Japan's hot springs asked to allow tattooed foreigners

Elaine Yu, CNNUpdated 28th March 2016
(CNN) — Naked, tattooed foreigners may soon become a less unusual sight in Japan's public baths.
Tourism officials in Japan are urging onsens (hot springs) to relax rules restricting body art wearers from entering their steamy waters. Traditional onsens have long been governed by an unspoken etiquette that closely dictates behavior:
-- Bodies must be carefully washed before entering.
-- Every stitch of clothing must be removed. Even towels.
-- And tattoos are considered unacceptable.
Traditional Japanese tattoos, which cover large swaths of skin, are commonly associated with the yakuza, the country's organized crime syndicates. And people with body art are often turned away for fear of scaring off others looking for a quiet soak or a restorative ritual.
Now the Japan Tourism Agency has asked for the rules to be relaxed for foreigners as visitor numbers to the country continue to rise.
Tattoos in Japan, like this one on a retired yakuza boss, are commonly associated with organized crime groups.
Tattoos in Japan, like this one on a retired yakuza boss, are commonly associated with organized crime groups.
Frank Zeller/AFP/Getty Images
"We don't put up 'no tattoo' signs, but we do ask them to refrain from using our baths if their tattoos cover large parts of their bodies and can't be concealed by a sticker," a manager at Yamagishi Ryokan, a hot spring in Yamanashi prefecture popular with foreign tourists, tells CNN.
"We treat locals with tattoos the same way we treat foreigners. But no Japanese covered in tattoos has tried to come in -- I believe they're totally aware of the rules."
The official guidance, released last week, suggests asking patrons to cover their tattoos with a sticker or use a private bath.
Seeking to improve awareness, the agency has issued reassurances to bath owners. It explained that there are often religious, cultural, aesthetic or other choices behind the body modification practice and the ink doesn't pollute the baths.