Tattoos in Japan – What you need to do about yours

You won't see many tattoos in Japan like this guy.

So you have a tattoo. And you’ve found yourself in the land of the rising sun. You’ve heard that tattoos in Japan are something of a taboo – what should you do?

Let me explain briefly why tattoos are so frowned upon in Japan, then go through and look at what your options are.

Why are tattoos in Japan such an issue?

Blame the yakuza. While you have probably heard of them in movies or other media, if you are new to Japan you probably don’t know how they are related to tattoos.

The yakuza are sort of the Japanese version of the mafia. An organization with roots going back to the 1600s, they are a reasonably non-violent (compared to their counterparts in other countries) group with about 100,000 members around the world – and influence behind the scenes in all parts of life in Japan.

Coming to Japan as a tourist – or even living here for years in fact, if you aren’t looking for it – you wouldn’t be blamed for not noticing their existence at all. The members really only work behind the scenes and although the police and media call them bouryokudan (暴力団 / violent groups) they rarely commit any obvious violent crime. Probably the most you will see as a foreigner in everyday life are these annoying trucks with loudspeakers that drive slowly around the neighborhood spewing intelligible right-wing nationalist propaganda. However even those are hard to connect to such crime groups, as they are usually acting under the facade of campaigning for a particular political party. (The one that wants you to bugger off back to where you came from :D)

Which brings us to tattoos: The reason tattoos in Japan are met with suspicious frowns and tut tuts is that they are almost exclusively a trademark of the yakuza. For centuries, yakuza members have sported full body tattoos, or irezumi (入れ墨, 刺青), as one of their “rituals.” So by showing everyone your tattoo, you are immediately reminding them of an unfortunate part of Japanese culture that no-one likes to talk about.

What it means for tattooed you

To be clear, no-one is actually going to see a big foreign tourist with a little tattoo and assume you are a gang member. Japanese people know that the irezumi culture is a Japanese thing and that it isn’t the same elsewhere, so don’t worry about that. (If you are Asian and not obviously a tourist – perhaps a different story.)

But the stigma remains, and the law-abiding side of Japanese culture has implemented certain cultural norms and rules that discourage the public display of tattoos in order to keep the yakuza out of sight and out of their lives. And we all know how much this country loves following rules, even when their original intent has been completely lost.

So despite the fact that you’re a big pasty tourist with a little “I love [EX-BOYFRIEND’S NAME]” love heart tattoo on your shoulder, these rules unfortunately also apply to you. Here’s where you’ll run into trouble:

  • At the pool
  • At the gym
  • In the onsen / hot springs
  • Pretty much any public place where you have to take your clothes off
  • In the MRI machine (actually I think there are other reasons for that)
  • When getting health insurance
  • Some beaches (actually not many, because beach facilities are often run by yakuza groups)

Great. So what can you do about it?

How to deal with tattoos in Japan

1. Cover it up

Your first option is pretty simple – provided the tattoo isn’t too big. All you need to do is cover it up.

At the gym, that’s easy: Just wear clothes that cover where your tattoo is. That means long-sleeved shirts, pants or even gloves. Yes I know it’s hot, but you should have thought about that when you got the damn thing.

Hot springs and pools – not so simple. You probably need something like this:

Hide your tattoos in Japan with skin-colored patches.

You can find patches like these in pharmacies anywhere in Japan. Some onsens will even give them to you for free, if they’re used to inked up foreign tourists. The patches don’t even need to match your skin color – you could wear a bright green one and no-one would know that what you were covering wasn’t merely a flesh wound.

The other alternative is makeup – there are products you can use to cover up the tattooed area that stand up to hot onsen water if you aren’t a fan of big sticky patches.

These options probably won’t be helpful for your full-body hardcore Mona Lisa x-ray skull’n’crossbones masterpiece, unless you use a lot of patches.

2. Get rid of it

It’s expensive and painful. But so is life, when you have a tattoo in Japan.

If you live in Japan and no longer want frightened mothers covering their children’s eyes whenever you step onto the train, getting your tattoo professionally removed might be an option. Skin clinics that will remove your tattoo probably outnumber tattoo parlors by a factor of about 100, so you will have no trouble picking between the following painful and regret-filled options:

  • Laser removal (have to do it many times over a few months, only really works for black ink)
  • Surgical removal (they literally cut the tattoo off! Goodbye tattoo, hello enormous scar)
  • Dermabrasion (they scrape off the tattooed bits. Yummy)
  • Skin grafting (it’s just like covering it with a patch, except the patch is made of live human skin!)

You shouldn’t have any trouble finding clinics that do any or all of these. HOWEVER, your insurance doesn’t cover it, so be ready to pay the full costs.

Wrapping up

I wouldn’t mind a tattoo – just a small one somewhere where I can’t usually see it. Unfortunately the connotations that come with having tattoos in Japan affect everyday life here so much that it isn’t really a sensible thing to do.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t. If you’re passionate about your body art, don’t let silly social stigma get in the way of doing your thing. There is no happiness to be found in abiding by the rules and throwing away your own identity, especially when you are too foreign to fit in anyway.