Tattoo Taboo

I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago speaking at IBM’s Business Analytics Forum. At 6:30 in the morning a few hours before my talk, I had a wonderfully rejuvenating swim at the Royal Park Hotel. But I was surprised to see a pool-side sign stating “Persons With Body Tattoos Not Allowed.”

I have swum at dozens of pools in the United States and have never encountered such a restriction. Is there any valid public health reason for tattoo discrimination? Is the pool policy driven by irrational health concerns (a la the early days of HIV hysteria)?

A student of mine, Sarath Sanga, suggested that the no body tattoo policy might be an indirect attempt to exclude Yakuza, organized crime syndicates known for having intricate tattoos. Many Japanese places of public accommodation such as swimming pools refuse entry to guests wearing tattoos, presumably to exclude gang members.

If Sarath is right, the prohibition is akin to the “no gang colors” restrictions which can be found stateside. But unlike gang colors, a tattoo is harder to remove. And the no tattoo ban seems overly broad (especially in a hotel catering in part to international guests). 

I worry that the prohibition may in fact be targeting a larger class of tattoo bearers as not the right sort of people for the genteel environment of the hotel.  Makes me want to go out and get my first tattoo.


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  1. Bill says:

    If it was Yakuza, I doubt they’d bother posting it in English too.

    That said, I found this entry from 2008 and seems they were already frowned upon in public back then.

    I miss Tokyo, what a great city.

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  2. Tim says:

    this is common policy at onsen (baths) in Japan, is seems to be extended to the hotel pool here too. Here is another reference to the signs –

    My brother lived in Japan for a couple of years and used public onsen, and discovered that some were tolerant of tattoos, and would be filled with japanese men sporting full body tattoos.

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  3. Michael Hodgson says:

    I’d agree with Sarath. it won’t be a health factor, it’ll be a ‘safety’ factor. A number of Japanese establishments prohibit persons with tatoos from using them. Unlike in the West, tattoos are still atypical, and mainly an indication of Yakuza affiliation. a blanket ban ensures that there are no ‘difficulties’ as rival factions encounter each other. (To some, it also creates the ‘benefit’ of reducing the number of ‘foreign clients’, without the need to explicitly say so.)

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  4. qingl78 says:

    As with most things in Japan, there are rules for locals and one for foreigners (esp. whites). If you are white and have tattoos they probably won’t make too much of a fuss but they would probably use the rule if they wanted you out.

    However, your student is right that it is exactly targeted to Yakuza.

    So you are probably safe with the tramp stamp that you are going to get unless you start spraying people.

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  5. Stuart Woodward says:

    The ban on tattoos extends to pretty much all pools, hot springs and sports clubs. Japanese traditional Tattoos are a symbol of organised crime in Japan and although more recently other kinds of tattoos have become popular the ban extends to them all without exception.

    In Japanese, literally the words to “obey the rule” means to “protect the rule” which gives an air of unchangeability to a rule even if it no longer makes sense.

    I’ve thought it would be fun to have a Kanji tattoo which is self fulfilling e.g. “Banned from entering the hot spring”

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    • MikeM says:

      “Protect the rule.” I really like that. I connotes so much more that the rules are in place for everyone’s sake and we all must do our part to protect their authority. As opposed to “obey” which implies an external power that imposes the rules upon us.

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  6. RGJ says:

    It’s when they start ticking off Mike Tyson and banning facial tattoos that I’ll tune in….

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  7. Tomixrider says:

    This policy existed WELL before tattooing became popular among kids for fashion purposes. I am 30 and this has been going on even before I was born. it’s not like yakuza disappeared from Japan, so it is still relevant. Japanese kids with tattoos should have known!! As for foreigners, like Qingl78 said, if it’s not too prominent, you should be okay. But there is always a possibility they will refuse you because of a tattoo. That is part of the culture, man. if you ate planning a trip to onsen, I’d ask. Politely.

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  8. Kat says:

    From what I’ve heard, the polite thing to do if you have a tattoo is to wear a towel covering it.

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