Tattoo Etiquette: Info for the inked

In my last post Myth vs Reality: “I can’t visit Japan. I have tattoos, I will be arrested” I discussed that simply having tattoos won’t get you arrested here in Japan. Today I am going to wrap up the topic of tattoos by talking briefly about something I mentioned in that post. . . . tattoo etiquette. 

Contrary to the popular belief of some, tattoo etiquette in Japan is not complicated to comprehend or follow. In fact it’s a rather simple concept that you’re probably heard before: There is a time and a place for everything. In other, more tattoo specific, words: There are times and places when it’s ok to expose your tattoos; there are times and places when it’s not ok to expose your tattoos. Thankfully for the Japan bound tattooed of the world a combination of online resources and the people of Japan’s willingness to explain what is required makes following tattoo etiquette relatively simple.

Despite what pictures some travel guides and books paint about Japan it’s not common for the Japanese to assume that foreigners from around the globe understand every bit of culture and etiquette followed here. This includes what is required of those who have tattoos. It is for this reason that some businesses (such as bath houses, onsens and water parks) choose to post signs which clearly indicate that those with tattoos are not permitted within the establishment. It is important to note that it is the choice of the business owner whether or not they want to prohibit tattoos at their facility. This means that there are some onsens, bath houses and water parks that permit those with tattoos. However some may require special private room reservations (onsens) or in the case of water parks that your tattoos are covered. All of this information can be researched or inquired about prior to or during your visit. 

Aside from water related activities there are some other times when covering your tattoos is necessary. Although there are not any solid rules for when and where this might be, what I have found is that generally places with large concentrations of children (such as theme parks) or places where where you would be underdressed wearing a t-shirt (nice restaurants for example) are places where you should or should be prepared to cover your tattoos.  Much like I mentioned before it is not uncommon for this information to be given to you up front. For example it may be in the information pamphlet for a theme park or you may be informed that your tattoos need to be covered before being seated at a restaurant.

Now that you have a general idea of when you might be asked to cover your tattoos let’s talk about preparing to cover your tattoos during your time in Japan. Much like the message I have communicated in the rest of this post covering your tattoos when asked does not require an elaborate scheme. All you have to do is have a garment on you that suits the purpose of governing your tattoos. This should not be much of a problem during the winter months as long pants and long sleeves cover tattoos without much effort but in the summer this can require a tiny bit more thought (living in Okinawa I know all about this). What I do during the summer months when going to a place that may require me to cover my tattoos is carry a very light weight long sleeve (as my most visible tattoo is on my arm) shirt with me. Because it’s light weight I can neatly roll it up and fit it in a backpack/purse/pocket without taking up much space at all. Then if required I have it at my fingertips to throw on and move on with my plans as intended. On days when an entire shirt is too cumbersome I also have a pair of sleeves that I can easily throw in my back pocket and pull on making any t-shirt into what looks like a long sleeve, therefore covering my tattoo, with almost no effort at all. These sleeves can be purchased pretty much anywhere in Japan (especially during the summer months) for both men and women.

Finally I want to wrap this post with the most important thing that tattooed people need to remember when visiting Japan. . . . . . check the attitude at the door. For some reason there is a percentage of people with tattoos who come to Japan and feel that they deserve special treatment. They make a fuss, start a scene and ultimately illustrate why businesses prohibit those with tattoos in the first place. Rather than chest pounding and muscle flexing simply choose to follow the rules or take your business elsewhere with a smile.





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