Tattooed bathers in Japan find their way to welcoming sento

Following an increase in the number of foreigners visiting Japan, operators of bathing facilities throughout the country are facing difficult decisions as to whether they should accept foreign customers who have tattoos.

For many foreigners, a tattoo is considered part of their personal style, but in Japan, many people associate tattoos with yakuza crime syndicates.

At many bathing facilities in Japan, people with tattoos are not permitted to enter, although some traditional sento public bathhouses do welcome people with tattoos. There is an English website providing information for foreign visitors regarding tattoos, and some facilities are frequented by many tourists from abroad.

A public bathhouse, Funaoka Onsen, in Kyoto, is introduced as “tattoo friendly,” in a popular review site for world travellers.

The bathhouse was founded 70 years ago. The manager said, “We have not been distinguishing any particular types of customers since way back.”

Partly due to the retro atmosphere of its building, the number of foreign visitors has been increasing gradually since a few years ago. The bathhouse said that it has received inquiries from hotels concerning tattoos. According to the bathhouse, one caller asked, “One of our customers told us, ‘I want to go there because its OK with tattoos.’ Is it true?”

The bathhouse said that as many as 50 foreigners visit the facility a day.

Julian Parker, 26, from Australia is one of the foreigners who enjoyed the Funaoka Onsen. He was not permitted to enter a different bathing facility because he has a tattoo on his left hand. He said that he was glad to have experienced a sento in Japan.

A website was established in May this year to provide relevant information to foreign visitors. The site lists bathing facilities both in English and Japanese. The manager of the site made phone calls and confirmed that they accept people with tattoos. Currently, the site lists a total of about 400 such facilities.

Another website established last year provides information in Chinese and Korean. Based on reviews from users, bathing facilities that accept people with tattoos are identified by a particular color.

A user of the site stated, “The information is valuable because it would be a big problem if I was not allowed to enter after arriving at that facility.” The site is frequently visited by people outside of Japan.

Many bathing facilities that accept people with tattoos are ordinary public bathhouses.

The Public Bath Houses Law, implemented in 1948, defined public bathhouses as places that are necessary in terms of health and sanitation for the daily lives of local people. Because of this, more than a few public bathhouse operators have traditionally accepted people with tattoos.

Meanwhile, Onyoku Shinko Kyokai, a nationwide association of multi-service bathhouse operators and other leisure facilities based in Yokohama, conducted a survey of about 120 member facilities in 2015. More than 90 per cent said they refused customers with tattoos.

Many of the facilities were built from 1990 onward amid growing desire to exclude customers tied to organised crime syndicates. They also depend on business from families. As a result, restrictions on tattooed customers have spread.

In a questionnaire of customers of such facilities conducted the same year, 49 per cent said they felt uncomfortable around customers with tattoos while 24 per cent said they feared such people.

“I think it’s necessary to gradually relax the restrictions, but considering the reactions of ordinary customers, it’ll be difficult to do so,” said Toshihiro Moroboshi, the head of Onyoku Shinko Kyokai.

Thirty percent of customers to Naniwa no Yu, a multi-service bathhouse in Kita Ward, Osaka, are foreigners. The bathhouse nevertheless displays a sign in English, Chinese and Korean that says tattooed customers cannot enter. Customers in the changing room and baths found to have tattoos are asked to leave.

It is possible that admitting tattooed customers could increase business among foreigners. However, the head of Naniwa no Yu said, “We place importance on our regular customers.”

The law regulating public bathhouses requires operators to refuse customers with contagious illnesses or who pose sanitary risks. However, customers with tattoos are not mentioned.

In February of last year, the government adopted a written document at a Cabinet meeting stating that under its interpretation of the law, tattoos were not a valid reason to deny entry to customers. However, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said the document was not legally binding and that facilities had discretion to accept or refuse tattooed customers.

According to a 2015 Japan Tourism Agency questionnaire of hotels and ryokan traditional inns near hot springs, 56 per cent said they refuse customers with tattoos.

World Rugby, the international governing body for rugby, has asked foreign players who will participate in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan to conceal their tattoos at sports gyms, pools and other facilities out of consideration for Japanese people averse to tattoos.

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