventually bound to go to either the gym, a public pool, or a beach. I’m here to save you the headache and tell you that unless specifically stated otherwise, these places absolutely require you to cover up your tattoos completely.
Not that you can’t find a place where it’s okay to have tattoos, but if you take this as a rule, you’re guaranteed to have an easier time with your tattoos in Japan overall. Of course, while gyms, pools, and beaches are the most obvious examples of places where your tattoos might be exposed, you can add similar public spaces such as water parks, group yoga classes, etc.
Generally, these places all have a sign that says tattoos aren’t allowed, but even if they don’t, you should assume this is the case anyway. As tattoos are outright banned at these places, expect to be asked to put a shirt on or cover the visible parts of your tattoos with additional clothing.
However, if it’s not possible to cover your tattoos due to them being too big or being on your hands, face, or neck, you may be politely asked to leave. This is simply a policy, and you shouldn’t take offense.
Speaking of gyms, if you want to learn more about gym etiquette in Japan, as well as get some nice gym recommendations for foreigners, make sure to check out my post on fitness in Japan once you’re done here.
Ryokans Are a No-Go
I introduced ryokans in my post about Airbnb and its alternatives in Japan, but basically, ryokans are Japan’s answer to the Western-style hotel experience. These traditional inns boast an extreme level of hospitality, and they are some of the most unique places where you can get a traditional Japanese experience.
However, the word “traditional” is the key word here, as tattoos aren’t allowed in most ryokans.
Of course, there are some ryokans that do accept tattooed guests, but they’re a small minority, and you’ll be asked to cover up your tattoos in most of them. In any case, even if a ryokan allows you to check in, it’s still best to cover up your tattoos in all public spaces within the establishment out of respect for other guests.
One of these public spaces you may come across is the onsen, or Japanese hot springs.
Most Onsens Aren’t Tattoo Friendly
I talked about Japan’s onsens briefly in my post on winters in Japan, but essentially, an onsen is a hot spring resort in Japan that is sometimes attached to a ryokan. Think of these as Japanese spa resorts.
As you’d expect, like in most other places where you’ll wear a swimsuit or walk around in nothing but a towel, tattoos aren’t allowed in most onsens as well. Although there are onsens where tattooed people can enter, these, like tattoo-friendly ryokans, are extremely rare.
Also, some places may refuse to let you enter even with your tattoos covered, so it’s best to take initiative and cover up beforehand if your tattoos aren’t super obvious or can be covered with a larger bathing suit or a simple bandage.
While most onsens don’t allow tattooed guests, however, there are still some onsens in Japan that do not mind tattoos at all. So, if you want to bathe in peace without a worry, be sure to check out my post on tattoo-friendly onsens where I talked about these onsens extensively and reviewed 35 of the greatest options.
Respecting Religious Sites
This may seem obvious, as I’ve already said that tradition and tattoos don’t exactly go hand in hand, but religious places and shrines are other important places where tattoos aren’t allowed, and it’s important to know this beforehand.
While some other places I mentioned here, like the pools and bathhouses, will almost always have a sign that says tattoos aren’t allowed, you won’t find signs like these in most religious sites, shrines, and temples.
So, out of respect, make sure that your tattoos are adequately covered when visiting religious sites and places of worship in general.
Learn the House Rules Beforehand (And Act First)
This one is more of a suggestion than a straight-up rule you have to follow, but if you want to be considerate, knowing the rules of the place you’re visiting or living in beforehand is a good idea.
You might think that this will only save you the headache and the stress, but this is also important to save employees the embarrassment and stress of refusing a customer or the hassle of having to explain the rules.
While you might go to a public pool or an onsen in Japan only once in your lifetime, the employees working at these places face many foreigners and tourists throughout the day who either don’t know the rules or ignore the signs.
This is mainly because, as I mentioned in my post on teamwork in Japan, Japanese people care a great deal about protecting societal harmony and avoiding conflict when possible. So, when you try to enter a place with visible tattoos, not only are you putting yourself through the stress of potentially being refused entry or getting a warning, but you’re also putting another person in a position of conflict.
So, when in Japan, the least you can do is adopt or at least respect societal values and assume that most places won’t allow tattoos. Covering up before being asked to will save both you and the employee the hassle and the awkwardness, which anyone will appreciate.
Don’t Take It Personal
While it’s good to know which places are generally safe to enter with tattoos and which ones are not, you’ll end up finding out either way when the time comes. There’ll be clear signs most of the time, and people will eventually let you know if there aren’t.
