Are tattoo bans at onsen a relic of the past or part of Japanese culture?
Japan’s history with tattoos is quite different than many other countries. Criminals used to be punished with tattoos, and they’ve been a symbol of organized crime membership for generations. The stigma against tattoos in Japan is such that even innocent ones are often met with revile online.
However, as more of other countries’ influence has affected Japan, and more foreigners than ever are coming to visit each year, attitudes toward tattoos have been slowly changing.
One place where the discrimination against those with tattoos can still be felt as strongly as ever though, is at hot springs.
▼ You have to be naked to bathe, so there’s no chance to cover up any tattoos,
making it a hot spot for controversy.
Not being able to visit a hot spring because of a tattoo can be disappointing for foreign visitors, and even though some places have loosened their restrictions, the no-tattoo policy is still the norm across the country.
But is it legal? That’s a question that hasn’t been asked much before, until one Japanese lawyer named Keita Adachi shared his thoughts on the matter with NicoNico News:
“In general, it’s up to stores and accommodations whether or not they allow people to use them. However, refusing service to anyone with a tattoo is unreasonable discrimination, and in the near future may be treated as possibly going against article 14 of the constitution and public order and morals.”
Article 14 of the Japanese constitution is all about equality, how discrimination based on “political, economic or social relations on account of race, creed, sex, social status, caste or national origin” is illegal.
Do tattoos fall under one of those categories? Keita argues that it doesn’t even necessarily matter.
“Either way, the reality is that there will be people who see tattoos as unpleasant, so hot springs could lend out swimwear, towels, or other coverings for them. They already do this for guests who want to cover up surgical scar or burns, so it doesn’t make sense for them not to allow the same for guests with tattoos. This also has the added benefit of making foreigners more comfortable if they’re not used to bathing naked with others.”
Keita’s argument does make sense logically, but culturally it may still be lacking, as evidenced by the reactions of Japanese netizens online:
“The tattoo ban is a ban on yakuza. It’s not that Japan hates foreigners’ tattoo culture, we just hate the yakuza.”
“I mean someone with a tattoo can just go to a private bath. The ban is only at ones where you bathe with others.”
“Tattoos being a sign of a criminal, yakuza, or idiot is super helpful, I say we keep the system as it is.”
“Rather than us being understanding to them, they should be understanding to us.”
It still seems that by and large tattoos are still seen as negative. Despite what some of the netizens say, however, tattoos do affect people’s lives in more ways than just bathing publicly. Is this something that will, or even should change in time?
It’s hard to say, but one thing’s for sure: when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics come around, the onsen that allow tattooed customers will be getting a lot of business.