Thousands of hot springs in Japan are rethinking their long-standing ban on tattooed bathers, as the country prepares for the arrival of an estimated 400,000 fans for this autumn’s Rugby World Cup.
Visitors are accustomed to warnings to cover up their body ink while they are in Japan, where tattoos are traditionally associated with membership of yakuza crime syndicates.
But the expectation that a large number of visiting fans with tattoos will want to soak in the restorative waters of Japan’s thousands of hot springs has led some operators to relax their restrictions.
Tourism officials near Sapporo, which will host England v Tonga, said they would leave individual onsen owners to decide whether to admit tattooed bathers, according to the Kyodo news agency.
The famous onsen resort of Atami, near the Fukuroi venue for Ireland’s match against hosts Japan, has taken a similar approach. “With the Olympics coming up as well, we feel the need to discuss the issue of tattoos,” an Itami official told Kyodo.
Oita prefecture, region of south-west Japan famed for its hot springs, appears more willing to embrace tattooed customers, publishing English-language guidelines on onsen etiquette and an online map of dozens of facilities in the onsen towns of Beppu and Yufuin that will accept tattooed bathers during the six-week tournament, which opens on 20 September.
Some establishments will provide stickers to conceal smaller tattoos while others will designate certain times of the day as “tattoo-friendly”.
“There are many Japanese people enjoying tattoos as well, and we would like to avoid treating only foreigners differently,” Seiji Hori, a Beppu hotel association official said, according to the news agency. “We hope we can enhance our tolerance and understanding on the occasion of the Rugby World Cup.”
Despite the growing popularity of fashion tattoos, including among young Japanese with no yakuza connections, cultural resistance is proving hard to break down, with onsen owners citing objections from other bathers.
A 2015 survey by the Japan Tourism Agency found that around 60% of onsen operators banned people with tattoos.
Last September, World Rugby, the global game’s governing body, warned players and supporters to keep their tattoos covered when visiting gyms and pools to avoid causing offence.
The All Blacks, who have a huge following in Japan, are among the teams that have said they will comply.
Tattooed or not, first-time onsen users are being encouraged to follow a few simple rules to ensure their Japanese communal bathing experience is memorable for the right reasons. Bathers should rinse their bodies before getting in the bath. And remain naked at all times.