However, the most important thing to know beforehand is the fact that you’re not being targeted as a person because you have tattoos. You’re simply going against a somewhat established tradition, however negative, and that won’t ever be taken well. So, if you’re ever denied entrance to a public place or asked to leave, don’t take it personally.
Most of the time, they’ll be polite, anyway, but even if they’re not, try to act with compassion and understand that this is simply a cultural difference. There are plenty of ways to live and exist in a society, and there are countless different norms and values people choose to live by all around the globe.
Besides, not taking things personally is a great approach to life that can save you a lot of anxiety and stress anyway. So, even when you feel like you can’t tolerate the rules, at least try to look on the bright side and take this as a learning experience.
Tips for Living in Japan with Tattoos: The Art of Covering Up
Finally, before I conclude this post, I’d like to leave you with a few tips and tricks for living in Japan with tattoos.
Now that you know where and when tattoos are a no-go in Japan and the cultural reasoning behind the taboo, all you need are a few handy tips to help you master the art of covering up your tattoos.
Rashies and Bathing Suits to The Rescue
Perhaps the biggest problem you’ll face as a tattooed person in Japan is when you go to a public pool, beach, or an onsen. All of these places require you to wear a bathing suit or a bikini, which can be very revealing depending on the style.
So, naturally, a good way to combat this is by looking for an alternative bathing suit that may cover the desired area where your tattoos are located. Luckily, for women, a bikini isn’t the only option, as they can also wear bathing suits that can cover up the whole torso.
This may work well for tattoos on your back or chest, but it obviously won’t work if you’re a man or if you have tattoos on your hands or arms. This is where rash guards come in.
Rash guards, also known as rashies, are athletic polyester or nylon shirts that are often worn by surfers, wakeboarders, and people who work in the sea or under the sun for long hours. Essentially, a rash guard protects your skin from the sun and is made to be comfortably worn in the water.
So, wearing a long-sleeved rash guard can save you the headache of covering your tattoos up and putting on sunscreen at the same time.
Arm Covers and Tattoo Bandages Are Your Friends
While a rash guard can work wonders in a swimming environment, they won't be of much help when you’re out and about in the city. So, if you have tattoos on your arms or any other visible areas of your body, I recommend investing in tattoo tapes or bands.
These are exactly what they sound like. They are bandages made to cover up tattoos, and they come in different shapes and sizes.
Tattoo bandages are usually semi-translucent and have different tints and textures depending on the brand. As covering up tattoos is a common issue in Japan due to the cultural taboo of it all, many brands have come up with their own solutions.
For instance, some brands offer translucent tapes, while others advertise themselves as “foundation tapes” and look more like you’ve applied foundation to your skin. Of course, almost all of these bandages are waterproof, and some even last up to two weeks if applied properly.
Of course, if you have a tattoo that covers most of your arms, bandages won’t cut it. In this case, getting into arm covers can be a good idea. In addition to their practicality, arm covers, or sleeves can be quite fashionable, and you can mix and match different fabrics, patterns, and textures with your outfit to go with your style.
Besides, arm covers and similar protective sleeves are fairly common in Japan, even among people with no tattoos, as they simply serve as a way to protect your arms from the sun in the summer.
Scarves: Chic and Practical
Another great tip for those who have tattoos on their upper arms and neck is to carry a scarf around. It may sound simple, but carrying a scarf is a must for cold weather anyway, and it’s a quick and easy solution for covering up tattoos as well.
Even during hot summer months, a lightweight scarf can give you peace of mind and bonus points if you opt for a scarf that’s larger and can work as a schal or sarong as well. These can not only cover your arms but your whole upper body if needed, too.
I recommend getting a larger scarf that isn’t too thick and is made from breathable material. This way, you can fold it up to make a thicker scarf to wear around your neck in winter or fold it out like a large but thin schal, beach wrap, or sarong when you need to cover your whole upper body or legs in summer when entering religious sites or other traditional places where tattoos are frowned upon.
Private Onsens Exist
Last but not least, this isn’t exactly a tip for covering your tattoos up, but it’s still good to know for peace of mind, especially if you plan on visiting onsens yourself or are living in Japan and want to take your guests from overseas to a Japanese onsen.
While most onsens are open to the public (or open to all customers in an establishment), and some onsen establishments offer private onsens you can rent out as well. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you get a private onsen all to yourself or to your whole party, and it’s a pretty cool experience, even if you don’t have tattoos and want more privacy.
Private onsens are available at many large onsens and ryokans, and you can book one in advance via phone or online if they have websites. Of course, these are pricier than regular onsens, but I’d say the experience itself is worth it.
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