People from outside Japan often ask me what they should do about their tattoos when they come to Japan, and if they should worry about them showing. The answer is actually pretty simple based upon the question, do you plan on going swimming or going to an onsen? If the answer is yes, then you need worry.
While tattoos in public are gaining acceptance (and actually have been a part of Japanese culture for some time) there are still places where they are not allowed.
The first place that tattoos are not allowed is the water park. Tattoos in many other countries are not often related to gangs, and for the most part aren’t here as well anymore. Of course the Sujimon and Kumi (Yakuza/ mafia) tend to be covered in them, but you’d be surprised to see how well they cover up when they want to cool down at the local water park with their family. If you have one or two small ones, a waterproof band-aid placed over them will do just fine. If you have larger tattoos on your upper body multiple band-aids will look conspicuous, so I suggest you purchase and wear a body boarding rash guard or other swimming wear made for your upper body. If you have lower body tattoos not covered by swim wear, then you will need some serious swim gear, and all of this will need to be put on well before you arrive to the water park. If you are seen with tattoos before you arrive, you will not be permitted inside, and if seen after you have entered the park, you will be kicked out and sorry no refunds.
Another place that tattoos are not welcomed is the onsen. Most onsen are run privately and because of that set their own rules. Once inside you could see someone with a tattoo, but I’ll remind you to read the first part of this paragraph again. But because going to the onsen is a great experience I suggest you try and cover up as best as possible, and enjoy!
Over the years tattoos in public view and tattooing in Japan has been gaining momentum, and even celebrity figures have been on T.V. with them showing, but don’t expect any high-ranking officials to be sporting them (if they are “family”, they’ll be covered for sure). Walking down the street will produce a few people with them in plain sight. The range of tattoos are the same you would find anywhere in the rest of the world from a simple flower or star, to a large arm piece. Continuing your walk and you’ll come across tattoos shops, which to the everyday person could be just another shop or could be a very famous shop with one of the best artists in all of Japan. So if you have the time and money, why not get some work done here.
So overall don’t really worry about showing your tattoos, unless they are of naked people, blood and guts, and the such. Because you might just make some new friends and have a good laugh over discovering that the awesome “warrior” kanji tattoo that you got back the states really means “picnic table”.