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.

Jonelle Patrick writes mysteries set in Tokyo