Travel to Japan With Tattoo | Japanese hospitality roughed up

Travel to japan with tattoo

Japanese hospitality roughed up

Japan has a complicated relationship with tattooing, in large part because it has long been synonymous with criminality and exclusion from society. Today, many travelers proudly wear one or more tattoos and want to explore the archipelago without questioning omotenashi, Japanese hospitality. Read this if you travel to Japan with tattoo…


I have a traditional Japanese style tattoo on a large part of my back. I know for a fact that tattooing is frowned upon, and people with tattoos usually get turned away from most public baths, swimming pools, and gyms.
But I heard that it could go further than that and prevent me from going to certain hotels, restaurants, even practicing martial arts in certain clubs.
What is it? Is it really difficult to organize a trip to Japan if you have a tattoo on a large part of the body?


It is indeed on a case-by-case basis and it would be difficult to give you absolute answer and truth when it comes to travel to Japan with tattoo… In your situation, it seems like this is a fairly large tattoo on a part of the body, okay. Afterwards, we must also see that the Japanese still make the difference between the potentially yakuza type whose body is often almost completely covered and a Westerner who is tattooed. The presence of drawings on our bodies does not have the same image or belonging at all. It is perhaps more once out of the big cities that it will be able to “shock” and again. I have two kanji on my shoulders. It was talking, young people even came to ask me once at the public baths but more out of curiosity and the discussion was very nice. My advice: you try despite everything and you say nothing. Or you show and you take them out: “kore wa ii deska?” And then, as has been said, exercise discretion depending on the situation. But don’t give up going because of it; p

Is tattooing illegal in Japan?

Being tattooed is not in itself illegal. On the other hand, the profession of tattoo artist tends to be exercised discreetly because legally subject in principle to the possession of a medical degree. Until recently, in September 2020, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled in favor of a tattoo artist accused of illegally practicing medicine.

As a result, established tattoo parlors are quite rare, and practicing tattoo artists (outside of the Mafia) have a long waiting list, sometimes of several years. This is an important consideration for those who would like a tattoo commemorating their time in Japan! After having found the ideal artist via social networks or a simple search engine, you must contact him / her long enough before the trip to be able to discuss the project and assess the number of appointments required, or even whether the project is feasible during your trip. Indeed, several parameters must be taken into account such as the availability of the tattooist or the healing time.

In any case, you are unlikely to be able to get a tattoo off the cuff in Japan. You also have to take into account that language can be a barrier, as many artists have little English. However, using the services of a professional Japanese-speaking guide makes it easier to book an appointment, or even get one more quickly according to his address book.

The ban of tattoos in Japan

In 1868, it is the tragedy. Tattooing was banned in 1972, just after the Meiji Restoration, a decision taken by the powerful to give a more “healthy” image of their society. Most tattoo artists were then forced to hide or practice their art secretly, out of sight. A period when tattooing gradually became associated with organized crime and the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The Ainu, having made tattooing an ancestral custom, must abandon the tradition or face severe sanctions by the authorities (notably the removal of designs with hydrochloric acid). Despite all of these punishments, it didn’t really stop the horishi. Visitors from all over the world had to be given a special Japanese souvenir. They all chose irrezumi. The restrictions did not allow tattoo artists to flourish, and many migrated to countries more open to the issue.

The discreet return of the tattoo

1948 marks the return of tattooing, again authorized. Japan was, at the time, under post-war American occupation. Tattoo artists can relive their art and offer their services to foreign military personnel. Twenty years later, the horishi profession is gaining more and more recognition, but attitudes have not really changed. Even today, tattoos are associated with criminals and Yakuza who proudly displayed their tattoos, symbols of clan rallying or simply the mark of a prison sentence.

Many onsen (hot spring) or gyms still deny access to people with tattoos. Besides, tattooing has almost become a political debate. In 2012, the ex-mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, wanted to ban tattooing. He had asked some employees if they had them and what part of their body they were on. If that was the case, he would ask them to withdraw them or else to look for another job. The most recent case about tattoos was in 2017. A tattoo artist, Taiki Masuda, had his salon raided with no real explanation. The authorities argued a breach of the law, specifying that the practice of tattooing was reserved for health professionals.

