The dos and don'ts of swimming pools in Japan

Swimming pools in all countries, I guess, have rules. I remember as a child in the UK being bemused by the faded cartoon images with quaint and already ancient sounding jargon like ‘no petting’.

Going to a pool in France on holiday was then baffling: suddenly everyone was wearing swimming caps and there were strict ‘no shorts, speedos only’ rules for men. Which meant my mother splashing out on a more revealing outfit, though it was probably faster going down the flumes.

Fast forward a decade or two and here I am in Japan, baffled again.

It is not my intention to ridicule Japan here. It’s a wonderful place. Safe, well organised, so very convenient, and has great public transport, food, beaches, even ski resorts … everything you could ever want. BUT! Swimming pools are one of the many places here that can have inexplicable systems … even those with the calmest temperament will be reduced to oni (add a picture) with steam coming out of their ears if caught unprepared!

In order to try and keep misery to a minimum we thought it a good idea to compile a quick list of some of these rules to save you an infuriating debate with a lifeguard frantically waving his or her hands into an “X” shape.


Unlike France, men can wear their choice of beach-type shorts and speedos, though it doesn’t quite stop there. It’s completely common for men (of all ages) to be draped in the kind of skimpy tanga bikinis made famous by the character Borat. (This is especially prevalent at Shiba Koen (hyperlink), where they are pulled down intentionally as a primal mating ritual). Women, on the other hand, can resemble beekeepers more than bikini beach bums. While teenage girls might wear bikinis at the beach, there comes an unwritten rule of some sort that all of a sudden (I’m not entirely sure when) a kind of Saudi Arabian modesty becomes the norm. T shirts are common, but more common still are purpose-designed outfits (Japan loves a good uniform after all) that cover most of the body. To shield from the sun, in outdoor pools headwear takes the form of the aforementioned beekeeper hats, with veils protecting the neck, sunglasses completing the steampunk pilot beekeeper look. If in doubt, assume that it’s banned. That includes basically all accessories, jewellery, headphones, even those made for swimming, and watches. That will help you avoid any headaches.

Japan is pretty strict on tattoos, and many pools forbid entry to the inked (due I think to yakuza connections, which at least makes it sound exciting rather than just plain discriminatory). Some pools are kind enough to let you cover up with a plaster and some don’t mind. You just need to test the water here it seems to be a grey area. And caps: Indoor pool? Swimming cap essential. Outdoor? Maybe it’s OK to go without.

Don’t even try to take a young child still wearing nappies. No matter that the technology is great and these expensive swimming diapers are not going to let anything out, and besides your kid is basically toilet trained. Rules is rules.


The ‘No Cameras’ rule is a given, in Japan. I don’t think we need to elaborate more on this but to say, you know, this is a country with a real pervert problem. No matter how priceless the memories of little Hugo floating around in the pool might be. They will be just that, memories. Smart phones are a grey area, though and some pools are more lenient, which seems contradictory but yes, this was never going to be a completely reasonable set of rules, was it?

Government regulations stipulate that at regular intervals (some pools every hour, some longer) the whistle is blown, and everybody out! It’s easy to spot the gaijin tourists or newcomers at this point: the lone swimmer unphased by and still living in joyful innocence of the rules, and then being broken, in an embarassing, flustered exchange with the “X”-ing lifeguards. It seems to always be a ten minute break, during which time the staff are trained to look militantly busy, each stationed in a different role. These include taking measurements of the water, swimming the length of the pool to check for plasters and poos, and, my favourite part, hand signalling to one another in a synchronised, rigid robot dance. Some pools have a hot sauna room to sit in. Others don’t. I’ve been told that the ten minute break is to make sure people have a rest and don’t overdo it, though I’m pretty sure the greater danger is catching a cold, shivering and wet counting down the minutes.

At any outdoor spot, poolside patrol will be watching you like a hawk to check you are not applying sun cream, which is always banned, along with any other skin products and moisturisers. All shampoo, conditioner, and soap is banned from the after pool showers, too!

Once you get in the water, there are some things you should know, too. Though this is just a selection.

In the Water

Sadly all diving has a total blanket ban. Flip turns are often frowned at, too. Though, if the slower pace is more your thing then not to worry: there are dedicated lanes for slowly pool-walking, which, in Japan is for all ages, not just the retired. Again, the slower pace is in effect when you get to the end of the 50 metre stretch and have nowhere to go as it seems like many swimmers take a pretty leisurely pause in between lengths. If you’ve splashed out on some hand paddles, don’t go chasing waterfalls. Best keep them for the rivers and lakes that you’re used to, eh? Banned.

At least ‘petting’, for those in the mood, is not forbidden.

Oh and one more thing, when they do the “X” it’s the done thing to say “thankyou”, because of course you are grateful to have your freedoms restricted and moulded by barmy rules. Right?