A new survey from the official Japan Tourism Agency finds that 56 percent of Japanese hotels and inns will not permit guests with tattoos into their public bathing facilities, The Japan Times reports. Thirteen percent of hoteliers said they wanted guests’ tattoos to at least be hidden, and fewer than a third thought tattoos were totally cool (31 percent).
Why the hostility? For much of its history, Japan was actually pretty tattoo-friendly. Clay figurines bearing tattoo-like marks have been traced to the Jomon Period, between 10,500 and 300 B.C.E. Tattoos were also popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when working-class Japanese took advantage of the country’s flowering arts scene to critique the country’s military dictatorship—and some of that art ended up on their bodies.
“It was difficult for the samurai to ignore these indelible critiques,” writes Japan TimesreporterJon Mitchell, “so they imposed bans on tattooing.”
The final blow to Japanese tattoo artistry came in the middle of the 19th century, Mitchell writes, as Western powers began to colonize parts of Asia. Authorities feared Japan’s tattoo culture would look uncivilized to Westerners, and drove it even further underground. Permanent body art became the province of the yakuza, Japanese gangsters.
Today, there is a small but flourishing Japanese tattoo industry, and body art is particularly popular among the young. But as the new survey shows, tattoos are far from mainstream. In 2012, Osaka officials went as far as to ask city employees to disclose whether they had any visible tattoos.
“If tattoos of city employees are seen by the public, the city government will lose its credibility because they will make people feel nervous and intimidated," Osaka’s mayor wrote in a memo.
Enter the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Japan’s tourism agency is desperately trying to ready its country for an anticipated influx of foreigners—athletes and tourists alike. And many foreigners like tattoos more than the Japanese do. More than one in five Americans have a tattoo, according to the Pew Research Center, including nearly 40 percent of American millennials. Tattoos are similarly popular in Europe.
Japan’s public bath culture is a major draw for many visitors (and should be particularly popular in the summer). Getting kicked out of facilities for visible tattoos is bound to leave some sore. Should tattooed foreigners suck it up and respect the mainstream culture? Probably. But some won’t. Japan’s tourism industry has five years to figure it out.