Tattoos, Yakuza, and Japanese Hot Springs
I have to admit — when I went to get a tattoo on my left forearm while on a short visit to Austin, Texas, I was a little afraid.
It wasn’t the needle, the pain (turned out to be completely painless), or the standard apocalyptic warnings from older generations that these things “are for life.” (Common, the acid you all did in the 70’s was “for life.”) What I was indeed afraid of was the risk of not being able to enjoy a soothing soak in any Japanese hot spring (or “onsen”) — ever again.
You see, tattoos in Japan have always been associated with the Yakuza, or the Japanese mafia. Some explain their “irezumi” tattoos as a way of intimidating others, but whatever the intent behind their ink, regular Japanese folk are not very fond of it because, well, most people don’t like mobsters. That’s why public baths, hot springs, and other public facilities in Japan where skin is exposed have almost always denied access to people with tattoos.
The good news is that time, as always, cures all wounds. Ok, no wounds in this case (depending on how you view injecting permanent ink into your skin), but tattoos in modern Japan are no longer as taboo as they used to be. Many ordinary citizens now get ink for aesthetic purposes, while many Yakuza members are avoiding ink in the first place to be able to do business in the modern economy (which, apparently, involves the same deception and theft, just without the colorful intimidation tactics).
Many Japanese public baths and hot springs in famous “onsen” destinations like the northern island of Hokkaido and Hakone (located a couple hours away from Tokyo) are now accepting tattooed customers, especially if the ink is clearly what they deem a “fashionable tattoo” as opposed to the traditional Yakuza “irezumi.” Plus, if you’re a foreigner, there’s much less chance that you would be associated with the local mafia.
So, if you have some ink and are worried about not being able to enjoy the incredible hot spring experience during your trip to Japan, I hope I’ve put you at ease. I personally have not had any issues. If you do want to be absolutely sure though – there’s now a new website that lists the hot springs and public baths (as well as other facilities like gyms and hotels) that are tattoo-friendly. It’s called Tattoo Spot (Google Translate may be necessary).