A Maori woman was barred from a public bath in Japan because her traditional face tattoos fell foul of rules intended to keep mobsters away, she told AFP Friday.
New Zealander Erana Te Haeata Brewerton, who was attending an academic meeting on indigenous languages, said she was refused entry to the bath in Eniwa, northern Hokkaido, because of the spa's ban on people with body art.
"I'm not used to being treated like that," she told AFP in a telephone interview.
Brewerton said Maori people have facial "ta moko" tattoos because they "tell people who the person is and where they are from. My moko tells other Maori people which tribe I am from," she said.
In Japan, tattoos are associated with yakuza organised crime syndicates, and many public institutions bar people who have them as a way to keep gangsters out.
The 60-year-old was singled out and told she would not be allowed to bathe because of the tattoo on her lips and chin.
"We protested, saying the tattoo was not anything anti-social and that only respected people are allowed to wear them in her culture," said Kenji Sekine, an Ainu language lecturer.
An official from the public bath told Kyodo News agency the decision had been made to avoid making other guests uncomfortable.
"Even if it is traditional culture, a typical person cannot judge the context behind the tattoos," the official said, according to Kyodo.
The episode on Sunday came just hours after Japan was awarded the rights to host the 2020 Olympics and as the government readied a campaign to make the capital more welcoming to foreigners.
Relatively few Japanese sport tattoos and many are surprised by their prevalence in Western nations.