Author: M.Kok

Japanese Sight Test

You may have heard that it is difficult to get a job in Japan with a tattoo.
It is partly true, but don’t give up on working in Japan just yet. There are ways around it. But first, let us look at why are tattoos so stigmatized.

History of tattoos in Japan

Marking one’s body has a long history in Japan. It reaches so far back and is so complex that it warrants its own article.
Merchants, sailors, craftsmen and firefighters are, the more prominent trades, with a rich tattooing tradition.

But no one thinks of a potter or a rescue worker when they hear the term ‘Irezumi’ (or Japanese tattoo). They think of a ‘Yakuza’, a bare-chested sword-wielding Japanese gangster.

The image has grown because of movies and popular culture, but it does have seeds in reality.
The first association with criminals and tattoos is said to be somewhere between 300 and 600 BC.

Since then, the Japanese tattoo culture has been back in the mainstream quite a few times, but always seems to end up being associated with the ‘unsavoury’ class of people.

Tattoos in modern-day Japan

Most Japanese who have body ink have had it done in modern tattoo studios (often) using some form of pain relief. Different from the traditional method. That uses craving needles, special ink and a tattoo master that is as easy to find as a leprechaun.

The motifs are different too. Instead of dragons and Koi fish, people are more likely to have their pet chihuahuas drawn onto their bodies.

Are tattoos still associated with gangsters?

It depends. People with small casual tattoos don’t get that much attention anymore. Think the little something on the wrist of the coffee shop guy. It is different for a grim-looking man with various battle scars and a massive demon face on the back.

And since it is tricky to draw the line between which is which exactly, big bathhouses and fitness centers ban all tattoos.

What are your options?

If you don’t have anything on your face or neck, you should be fine. Just get used to wearing long sleeves in the gym and pool. Long-sleeved rash guards are not that uncommon, even in indoor swimming pools.

With bathhouses, it is a bit more tricky. You need to find one that allows tattoos. Usually, the smaller ones do. Or if your tattoo design permits it, cover it up with tape.

Finally, what about working with tattoos?

If you want to work for a traditional Japanese company, you have to either, remove the tattoo/s or keep it a secret. Depending on how good you are at keeping secrets, getting rid of the tattoo might be easier. Traditional Japanese companies have routine health checks and company functions. During which personal space and privacy are often not amongst the priorities.

It is a little easier to find work with international companies, where the rules tend to be a bit more liberal.

The ‘cool’ service industries, such as fashion and style (hairdressers and apparel staff), often have tattoos. If anything, it seems to be encouraged.


Japan is a conservative country. And the ‘Do not stand out’ attitude is still very much there in the corporate world. At last, in the more traditional work environments.
Many Japanese who have lighter hair dye their hair black or wear a wig when job hunting. Most foreigners don’t have to do that, but you would still wear makeup/shave and wear business attire. It is the same with covering tattoos. It might help if you see it as part of the corporate ‘uniform’.

Or ideally, you could work for a company that does not judge you by your appearance.



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