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Essay

The tattoo taboo

By Rebecca Quin

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One of the best things about winter in Japan has got to be the onsen. Coming from England, which is distinctly lacking in volcanoes (or any exciting geographical formations to speak of), Japan was my first introduction to the experience of bathing in a hot spring.

The first time I went to an onsen was in Yamanashi, with a Japanese family that I taught English to. I was nervous, like most foreign first-timers, about getting naked in front of total strangers. But I was even more nervous about making some cultural faux pas. What if I got in the bath the wrong way? Or used the wrong soap? Or stared too much at other people’s private parts?!

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Once I stepped through the sliding doors into the steam it was like all my troubles had turned to vapour. All I had to do was watch how other people acted and relax along with them. Ten minutes in the mineral-rich waters and I was sold.

Since then I’ve visited onsen all over, from a private roten-buro in Hokkaido to a wine onsen in Hakone. They’ve all been equally brilliant, and I always recommend onsen to people back home as a top cultural experience to have in Japan.

However, recently I had an incident happen to me that tainted that view.

I was actually asked to leave an onsen in the middle of bathing. (Note: I was completely starkers.) Why? Because I have a tattoo, and they had a “no tattoos” policy. When I asked the staff why, they simply said: “It’s the rules.”

Tattoos remain fairly taboo in Japan. Traditionally associated with criminal punishment, tattoos became a symbol of illegality, having been adopted most notoriously by the yakuza. Even for me and my friends, if we see a Japanese guy with lots of tattoos we immediately nudge each other and agree that he must be from the mafia.

On the other hand, not everyone with a tattoo is a gangster. It’s surely clear that most foreign visitors with tattoos, especially women, aren’t in the yakuza.

While it might be difficult to bend the rules for some customers and not others, it can’t be denied that, in many cases, they just don’t make sense. The number of visitors to Japan is skyrocketing, and more Japanese are getting tattoos for fashion, so perhaps something needs to change.

The government is in fact taking steps to address the issue, like encouraging onsen owners to redefine their guidelines. Hoshino Resorts recently adjusted its policy to allow small tattoos, as long as they were covered.

It’s a small step but one that hopefully paves the way for an end to the tattoo taboo.

タトゥー・タブー

筆者は日本の温泉が大好きだが、タトゥーが理由で利用を断られたことがある。タトゥーは多くの人にファッションとして楽しまれているのに、依然タブーとして扱われることに疑問を感じているという。

The Japan Times ST: February 24, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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2017年11月24日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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