In a nod to civility and cultural respect, Samoan and New Zealand athletes competing in the Rugby World Cup in Japan say they will cover the tattoos that blanket their arms and legs while visiting the country’s communal bathing places, deferring to a culture that often associates skin ink with organized crime syndicates.

“We had someone coming in and giving us a heads-up about what we could expect in Japan,” Jack Lam, the captain of Samoa’s team, told the Associated Press. “There’s a lot of similarities in our cultures, but when it comes to the tattoos ... it’s quite normal in our culture. But we are respectful and mindful to what the Japanese way is. We will be making sure that what we are showing will be okay.”

In Japan, tattooed people are often prohibited from entering some bathhouses, pools and hot springs, but in Samoa, the word tattoo is linked to the Samoan word “tatau,” Samoa team manager Va’elua Aloi Alesana told the Rugby World Cup website. “Every young boy, when he gets to a certain age, he gets a tattoo as a kind of passport to get into the group and serve the chiefs.”

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Rugby officials last year had warned players about the ban by many onsen (hot springs) and bathhouses, but many facilities have indicated they planned to relax their rules with as many as 400,000 tourists expected for the competition, which opens Friday when Japan plays Russia in Tokyo Stadium. Tourism officials near Sapporo said they would allow individual onsen owners to decide whether to allow tattooed bathers without skin covering.

It’s an issue that probably will crop up again before the Olympic Games next summer in Tokyo. “With the Olympics coming up as well [as the Rugby World Cup], we do feel the need to discuss the issue,” a city public relations official in Atami told the Japan Times last summer.

Samoa’s first game is against Russia on Sept. 24 at Kumagaya. It is playing in Pool A along with Russia, Scotland, Japan and Ireland. Its players plan to wear skin covering when asked.

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“Our view is that we have to respect the culture of the land we are in wherever we go. We have our own culture as well, but we are not in Samoa now,” Alesana said. “There are some training venues that have allowed us to show our tattoos and some places where we can’t, and for those places, we’ve been given ‘skins’ to wear to cover our tattoos.“

In New Zealand, whose defending World Cup champion All Blacks team is popular in Japan, tattoos are particularly common among the Maori and Pacific islands communities. New Zealand scrumhalf Aaron Smith, who has arm tattoos, said his teammates would be respectful visitors.

“We have got an onsen, like a spa, in every hotel, and in Kashiwa that spa was a public one, and we had to wear skivvies or tights,” Smith said. “And that’s okay. We are in Japan. You have to embrace their way, their culture. And most people with tattoos were happy to cover up.”

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Players are also complying with the Japanese custom of not wearing shoes in homes and other places. “The only other thing that is similar around the hotel is shoes,” Smith said, via the Guardian. “The gym we go to today, we have got to take indoor shoes. The ones you walk to the gym in, you can’t wear in the gym.

“We just have to respect that and adapt as All Blacks. We are grateful to be here, and we don’t want to act anything bigger than we are.”

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