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If you’ve heard any stereotype about Japan, it’s about tattoos and their connotations.
Tattoos have gotten a bad rep in the country due to their connection with the Yakuza and other criminals.
In the past, tattoos symbolized a connection to wrongdoing. Either a person had one and was, therefore, a part of an illicit group, or criminals were tattooed to single them out and make their lives harder.
Either way, tattoos get a bad rep still to this day.
But does that only apply to Japanese natives, or are tourists also subject to this judgment?
First, let’s take a look at the legality of tattoos in Japan.
Are tattoos in Japan illegal?
Although it is not illegal to have tattoos in Japan, it is not easy to obtain one.
From 2001 until September 2020, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare deemed tattooing people to be a medical act due to the health risks involved with the procedure.
During that time, tattoo artists were charged with violating the Medical Practitioner’s Act, whereby anyone conducting a medical procedure without the proper medical license can be arrested.
The Japanese government claims that the act of injecting color into the skin with a needle is a medical act and that the practitioner of such an act should hold a medical degree.
Effectively, the Japanese government is saying that tattooing is allowed as long as the tattooist has a medical license – something that few tattoo artists would even consider.
This all changed in September 2020, when the Japanese Supreme Court declared tattooing an expression of art and “acknowledged that tattooing has been accepted by the public as an activity with decorative, symbolic, and artistic value, historically without the need of any medical or health guidance.”
A brief history of tattoos in Japan
Tattoos are certainly legal to have today, but that wasn’t always the case.
Tattoo culture in Japan dates back to before 5,000 BC and was somewhat common. They also used to be used as punishment, with the first record of obtaining a tattoo as punishment occurring in 720 AD.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that tattooing went from being used as a punishment to something that was banned altogether. The change happened when the government believed intricate tattoos as only a way for criminals to cover up their marking of offense.
Japan’s mafia, the Yakuza, began favoring tattoos in the 1800s as a sign of strength, courage, and loyalty, and tattoos became more unfavorable than ever before.
They were banned outright in 1936 and again legalized in 1946.
If you want to learn more about the difference between Japanese and Chinese Culture, read our article.
Can tourists in Japan have tattoos?
This deeply rooted cultural suspicion against tattoos extends even toward people visiting the country for only a brief amount of time.
Tourists won’t be barred from entering the country if they have tattoos, but they may not be allowed in certain areas if the tattoos are showing.
Pools may not allow them, and shops are allowed to turn away potential clients if they have tattoos. If an establishment does not allow those with tattoos, it will often have a sign on the front door with both writing and a picture clearly stating what is banned.
Can teachers in Japan have tattoos?
Like with any profession in Japan, the vast majority of employers will not allow tattoos to be visible.
If you have a tattoo in an incredibly open patch of skin it could be hard to find employment.
Can you go to an onsen with tattoos?
If you’re looking to go to a hot spring, or onsen, with a tattoo, think again. Onsens, public baths, pools, and gyms have all been known to ban people if they have a tattoo.
It can be easy to get away with having a tattoo if it can be covered up, but if you want to go to a place where little to no clothing is worn, it may be impossible to achieve.
How to hide tattoos in Japan
So, you are visiting Japan and want to experience all that the beautiful country has to offer. If you have any tattoos, especially visible ones, it might work in your favor to temporarily cover them up if possible.
There are two ways to cover a tattoo: makeup or bandages. Both come with their drawbacks.
Tattoos, especially darker ones, would take a lot of concealer to cover up. And despite so many people applying makeup so well, it is not an easy skill to learn. If you’ve never had to blend to achieve a seamless look, it can take a fair amount of time to get it right.
Naturally, this is not an option if you’re looking to partake in water-based activities.
The easier yet more comment-worthy way to hide a tattoo is to cover it up with a bandage. This works especially well for easily accessible tattoos on arms and ankles, as well as for small ones that could be covered with a large bandaid.