Myth vs Reality: “I can’t visit Japan. I have tattoos, I will be arrested.”

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 28582_1448944585873_1575565_nthat 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.


6 thoughts on “Myth vs Reality: “I can’t visit Japan. I have tattoos, I will be arrested.”

  1. This is funny how we are working in synch right now – I have a draft blog on the stigma associated with tattoos in Japan as part of my on-going series on ink! AND, we’ve both done the Tomori Stone Lion and the American Vintage campaign at McDonald’s here in the last couple of weeks. One of these days we will have to meet!

  2. Pingback: OkiNinjaKitty | Tattoo Etiquette: Info for the inked

  3. I’m coming to Japan to work at an eikaiwa school and am heavily tattooed (one full sleeve, one half sleeve, pieces on both sides of my ribs and a chest piece). All of my tattoos can be covered for work so I’m not really worried about that. My question is in regards to onsen… am I pretty much screwed when it comes to public ones? I’m aware that I could rent a ryokan with private attached onsen, but that seems costly to do more than once or twice. Also I’m half filipino, half white, so I do have an asian appearance. Everything I’ve read about foreigners being let in with tattoos have either been about people with one or two small tattoos, or caucasian foreigners who have no chance of being mistaken for yakuza. Can you provide any insight as to what I might expect, if you’ve seen any other non-yakuza asians with sleeves in onsen, or if it’s just something that really isn’t in the cards for me at this time?

    • Hello Rabbit:
      I am sorry that I have not gotten back to you sooner. I lost track of a few comments and questions in the past few weeks and I am catching up now. One of the things tattooed people coming to Japan need to understand is that there will be limitations that you face. It doesn’t matter the size of the tattoos or the nationality that you are. . . . . . a tattoo is a tattoo and they are a “no go” in some places around Japan. This includes onsens, some restaurants, some beaches, pools, theme parks and gyms. Many people think that being mistaken for yakuza has something to do with not permitting tattoos. . . . . based on my experience it does not. In reality it has more to do with the Japan’s strict enforcement of rules and/or policies. This is something that you will notice once you start to get situated here. Asking the Japanese to bend the rules or make exceptions can be like pulling teeth because it’s just not often done and (in a number of situations) you, as the patron, are expected to know that. As far as providing insight I cannot because I have never been to an onsen. There are a few in my area but they do not permit tattoos so knowing that I do not go. Unfortunately this may simply not be in the cards for you unless you find a place that has private rooms.

  4. Hi, I’m studying Japanese at the university and I would like to work in Japan(just a wishful thinking though, as living in Japan can be hard anyway). I’m wondering, I’m planning to get a tattoo on the upper arm(can be covered easily, even a short sleeves t-shirt could cover 80% of it), but would this crush that thinking right off the bat? Because I’ve heard a lot of stories about tattooed people getting fired/refused from work because of being found with them.
    Thanks in advance and forgive my bad English :\

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