Tattoos Abroad

Let’s go ahead and talk about tattoos for a minute. Love them or hate them (I love them, my Dad hates them), they are becoming more and more widely accepted in Western cultures. Workplaces are loosening body art policies and are recognizing that employees and potential employees should not be judged by their appearance or choice of decoration but by their performance and capabilities.

This is not so much the case in Japan where tattoos are still very much, for lack of a better word, taboo. Tattoos are still highly linked to the more nefarious segments of society, namely organized crime. I’m not talking about just the huge pieces, the full arms, back, legs…etc. I’m talking about the butterfly, the cartoon bear, the flower, the kanji…ANY tattoo, regardless of size or content disqualifies a person from entry to most public baths or onsens (a large part of Japanese culture), can affect a person’s ability to find work (because many employees are subject to physical examinations due to Japanese employment laws- similar to American tenure it is very difficult to remove a permanent employee once hired), and can taint personal interactions with those surrounding.

That being said, I have tattoos…quite a few of them and not the little star or finger-stache kind, I’m working on a full arm piece. I have thought long and hard about all of the work that has gone into the art on my body and will continue to collect tattoos as long as I can find an artist willing to draw them. But…I’m living in a different culture right now and for the near future. I have come to peace with the fact that I will probably not have a traditional onsen experience but I’m okay with that, there are plenty of private and family onsens that one can find and I don’t have to work about offending anyone by failing to fully cover my junk as I step into the water or, gods forgive, I let my washcloth touch the water-gasp! I’m ok with covering a large portion of the tattoos I have on a day to day basis in trying to be respectful of the local culture regardless of my discomfort in the heat but having tattoos can become troublesome at times.

Since we will soon be venturing out on our own beyond serviced apartments and into the world of the mid-term lease, we will no longer have access to hotel-style fitness centers so we’ve been in search of a gym. We are disqualified from membership to most gyms simply because we have tattoos (pending physical exam). One website described the no tattoo policy as a bar against ‘Riff Raff’ and ‘Unsavory Characters’. Haha, ok then.

This weekend we found a gym and scheduled an appointment to tour and sign an agreement, it’s a Western-style franchise gym that suites our needs in that it’s open 24 hours a day, allows month-to-month payment without a contract and is in close proximity to the area we plan to live. The trainer we met with is a Japan-born-America-raised expat and was very sweet in dealing with the kids we had dragged along for the ride. Things moved smoothly along and we began to fill out paperwork, we causally went over rules and signed the document saying we wouldn’t hold them responsible if we died doing something stupid in the building. ‘Anything else we need to know?’ Hubby asked as he dug in his wallet for the first month of dues, ‘Well, you don’t have any tattoos, right?’ Shit. Um, yes, we both do…is that a problem…? ‘Well…Just keep them covered and don’t let any of the other staff see them.’

Whew. Good thing we had filled out all the paperwork before that came up.

If you have tattoos, excellent. If you come to Japan with tattoos, excellent, but know that there may be times when you’ll need to keep them covered and there may be things you won’t be able to do by having them. This is just one of many rules, anyway, that you’ll probably encounter here…but that’s ok, this place is totally worth covering up…and there are lots more rules to learn along the way. 🙂

Update: This is only one experience we’ve had in one of the places that we’ve lived. While we’ve lived in several Middle Eastern locales where tattoos are considered a defilement I can say I’ve seen little difference in my treatment as a woman with tattoos than my treatment as a woman and this is why I chose to relate our experiences in Asia only. If you’d like to know more about tattooing globally, I’d be glad to do a second part to this blog. Thanks for reading!


Categories: Japan

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