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Tips for smokers in 21st century Japan

38 Comments
By George Lloyd, grape Japan
Anti-smoking wardens on patrol in Tokyo Photo: nesnad, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not easy being a smoker in Japan anymore. In the early '90s, when I first arrived, it was very much a smokers' paradise, and I could indulge my filthy habit wherever I liked: on planes, in the cinema, even while waiting to see the doctor. Sadly, since the millennium, as local authorities have taken the West's anti-smoking campaign to heart, attitudes to smoking have changed dramatically and these days you can hardly smoke anywhere.

Even outdoors, smokers are only allowed to smoke in ‘smoking areas’, usually an area fenced-in by translucent plastic panels or dwarf conifers in pots. They are designed to keep smokers out of sight, presumably so that the general public doesn't have to see drug addicts pandering to their addiction.

00E99C79-F893-4DFF-9.jpg
A public smoking room in Tokyo Photo: amanderson2, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most smokers’ areas are outside train stations. While there are lots of stations in Tokyo, there aren’t as many as there are times in the day when I want a cigarette, so I often find myself caught short. Unfortunately, aside from smokers’ areas, there are few places where you’re allowed to smoke outdoors.

Sometimes, I’ve found a standing ashtray outside one of the city’s few remaining tobacconists, but I have often walked for ages looking for somewhere to have a smoke. Not finding one, and seeing no one around, I’ve ducked into a side street, lurked at the back of one of the city’s little parks, or ducked behind a bank of jidohanbaiki 自動販売機 (vending machines) for a quick wheeze.

Seeing me, mothers shoot me a frightened look, grab their child's hand, and scurry away. I become a rule breaker. I am inconsiderate and selfish, a disruptive foreign presence, whose threat to the social order is directly proportionate to my disregard for what other people think of me.

I’m past caring, so I just smoke and do my best to withdraw into another time and place, where people have better things to do than admonish their neighbors for breaking petty rules. Scornful pride aside, I resent being made a pariah for something as unremarkable as smoking a cigarette. After all, smoking is not illegal.

beachsmoke.jpg
In Japan, even beaches have designated areas for smokers. | Photo: hashi photo, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So why is it prohibited to smoke in so many places in Japan? I’ve seen signs on the street warning of the dangers of smoking while walking—something about "the end of a lit cigarette might burn someone"—but personally, the only time I’ve worried about being burned by a smoker is when I've been in an overcrowded 'smokers’ area.'

Other signs stress the importance of observing "smokers' mana"—the Japanese rendering of the English word "manners." I agree that it's not good form to expose other people to my second-hand smoke, but there's less danger of that happening in the open air.

And why the world’s most polite, highly regulated society should need to borrow our word for 'manners' is beyond me. I suspect it has something to do with following America's lead. These days, that means treating smokers like pariahs, but there was a time when smoking was practically on the curriculum in American schools, and that's when Japan picked up the habit.

Back in the early '90s, I remember seeing a cigarette machine, on the side of which was what purported to be a chatty conversation about Japan between two foreigners. It was written in English and went something like: “Hey, they really do like smoking here, don’t they?" "Oh sure, but everyone likes a good smoke.” At the time, I thought it strange to put a snippet of a conversation between ‘us’ about ‘them’ on the side of a vending machine, but its unquestioning approval of my favorite vice was comforting to see.

Yet there are interesting differences between their campaign and ours. In the West, the new rules governing smoking basically state that you can smoke outside but not in, the logic being that there is little danger from second-hand smoke, as long as you smoke outside.

There is also an assumption that, aside from educating me on the dangers of smoking and taxing my cigarettes, there’s not a lot the authorities can do to stop me smoking. They can nudge me towards giving up, but ultimately, it's my choice. It might be a stupid choice, but it’s my stupid choice.

But the Japanese authorities have rather less respect for the individual’s right to choose and rather more confidence in their own ability to discern the public good.

Fortunately, the rules governing smoking are not strictly policed, if only because, by and large, the authorities can rely on the public to do as they’re told. There are dishonorable exceptions, however. I saw one yesterday: an ojīsan (elderly man) slowly pedaling his bicycle down the shotengai (market street) with a cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth. It was precisely this kind of casual defiance that made smoking look cool in the first place.

