Japanese owners of famous ‘onsen’ hot springs soften their stance on tattoo ban to appease foreign visitors

The Japan National Tourism Organisation says it is encouraging hotels and onsen operators to provide options to foreign guests with tattoos.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 7:57pm

Operators of Japan’s much loved “onsen” hot springs – one of the highlights of any trip for many foreign visitors – are coming around to the notion that they need to provide solutions to the cultural minefield surrounding tattoos.

Skin art is still widely perceived as a mark of Japan’s “yakuza” groups and public baths and hot springs have for generations banned anyone with a tattoo from enjoying their facilities. That attitude has remained largely unchanged, despite a massive increase in the number of overseas visitors coming to Japan and the increasingly widespread trend among foreigners to have tattoos.

Those tattoos may be tribal markings, the names of loved-ones or a small and discreet rose or dolphin. In Japan, however, operators of onsen regard a fashionable butterfly or a heart in exactly the same way as the full body tattoos that the underworld use as a badge of belonging.

“It’s a very sensitive issue and for us Japanese people because seeing tattoos in a public place – such as an onsen – makes us uncomfortable,” said a spokesperson for Hoshino Resorts, which operates a number of high-end hotels and onsen across Japan.

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With visitor numbers soaring but mindful of not upsetting the company’s Japanese guests, Hoshino Resorts has taken a more proactive approach to the problem.

“For small tattoos, we provide guests with a sticking plaster that they can use to conceal it before they go into the hot spring,” said the company official, who declined to be named.

“We do understand that tattoos have become fashionable in other countries and we really did want to do something that would be acceptable to everyone,” she said. “We believe this will mean that everyone will be able to enjoy our onsen.”

Not all of Japan’s operators have been as quick to keep up with modern realities, however, which has caused confusion among foreign visitors who had no idea that they would be refused access to an onsen if they had a tattoo.

A study carried out recently by the Japan Tourism Agency revealed that 56 per cent of hotels and inns across the country do not permit anyone with a tattoo to use their communal bathing facilities and have no provisions to help bathers conceal a tattoo.

Just over 30 per cent said they will not turn someone with a tattoo away, while a further 13 per cent say they will grant someone with a tattoo access under certain conditions, such as having it covered up.

The study also revealed that 47 per cent of operators that permitted people with tattoos to use their facilities had received complaints from other guests, underlining the depth of opposition in Japanese society.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation says it is encouraging hotels and onsen operators to provide options to foreign guests with tattoos.

“I think an initiative such as providing sticking plasters is a very good one because our research shows that onsen are one of the top reasons foreign people come to Japan,” Kenichiro Shinomura, head of the JNTO’s Inbound Promotion Department, told the South China Morning Post.

“We cannot force companies to give people with a tattoo access so, for us, it’s more a process of education,” he said, suggesting that an alternative to sticking plasters is to offer people with a tattoo private onsen rather than a shared bath.