TOKYO >> With the Rugby World Cup drawing about 500,000 visitors to Japan, attitudes have been split among public bath operators over whether to accept foreign customers with tattoos.
Some facilities have decided to accept these customers in keeping with the “omotenashi” hospitality spirit, but many operators are refusing them entry. The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are expected to draw even more foreign visitors, and the public bath industry is trying to find the best course of action.
“There was both support and opposition among our employees, but we decided to accept them in order to cooperate with the World Cup, an event that many citizens were involved in bringing to Japan,” said the president of the company that operates Hotel Kinsenkaku in Sanage Onsen. The hotel is located about 30 minutes by car from Toyota Stadium in Aichi Prefecture.
Ahead of the opening of the World Cup on Sept. 20, Kinsenkaku anticipated customers from Western countries where tattoos are commonplace. The hotel usually bans guests with tattoos from bathing, with the aim of excluding organized crime syndicates, but has decided to allow foreign guests who have them during the World Cup.
A few weeks prior to the World Cup, about 20 people from countries such as Australia and Britain had booked with the hotel. Although the hotel did not check whether those customers don tattoos, it has asked for Japanese guests to understand the exception, via its website and a notice posted in the facility.
Solaniwa Onsen in Minato Ward, Osaka, plans to halve its admission fee if customers show tickets for the rugby matches held in Osaka Prefecture and Kobe. Foreign visitors with tattoos are asked to cover them with large stickers sold at the facility. Those who can cover the body art with a maximum five stickers are allowed to enter.
In Beppu, Oita Prefecture, a city with one of the largest number of hot spring resorts in the nation, the local government has created a video aimed at foreign visitors.
The Beppu City Ryokan Hotel Association considered letting foreign visitors with tattoos bathe at all public baths in the city and conducted a survey on about 2,000 Japanese guests. Just 12% said they backed the idea, and the association ultimately shelved the plan for complete access.
Instead, when these visitors check into hotels and inns, the association guides them to municipal hot springs, where they are allowed. The Beppu Onsen website “ENJOY ONSEN” also lists about 100 places that will accept people with tattoos.
Public bath facilities in Yokohama, where the rugby World Cup finals and other events are held, do not admit visitors with tattoos.
“Tattoos have a strong image of antisocial forces and scare customers,” a city official said.
Tsuru University professor Yoshimi Yamamoto, who specializes in cultural anthropology, said: “In Europe and North America, many people get tattoos of family members’ names, or other designs for fashion. To avoid trouble resulting from such cultural differences, facilities that won’t let in customers with tattoos should say so on their website and explain why.”
The Rugby World Cup organizing committee has distributed rash guards, a formfitting shirt often worn by surfers, to players from participating countries, hoping they will wear them at swimming pools and public bath facilities. The committee has received no complaints so far.
World Rugby, an international governing body headquartered in Ireland, has been advising the national teams for more than three years to respect Japanese culture.
“Players seem to voluntarily hide tattoos at pools and saunas in Japan,” a World Rugby official said.
According to a 2015 Japan Tourism Agency survey conducted on about 3,800 public bath facilities, about half refused service to tattooed individuals.
“Many regular customers at public bath facilities are in their 50s or older, and strongly want to avoid tattoos,” said a representative of Onyoku Shinko Kyokai, an organization of leisure bath and spa facilities.
The World Cup runs through Nov. 2.