A WARM aroma of citrus bath salts wafts through the lobby of the Thermae-yu spa in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district. The instructions at the entrance are chillier: drunks and people with tattoos should stay out. The sign, says Yuichi Ohama, the spa’s manager, is directed mainly at the gangsters who haunt the local area, a dense warren of brothels, cabaret bars and striptease clubs. Yet the staff increasingly find themselves turning away tourists, too, he laments: “We’re surprised by how many have body art.”
In Japan tattoos are associated with criminals. Many yakuza mobsters spend hundreds of hours under an inky gun having their entire bodies painted, as a sign of gang membership and to show they can endure pain. It is hard to keep these artworks out of sight, naturally, when wandering naked around a bath house. Yet the mere sight of a tattooed thug is enough to frighten other customers away, so many gyms, pools and onsen (hot springs) ban tattoos or at least insist they be covered up. Japan’s growing army of foreign visitors has inadvertently stumbled into this cultural minefield.
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Nearly 29m tourists came to Japan last year—triple the number in 2013—drawn partly by the cheaper yen and relaxed visa rules. The government wants to reach 40m by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020. That has created a dilemma for the industry, says Yuya Ota of the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA). More than a third of tourists take a dip in an onsen and a growing number of them are tattooed. “Some businesses are at a loss about what to do with all these foreigners,” says Mr Ota.
Onsen sometimes provide plasters to cover up the offending bits. But visitors with more elaborate decorations have to abstain. In 2013 a Maori woman taking part in a conference on indigenous languages was barred from entering a bath house in Hokkaido because of her traditional facial tattoo. The JTA has since begun asking bathhouse owners to “give consideration” to tattooed foreigners, with mixed results: a survey in 2015 found that over half of hot springs still refuse them.
Foreign tourists have helped offset the long-term decline of the onsen industry, admits Masao Oyama of the Japan Spa Association. But government pleading cannot remove the deep taboo on tattoos, he says. “There are still many more Japanese customers than foreigners and their feelings must come first,” he says.
Mr Ohama says he is struggling to decide what to do. Bend the rules too far for foreigners and the yakuza may complain about discrimination, he frets. And choosing between unhappy foreigners and fuming mobsters is not hard.