Photo/IllutrationThe Explore the Onsen Country website, developed by Oita Prefecture, shows 94 public hot springs and other facilities in the prefecture that accept tattooed bathers. (Takuya Miyano)

  • Photo/Illustraion

A tattoo taboo that governs communal bathing in Japan is going down the drain. And it's all due to the hordes of inked foreign visitors who want to experience traditional bath etiquette.

"Onsen" hot spring resorts and "sento" public bathhouses have a policy of shunning tattooed bathers because of deep-rooted negativity toward such images, a status symbol in the yakuza gangster world.

The move reflects government sentiments that it is “inappropriate” to prohibit foreign visitors from taking a bath simply on the basis of a tattoo.

The relaxed attitude comes as Japan prepares to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics next summer.

Whether other spa resorts will follow suit remains unclear, given entrenched public feelings about tattoos.

FOREIGN VISITOR INFLUX

Surrounded by the Azuma mountain range, the Tsuchiyu onsen resort in Fukushima is home to the Sansuiso hotel, which started allowing tattooed individuals to use five bathrooms within its facility last summer in light of the growing number of inked non-Japanese guests.

“Foreign traveler numbers are expected to further rise. Rejecting all those with tattoos will only cause us financial difficulty,” said Makoto Fujiwara, a senior Sansuiso official.

As Sansuiso has not received any complaints from its guests over the change, it is considering posting a sign stating “tattoos OK” in the near future. Sansuiso said it will accept all customers, no matter what designs they sport on their skin.

In March 2016, the Japan Tourism Agency notified the Japan Spa Association and associated entities about how they handle foreign guests who are tattooed.

The edict, which draws a sharp line between inked yakuza and foreign visitors, says it is “inappropriate to deter certain users from taking a soak based purely on their tattoos.” It urges onsen operators to take steps to ensure that local sensibilities on the issue are not ruffled, such as concealing tattoos with stickers, allowing ordinary users and tattooed individuals to bathe at different times and introducing private bathing facilities for those with tattoos.

The issue of tattoos was addressed by members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet, who, in a written reply, said it would be difficult to reject specific customers simply on the basis of their tattoos.

The issue amounts to a cultural conundrum as there is no legal basis for refusing to accept tattooed bathers at public bathhouses and other facilities, a Japan Spa Association official noted.

“Judgments made by each facility have simply been accepted as a custom,” the official said.

For that reason, public-run onsen facilities have not imposed a blanket ban on bathing by those with tattoos.

Beppu, a famed hot spring resort in Oita Prefecture, recently created a pamphlet to present to municipal spa facilities urging them to accept tattooed foreign bathers so visitors can experience Japanese-style hot springs.

RUGBY WORLD CUP

Rugby World Cup matches scheduled for October in Oita Prefecture project that more foreign sightseers will come to Beppu than the current figure, which accounts for 30 percent of the 12,000 daily visitors.

The Beppu City Ryokan Hotel Association is now holding discussions with member facilities whether communal bathing should be permitted for tattooed individuals during the Rugby World Cup.

A questionnaire sent to the relevant parties will decide the issue. If there is overriding support, the ban will be lifted.

In that case, not only foreign customers but also Japanese nationals with tattoos will be able to enjoy splashing around in the tub.

“Members have pointed out that accepting only non-Japanese would amount to discrimination,” said Seiji Hori, secretary-general of the association.

However, the manager of an onsen hotel in Beppu vented his unease at going along with the relaxed rule.

“I want to accept all sorts of people, but tattoos are still strongly associated with antisocial organizations in Japan, and many people will feel uncomfortable about sharing a bath with people who are inked,” the manager said.

Each year, the spa hotel has received complaints from patrons who said they were “horrified to find themselves next to a tattooed bather.” For this reason, a sign was posted at the entrance to its large common bathroom stating, “tattooed guests cannot bathe here.”

Rugby World Cup games are also slated in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Although the local onsen hotel ryokan cooperative association in Atami empathizes with the central government’s recent strategy, it has no plans to back down from its policy of rejecting bathers with tattoos.

“Some members have argued that we should accept non-Japanese with tattoos," said Kazuhiro Umehara, a former managing director of the association. "However, there is still insufficient momentum to inspire the entire association.”

According to Umehara, the decision was partly due to the fact that foreign visitors account for a relatively small portion of total tourist numbers in Atami.

Separately, the Arima Hot Springs Tourism Association in Kobe city said it will call on foreign visitors who ask about tattoos to use private baths or city-run onsen facilities instead of large communal bathrooms at hotels and ryokan.

“No problems have been reported to date and we have no intention of changing the practice,” said an association official.

According to Yoshimi Yamamoto, a cultural anthropology professor at Tsuru University, who is well-versed on the issue of tattoos, noted that a survey has shown that tattoos are so common in the United States and European countries that one in several people has one.

Although Yamamoto agrees with the central government’s “concept of accepting different cultures,” she said it was the state's responsibility to take the initiative in moving ahead with the campaign.

“The government should not leave all the details to onsen operators to decide but take concrete steps by itself after listening to the opinions of spa facilities,” Yamamoto said.

“Some people complain about tattooed individuals even if they are clearly not gang members," she said. "If Japanese society is going to accept so many tourists and workers from overseas, it must resolve to be more tolerant.”