no tattoo sign

Some of the famous people in the world have tattoos. The US tattoo industry alone is a $1.5 billion business. And many of the 20 million plus foreigners visiting Japan every year are sporting tattoos. But as some visitors are surprised to learn, their tattoos are sometimes frowned upon, and result in being turned away from the hot springs and beaches of Japan.

Rugby World Cup Organizers are excited about the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament coming to Japan, and have been eager to show respect to their hosts next year. At the one-year-to-go milestone, tournament director Alan Gilpin stated in a press conference that rugby players with tattoos need to cover up their body ink.

“We will make (Japanese) people aware around the facilities that players will use in the country that people with tattoos in a Rugby World Cup context are not part of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia,” added Gilpin.

It’s a socially sensitive statement as there is generally a negative attitude of Japanese towards tattoos – a common rationale being that Yakuza were commonly associated with tattoos. In fact, there is a law against tattoo artists without a medical license, which has been enforced. And signs at pools, hot springs and public beaches commonly explain in multiple languages that people with tattoos are prohibited from entry, or at least asked to cover them up.

The Japan Travel Association (JTA), eager to avoid private establishments from kicking surprised foreign guests out of their establishments, have encouraged hot spring proprietors to relax their rules against people with tattoos. But the reality is, with the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020, Japanese will see a lot of foreign athletes with tattoos – on the beach, in the pools, all round town.

Here are a few of the Olympic hopefuls who sport tattoos.

Joseph Schooling tattoo
Joseph Schooling – swimmer, Singapore, gold medalist in 100 meter butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Shaun White tattoo
Shaun White – three-time gold medalist in showboarding halfpipe, American, and potential Olympian in skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

 

Simon Biles tattoo
Simone Biles – gymnastics, American, four-time gold medalist

To think that Japan is anti-tattoo is taking a negative perception too far. The fact is the number of tattoo artists (despite the law) has increased significantly in the past 30 years. And foreigners with tattoos who come to Japan feel that attitudes are shifting. According to best-selling Australian author, Tara Moss, “there is a quiet rebellion against these prevailing rules and social norms in Japan.”

I received several compliments when mine were visible, and one of my favourite moments on our most recent trip was when I had a summer dress on in the subway and my forearm tattoos were showing. One particularly cool young man seemed quietly fascinated, and rolled up his shirt sleeves silently to reveal the very lower edges of his arm tattoos. We were part of some similar ‘tribe’. No words were exchanged, only a nod that my husband could take his picture as he posed nonchalantly against the train door.

If you have tattoos and plan a visit to Japan, Moss writes that you should take the following under advisement:

  1. Expect to completely cover tattoos at any pool, gym and most water parks and beaches.
  2. Tattoos are banned at onsens (bath houses).
  3. Many ryokans (Japanese inns) will not accept tattooed guests.
  4. You should consider covering your tattoos at any temple or sacred site.

And what does Moss suggest are the best ways to avoid Japanese seeing your tattoo?

  1. Use a rashie at the pool
  2. Book a private onsen instead of attending a public one.
  3. Use clothing/scarves.
  4. Try arm covers
  5. Use a bandaid or bandage.
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kokeshi 3

I bought mine on eBay. But if you were an athlete or official at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, you should have received this as a gift.

They are called kokeshi, traditional wooden dolls, developed in the northern part of Japan as toys for children. The more artistically expressive they became, the more popular they became for wealthier adults who saw them as ways to show their status, according to this article.

In 1964, a volunteer organization of students called the Japan Junior Sports Club Association, set off on a mission to carve 12,000 kokeshi for distribution to participants of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. One fifth-generation kokeshi artisan, Akihiro Sakurai, was recruited as a student to manufacture these dolls, and he spent a good part of ’64 breathing kokeshi life into wood.

“I’ve been making kokeshi since middle school,” said Sakurai, who is from the Naruko Onsen area of Miyagi Prefecture, a part of Japan where kokeshi craftsmen have plied their trade for centuries. “At the time, there was a kokeshi-making club in school. The club was the centre of my life and the kokeshi makers from our local area came and taught us, and we practiced like mad to make those kokeshi.”

When the athletes received their kokeshi gift, they looked at the base of the doll, and found a rolled up piece of paper inside a cylindrical hole drilled to store the note. This was the message:

October, 1964

To the participants who have come over to this country for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

We, Japan Junior Sports Club Association, give a hearty welcome to you all. Now at this unforgettable time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, we’ve decided to give you a “Kokeshi Doll”, one of our old folk dolls in this country.

