Not too long ago I was approached by someone who expressed a love for Japan but said that they cannot fulfill their dream of visiting because they “have tattoos” and “people with tattoos get arrested in Japan”.
Naturally, being tattooed and having lived here for almost a decade, I knew that this was not true. In fact the thought that in today’s day and age with the internet at our fingertips someone could even hold this notion seemed ridiculous to me. Nevertheless I figured it would make a good, all be it short, “Myth vs Reality” blog post. . . . so here we go.
The history of tattoos in Japan is a long one and not all of it is criminal related. Like many other places on the planet tattoos were used to communicate status or even be used to symbolize unions (similar to the concept of a wedding ring in western culture).
The association with tattoos and criminals likely started in 1720 when tattooing became a form of punishment. Criminals would be given a permanent mark which would show that they committed a crime (also not unique to Japan). It wasn’t until the 1860’s the tattoos became outlawed and that ran until about 1912.
Nowadays tattoos are completely legal and you can get inked anywhere in Japan that you can find a shop. In fact hundreds of thousands (of not millions) of tattooed people visit Japan every year without any legal repercussions for the tattoos they have. There are also thousands upon thousands of tattooed people living here in Japan (both Japanese and foreigners alike) with 100% legal tattoos.
With the myth that having tattoos in Japan will get you arrested taken care of and out of the way let’s talk a little bit about reality. The reality is that although tattoos are not going to land you in prison for simply having them there are rules and regulations put in place that tattooed individuals need to follow. For example it is not uncommon to be denied access to a public onsen because you have tattoos or be asked to cover them when enjoying a meal at a fancy restaurant. Although this tattoo etiquette is in place there are times when a foreigner might forget or not be aware of what they are required to do. In this case staff usually do what they can to assist.
Long story short. . . . . . . . just because you have tattoos, doesn’t mean you can’t come to Japan.