Are Tattoos Really Taboo in Japan?

Before I moved to Japan and had knowledge of what life was like here, someone told me that people in Japan weren’t too fond of tattoos. The person who said this was pretty knowledgeable about both tattoos and Japan, but I still brushed him off and thought that was too backwards to be true. What I’ve learned is that he was partly correct.

Tattoos in the Work Place

During my first week of training at Honbu in Okayama, my upper back/neck tattoo crept out of the top of my shirt. While it was never a big deal in the work place in the States, I was instantly pulled aside by my trainer and told that it was a big deal in Japan and I need to make sure that it doesn’t peak out again. I have always covered it up since. There have been a couple of times when my younger coworkers have seen my tattoos and have said they were cute, but my supervisors always remain tight-lipped and walk away. I would hate to see how a parent of one of my student’s would react!

Tattoos in Everyday Life

Walking down the street you don’t see a ton of tattoos like you would in the States. Not that many people have them (at least not in the Kobe/Osaka region), but some people do. They are usually people who are stereotypical ‘damn the man’ with lots of piercings or ‘rock band’ guys with long hair. Some foreigners have them, but there aren’t tons of foreigners here either…

Tattoos in Onsen and Gyms

Tattoos are strictly forbidden in many onsen and gyms. Upon entering either, it is not unusual to see signs posted that say, “People with Tattoos are Forbidden.” This goes for both foreigners and Japanese. Someone in my company was recently asked to cancel her gym membership because she had a tattoo that was visible.

Personal Tattoo Experience

Within the first month I was here I hiked up Mt. Shosha in Himeji. It was a cool hike and at the top is a temple and museum where parts of the Last Samurai were filmed. On our way up, my friend and I met two women in their 50-60s who wanted to practice their English by talking to us. They were very friendly and offered us candy but near the end of their conversation one of them leaned over and tried to wipe my tattoo off my upper back/lower neck. I think she thought she was being helpful and that she was cleaning off some dirt, but then she realized it was a tattoo and she gave me a strange look. I readjusted my shirt and took note that people in Japan are serious about tattoos!

Now that we know how people react, maybe we can tackle WHY?!

Face Tattoos of Edo Japan

Photo Credit: Rocket News 24

According to Rocket News 24, criminals used to be punished by being tattooed on their face and arms. The web site also goes on to say:

  • Non-violent crimes such as stealing were punishable by being tattooed on the person’s forehead. (1603-1863)
  • In most parts of Japan if someone repeated the same crime after receiving their tattoo they would then be killed.
  • Originally (14,000 BC – 300 AD) tattoos had some kind of “mystical significance.”
  • Eventually they moved away from face tattoos and started giving arm tattoos.

japan tattoo punishment

Photo Credit: Rocket News 24

Another source, The Tattoo Museum, states:

So that’s it! They haven’t been too favorable for a number of years and the older generations still seem to feel the same way their ancestors did. It seems like younger generations are more open to tattoos, but until they hold power, I doubt you’ll see a tattooed person in an Onsen!

2 thoughts on “Are Tattoos Really Taboo in Japan?

  1. Great article. Very well written and totally spot on without sounding jaded by the whole thing. I’m an American, with ink, living here for over 20 years. This hit the nail right on the head.

    • Thanks so much! I especially appreciate the ‘not sounding jaded’ part – so many expat women I know in Japan sound jaded and I don’t want to be that foreigner!

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