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Why Are Tattoos Still Taboo In Japan? (Spoiler: It’s not because they think you’re a gangster)

Taiwanese artist Horian working on a full-body piece at the (now sadly defunct) King of Tattoo event in Tokyo. The guy in the chair is getting his final sleeve done, in a style which resembles traditional yakuza ink.

So, everyone knows you can get kicked out of hot springs, public swimming pools, and water parks in Japan if you’ve got visible ink, even if it’s a teeny, tiny, adorable Hello Kitty. But why?

The usual excuse is that nobody wants their nice business infested with yakuza gangsters, which is the only Japanese group known for their body art. But ***DUH*** gangster tattoos are as easy to pick out as a Goth at Disneyland. Gangster body art is intricate, extremely traditional (one might even say ultra-conservative, like their politics) and as much of a full-body commitment as they can afford. It’s about as different from Western-style tattoos as you can get, and any idiot can tell the difference.

Obviously not a soldier for the Mob

Plus, it doesn’t explain why businesses ban foreigners with tattoos. The yakuza don’t exactly invite non-Japanese to join their not-so-secret society – they dislike gaijin more than anyone in Japan (as you can’t help but notice if you’ve ever been deafened by their uyoku right-wing pals’ loudspeaker vans cruising the streets of Tokyo, spewing various flavors of foreigners-go-home at about 6,000 decibels).

So what’s the real reason so many Japanese businesses still ban customers with tattoos?

Here’s what one of my Japanese school teachers explained to me: getting tattooed is an insult to your parents and your ancestors.

According to him, there’s a deeply-held cultural belief that your parents (or, if you prefer, the Shinto gods) gave you your body when you were born, and if you modify it by getting tattoos (or, to a lesser degree, piercings*) you are rejecting and criticizing their gift by permanently altering it. People who show that level of disrespect for their family are suspected of also disrespecting Japanese society. Businesses fear that people with tattoos are more likely to flout the rules – making the experience of being at a hot spring or playing at a water park unpleasant for other customers – and the Japanese way to deal with it is to ban potential troublemakers rather than take the chance.

I know, this sounds pretty whack to Western ears, right? But if you’ve spent any amount of time in Japan, you’ll recognize the way of thinking that makes it super hard for outsiders to do anything from getting into a host club to renting an apartment where they might fail at The Japanese Way Of Garbage. If you look like you might not follow (or don’t innately understand) the rules, you’re banned.

But there’s more

According to Dr. John Skutlin, who’s an expert on how individuals in Japan and other Asian countries view/deal with body modification (how cool would it be to have a PhD in THAT?), Japanese individuals may have a fundamentally different way of thinking about the mind-body relationship than most Westerners. He says, “…due to the lack of Cartesian duality in pre-Meiji Japanese philosophy – which does not conceptually distinguish the mind from the body – the ‘it’s my body and my decorative choices don’t reflect on my mind or who I am as a person’ explanation so prevalent in Western countries presumably doesn’t hold as much water in Japan.”

In other words, you’re wearing more than your heart on your sleeve (or your leg or your back), and few self-respecting hot spring proprietors want to subject their other customers to bathing with a flaming-eyed skull.

Of course, things are changing. A little. This Gaijinpot piece dishes out some interesting history and links to businesses that are trying not to lose the tourist gelt of inked customers – everything from offering giant bandaids for plastering over the offending skin to risking losing conservative Japanese customers by courting tattooed ones. The good news is that the spotlight on this issue is unlikely to go away until after the 2020 Olympics, when businesses will have to decide one way or the other whether to reap the benefits of welcoming tourists with tattoos or not.

* When I went to get a modest cartilage piercing in my ear, the body-mod studio asked me to sign a form that said I’d checked with my parents and my employer to make sure it was okay before they’d poke me. True story.

With thanks for more info and edits from John Skutlin & Norman England.

When not thinking about tattoos, Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Tokyo

“A genuinely gripping crime thriller which wrong-foots and perplexes the reader throughout, drawing us in emotionally . . . Highly recommended.” Raven Crime Reads

Nine Years. Nine death anniversaries. Tomorrow will be the tenth. He always comes early to avoid crossing paths with her family. He always comes on the day he actually killed her…read more

Jonelle Patrick View All

Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!

10 thoughts on “Why Are Tattoos Still Taboo In Japan? (Spoiler: It’s not because they think you’re a gangster) Leave a comment

  1. Amazing and not st all surprising.

    We watched a Japanese film last night (Netflix) Like Father Like Son. We enjoyed it.

    D🙏🏻❣️🍵

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. >I know, this sounds pretty whack to Western ears, right?
    Not to mine, seems rather familiar and almost Jewish in fact. Observant Jews neither get tattoos nor piercings because they give their bodies back to God as they received them. There is a specific biblical injunction against tattoos:

    The source of this prohibition is Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.”

    • I’d forgotten that there’s a similar admonition against tattooing in Judaism! Thanks for the reminder & the food for thought. Do you know if a Jewish person with tattoos is prohibited from entering certain places or participating in events/gatherings?

  3. You know Lenny Bruce’s classic bit about how he couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery because he had a tattoo?

  4. Add another layer of weirdness to that: It seems like 90% of the population of Hawaii has some form of tattoos. They come in all styles, from yakuaz-traditional to Hello Kitty, and they cross gender, ethnicity, age and income bracket barriers. And 17% of the population is Japanese-derived. Go figure.

    • Yeah, I noticed how many people of all ages have them in Hawaii! There is that extra native pride reason for the polynesian-style designs, but I think people just show so much more skin all year around, it seems like a no-brainer to extend your personal style onto skin design. (And I heard that Kono’s kahlua pig restaurant had to discontinue their offer to give you free food for life if you got a tattoo of their logo, because too many people took them up on it!)

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