This is one of Kokeshi Dolls which were made by the members of Junior Sports Club at Naruko, a branch of J.J.S.A., in Miyagi Prefecture. Naruko is famous for its producing center of Kokeshi Dolls. Well, during this summer vacation, they’ve made these dolls one by one, through the process of cutting woods and pointing them, giving their whole mind to the work.

“Kokeshi Dolls” are wooden ones which have been handed downs since several hundreds years ago in Tohoku district in Japan. They say that these dolls were popular with warriors as ‘mascot’ in expectation of their victory.

This is “Naruko Kokeshi”, which is a well-known toy, enjoyed by the boys and girls all over this country. If we turn its head slowly, it makes a charming sound to hear.

We wish you would accept such a tiny present as a token of a real friendship between you and J.J.S.A.

At this memorable international sports meeting of the Tokyo Olympic Games, we hope you’ll have a good time.

Japan Junior Sports Club Association

(J. J. S. A.)

kokeshi 1

Please note that the 64th All-Japan Naruko Kokeshi Matsuri (Festival) will be held from August 31 to September 2, 2018. Go to this link for details.

To see a video of a kokeshi doll being created, click here.

Mikako Kotani and synchronized swimmers in onsen
Mikako Kotani (front) and other former Olympians perform synchronized swimming in an Oita Prefecture
One of my most treasured memories was in the Fall of 1987, sitting in a hot spring in Hokkaido, the snow falling, the steam rising, and a beer in hand.

In addition to the great food and shopping, tourists are flocking to Japan for the country side, and in particular, enjoying onsen throughout the country. Once you (some of you) get over the embarrassment of getting naked with a whole bunch of strangers, you get yourself all clean in the shower area outside the bathing areas, and then you dip your toes into the water. And yes, it’s hot!

Some of the best onsen are in Kyuushu, a large island in the Western part of Japan. And to get Japanese and non-Japanese alike to venture beyond the cosmopolitan confines of Tokyo and Osaka, the government of Oita Prefecture started a campaign to promote their onsens….using Olympians.

In typical tongue-in-cheek Japanese fashion, the promotional videos portray Japanese synchronized swimmers performing in the onsens of Oita. The athletes include Mikako Kotani, who won two bronze medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as well as Raika Fujii, silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and bronze medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The campaign is called “shin-furo”, which is a word made up from “synchronized” and the Japanese word “furo”, which means bath.

“I hope viewers will enjoy the beautiful, thoroughly organized performance by former Olympians,” said Oita Prefecture spokesman Takahiro Miyazaki. “And at the same time, I hope people will also be attracted to Oita’s hot springs.”

Japan had a record 2.68 million visitors in Japan in July, well on its way to topping 2016’s record number of foreign tourists of 24 million, blowing past its original target of 20 million by 2020. The 2020 target has been re-set to 40 million visitors. For repeat visitors, the Oita onsens should certainly be a hot place to spring to.

Pictograms for Women and Drinking Water
Pictograms used at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, from the book, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”
If you don’t speak Japanese, travelling in Japan is a challenge. You’re in a train, you pull into a station, you peer through the window as the train decelerates desperately trying to figure out what station you’re at, scanning for English, any English at all.

The next best thing to words are symbols. The signs for men and women’s toilets come in a gazillion varieties, but they are most often a variation of a theme. Symbols, if done right, can cut to the chase.

foreign friendly pictograms

With a continued increase in foreign tourists to Japan, and a spike in international guests in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics expected, the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI) released a new set of map symbols which they believe will be more intuitively understood by visitors. The old map symbols included an “X”. In the West, “X” may mark the spot of treasure, but in Japan, it meant police station. The old map represented a temple with a swastika, which is too much of an emotional jolt to many with its strong association with Nazism, despite its far longer association with Hinduism and Buddhism.

Fortunately, the GSI decided not to replace the symbol for onsen. The three wavy steamy lines bathing in an oval is a personal favorite.

onsen symbol

The pictograms of today were born out of the pictograms of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These Games were the first to be held in Asia, and Japan realized they had a language problem. In addition to translation, designers figured that use of symbols would be a powerful and efficient way to get foreigners to the right place. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics proved to be filled with design opportunities for the best in the country as the ’64 Games were essentially the first time an Olympic Games systematically used pictograms to represent each of the sporting events, or direct people to places.

As this blog post states, “…for such a huge national event, needless to say the design side of things was very important too and it engaged the talents of the industry heavyweights at the time.” One of the heavyweights was Yoshiro Yamashita, who designed these event symbols.

events pictograms 1964

The symbols that represented facilities were said to have been created by a team of ten designers.

pictograms at Tokyo Olympics_The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Report
From the book, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”