Following this, he set up a “save the tattoo” campaign to improve the image of this profession, still frowned upon in Japan. The trial ended with a victory for Taiki Masuda; If it had not been the case, Japanese tattoo artists would have seen a massive ban on practicing their art in the Land of the Rising Sun. But during the next Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and the Rugby World Cup in September, how will the authorities control the many tattoos that athletes wear? The international rugby federation has asked players to hide their tattoos outside the lawns. In L’Equipe, World Rugby President Alan Gilpin said: “We will educate the Japanese that people who wear tattoos in the context of international rugby are not Yakuza […]. We won’t force any team to do it but they will, because they want to respect the culture. ”

What reaction to a tattooed person?

Overall, and if most accounts are to be believed, foreign tourists with tattoos tend to receive a positive reception and attract curiosity, but rarely disapproval.

On the contrary, a tattooed Japanese will be more subject to criticism. It is also more difficult to find a job in Japan if you have a tattoo, especially in the largest groups or in the administration. The mayor of Osaka was in the spotlight in 2012 when he called on municipal workers with tattoos to remove their tattoos or find another job.

However, the acceptance of the tattoo (s) may vary, but it should always be kept in mind that a Japanese interlocutor might feel discomfort, uneasy in front of a tattoo, for deeply rooted cultural reasons. Japanese onsen patrons do not hesitate to complain to the establishment when they notice that one of their co-swimmers has a tattoo. The degree of visibility and / or the size of the tattoo, as well as the tree motif may be taken into account in its acceptability.

Read also: Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo | The home of the Emperor of Japan

The reaction will vary depending on the location when you travel to Japan with tattoo:

  • in the street or in public spaces: in general this does not pose a problem. The tattoo can even be admired depending on the circumstances.
  • at the temple or shrine: there is no specific prohibition, but just as proper attire is required for the visit, you may be asked to cover visible tattooed areas.
  • at the sento, the public bath: the policy may vary depending on the establishment, but overall they are quite open towards people with tattoos.
  • at the beach ?: it is not necessarily forbidden, but in general they should be covered.
  • at the onsen, the thermal bath: tattooed people are refused quite often. Some onsen will tolerate tattoos if it is possible to cover them up.
  • at the ryokan: as for the onsen, if the baths are common, people with tattoos are mostly refused.
  • at the swimming pool / water park: visible tattoos are most often strictly prohibited.
  • at the gym: ditto. However, it seems that small rooms or neighborhood rooms are more permissive than large ones.

Where the ban exists, it is usually displayed prominently, including a 入 れ 墨 禁止 sign (irezumi kinshi “No tattooing”) and there is no point in trying to negotiate.

How to live well with your tattoos in Japan?

“In Rome, do like the Romans”: While being a visible foreigner can often break free from many Japanese social rules, it won’t open all the doors to tattoos. The barrier of language and cultural habits can lead to situations embarrassing at best, unpleasant and annoying at worst. In Japan, the rule is the rule!

To ensure that your tattooed stay in Japan goes smoothly, don’t hesitate to take the initiative:

  • Ask / check if tattoos are allowed and within what limits when booking your ryokan, or at the entrance to onsen, sento and other water parks.
  • Reserve private baths in case of refusal of shared baths.
  • Prefer low-traffic hours for baths, sports halls and swimming pools which authorized. Some places even have specific arrangements in this regard.
  • Provide something to cover the tattooed parts: clothes, scarf, towel, bandage, overalls, etc. whether for the baths, the beach, sport, water parks or even visits to traditional places. It is quite easy to find “arm covers”, kinds of arm socks whose primary function is to protect against UV rays, but which can also hide a tattoo (see our photo gallery).
  • If possible and depending on the circumstances, hide your tattoo before you are asked to, in an approach of thoughtfulness and attention to others that the Japanese call 思 い 遣 り omoiyari.
  • You also have to accept being turned away from a place because of a tattoo and leave without making a scene or trying to negotiate. It may not be pleasant or even absurd from our perspective as travelers, but this is how Japan works. It is also a way of experiencing cultural difference.

