The dos and don'ts of swimming pools in Japan

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

Going to a pool in France on holiday was baffling: 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 to life in Japan. Safe, well organised, so very convenient, with great public transport, food, beaches, onsen, world-class ski resorts … Japan has everything you could ever want.

Swimming pools though are one of the many places here that can have inexplicable systems … even those with the calmest temperament can be reduced to oni 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 help save you too many run-ins with the “X” crossed arms of lifeguards.


Unlike France, men can wear their choice of beach-type shorts, speedos, tanga, or even mankini.

Women might want to invest in some more layers to fit in, though. T shirts are common, but more common still are purpose-designed outfits that cover most of the body. To shield from the sun at outdoor pools, standard headwear takes the form of beekeeper-like hats with veils protecting the neck. It’s not essential and you can wear what you like but it might turn some heads.

Basically, if in doubt, assume that it’s banned. That includes all accessories, jewellery, headphones - even those made for swimming - and watches. That will help you avoid any headaches. Japan has some strict No Tattoo rules at bathing spots. Some pools let you cover up your offending ink with a plaster and some don’t mind. You just need to test the water here, it seems to be a grey area. It’s because in the past body art was associated with the yakuza, though that perception is changing and rumour has it restrictions could be lifted in time for the 2020 Olympics.

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 arguing that the technology is great so these expensive swimming diapers are leak-free, and besides your kid is basically toilet trained. Rules is rules.


The ‘No Cameras’ rule is a given. This is a country with a well-known pervert problem, so this is understandable. Smartphones are a grey area, though and some pools are more lenient.

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 showers, too. Government regulations stipulate that at regular intervals (some pools every hour, some longer) the whistle is blown, and everybody has to get out. It’s easy to spot the tourists or newcomers at this point: the lone swimmer having an embarrassing, 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. It gives you something to look at while you shiver. Some pools do have a hot sauna room to sit in while this happens, though most don’t.

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 is very popular with all ages.

Kids armbands and other floatation devices may be forbidden, too. Usually you can assume they will be but you never know, all pools are slightly different. 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. Banned.

Petting, for those in the mood, is not forbidden.