How to spot tattoo-friendly places?

To help you to travel to Japan with tattoo, some sites and apps list the onsen, sento and ryokan that do not refuse tattooed people, such as:

  • Tattoo Friendly, in English and Japanese. The site also has a list of tattoo parlors in Japan.
  • Tattoo Spot, in Japanese.

However, these sites are not necessarily updated, so in absolute terms, it’s best to check directly with the establishments you plan to visit to avoid disappointments. Some places, like in Kusatsu, directly state whether they are “tattoo-friendly” or accept “body art” unrelated to gangs.

Please note, some major tourist attractions strictly prohibit any form of tattooing, whether temporary (decal, henna), permanent, or traditional (eg Maori tattoos). Visible tattoos are prohibited in particular:

  • at the Yomiuriland swimming pool;
  • at the Hamana-ko Pal Pal water park;
  • at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari amusement park in Tokyo (which closes permanently on September 5, 2021);
    and, more surprisingly, at Spa LaQua at Tokyo Dome!

Better not to try to “trick” because if the tattoo is not completely concealed by the swimsuit or the correct attire required by these establishments, one runs the risk of being expelled without reimbursement of the costs of Entrance !

Hence the importance of planning your visits well, either by reserving baths or private areas so as not to have to talk about your tattoos, or by selecting the places where they will be accepted.

How to ask for permission to enter with tattoos in Japan?

This is very important when travel to Japan with tattoo. You should know some basics:

To ask if tattoos are allowed, say:

Tattoo wa daijobu desu ka? (タ ト ゥ ー は 大丈夫 で す か)

If they are prohibited, the answer will contain (sometimes with the arms crossed):

O kotowari desu (お 断 り で す) or O kotowari itashimasu (お 断 り い た し ま す);
Lady desu (ダ メ で す).

If they are accepted:

OK (okkei) desu (オ ッ ケ ー で す);
Daijobu desu (大丈夫 で す).

If you are asked to cover the tattoo:

Tattoo wo kakushite kudasai (タ ト ゥ ー を 隠 し て く だ さ い “Please cover your tattoo”),
Tattoo kabaa shiiru wo tsukatte kudasai (タ ト ゥ ー カ バ ー シ ー ル を 使 っ て く だ さ い “Please cover your tattoo with a Tattoo Cover Seal”).

The Tattoo Cover Seal (also called foundation tape, hada kaku shiito, skin cover sheet) is a kind of flesh-colored, water-resistant bandage that offers the appearance of a second skin and can cover tattoos of small dimensions . It’s fairly easy to get hold of through most online sales platforms, at affordable prices (on average ¥ 1,000 / ~ US $ 7.99 for 4 patches) although the color chart is quite small.

However, it is best to order them and have them received before you go, as once in Japan it can be difficult to find them. They are sold in big names such as Don Quijote (Donki), but not all stores have them on the shelves. Shops specializing in cosplay items (Animate in particular) can also help out, provided you find one on your travel itinerary.


In Japanese, there are several words to say “tattoo”. Irezumi (入 れ 墨) and horimono (彫 り 物) are commonly used and generally refer to a tattoo with a traditional Japanese pattern, with the English word tattoo (タ ト ゥ ー) denoting all other styles of tattoos.

For the traditional Japanese tattoo, several denominations exist depending on their location and extent on the body. Here are some examples:

In JapaneseTranscriptionMeaning
胸割りMunewariTorso tattoo except for a vertical stripe in the center or split chest bodysuit
長袖NagasodeTattoo extending from the shoulder to the wrist. The arm tattoo offers several variations of length (up to the gobu elbow 五分, middle of the forearm shichibu 七分)
亀の甲Kame no kô“Turtle shell” tattoo, i.e. covering the back and back of the thighs
胸割り総身彫りMunewari sôshinboriFull body tattoo to wrists and ankles with the exception of a vertical stripe in the middle of the torso
隠し彫りKakushiboriTattooing hidden areas of the body (near the armpits, inner thighs, etc.)

Sources: PinterPandai, Voyapon, Tattoo Friendly, Old Dominian University / Bodylore

Photo credit: Verahelen / Pixabay

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