While smoking outdoors has become anathema in Japan, smoking indoors is still quite acceptable, albeit in a dwindling number of restaurants, pubs, and izakaya restaurants. As for cafes, they maintain differing rules according to their target market. Being inspired by West Coast clean living, Starbucks makes no such provision for tabagists, and neither does Tully’s, Cafe Veloce or Excelsior.

So when I want a cigarette and can’t find a suitably scruffy back alley, I go to a branch of Doutor, whose target audience is the middle-aged salarīman looking for somewhere to have a smoke. There I pay ¥220 for a burendo (blended coffee), pick up an ashtray, and make my way to the smokers' room.

When I first arrived in Japan, the smokers' room generally occupied about half of the premise’s floor space, but these days, it occupies about a sixth and is shrinking by the day. There is an air conditioning unit, but it can’t entirely remove the comforting smell of stale tobacco or the nicotine stains on the walls, which are a shade of sepia that has become a rare sight in the new century.

The electric door noiselessly glides to a close behind me, and I am back in the halcyon days of the 20th century, when permanent coughs, bad breath, and a healthy contempt for authority were par for the course, and even the government accepted that, sooner or later, we all have to die of something.

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© grape Japan

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38 Comments
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Good for the author that Japan still has safe spaces for smokers.

-7 ( +5 / -12 )

I'm so happy it is getting harder and harder for smokers to pursue their selfish and filthy habit in Japan.

12 ( +18 / -6 )

Here is a tip for smokers in Japan. Quit and regain your health.

12 ( +17 / -5 )

Snus is a good alternative to cigarettes, you just put it on your gums and wait for it to kick in. Nobody can tell you've got it in there either

-5 ( +2 / -7 )

Snus is a good alternative to cigarettes, you just put it on your gums and wait for it to kick in. Nobody can tell you've got it in there either

Bleh, this grosses me out more than smoking even.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Cigarettes smell disgusting and smokers regularly piss me off dropping their filthy butts on my street for us to clean up. When I see someone drop one outside my house I pick it up, tap them on the shoulder and tell them they dropped something.

10 ( +13 / -3 )

When I was young, smoking appealed to the young as an excitingly forbidden pleasure. It was also a sign of the rush to grow up. I smoked, not heavily, for ten years--in five different countries. I was particularly fond of Gauloises and of pipes...I quit the day I got married, some 50 years ago: wife's orders. For a while I got my jollies by joining in the anti-tobacco chorus, loudly complaining about what I saw as lax enforcement of restrictions. I would sit in coffee shops and guess which stylish early middle-aged woman would reach into her fancy handbag and pull out a pack of cigs--and quietly despise and resent her...But then I met the true zealots, those who would spend half an hour going from restaurant to restaurant, asking whether they were kin-en or not and angrily protesting when they were told they were not. Among some foreigners it became a kind of Japan-bashing. I suspect that many of them are somewhat disappointed that an anti-smoking consensus has formed. What else can they now feel morally superior about?

-8 ( +3 / -11 )

Lung cancer is your reward for lifelong smoking Mr Lloyd, the number killer of males in Japan. That will be the last chapter of your whimsical story, and not a happy one.

6 ( +11 / -5 )

Funny how the west idolizes drugs like cannabis or any hard drugs, but somehow have this intense hatred for tobacco.

-7 ( +8 / -15 )

Funny how the west idolizes drugs like cannabis or any hard drugs, but somehow have this intense hatred for tobacco.

Yeah cannabis has absolutely destroyed Canada. Their economy collapsed and their culture devolved into war after legalization. Oh, and they made it illegal to smoke indoors too. Talk about failure.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

The only tip smokers need is "quit smoking".

8 ( +12 / -4 )

I’m past caring, so I just smoke and do my best to withdraw into another time and place, where people have better things to do than admonish their neighbors for breaking petty rules. Scornful pride aside, I resent being made a pariah for something as unremarkable as smoking a cigarette. After all, smoking is not illegal.

We’re not admonishing you, Mr Smoker. We’re pitying you for your destructive addiction and wary of you spreading your filthy habit to impressionable others who might see your (as yet) perfectly legal habit as being in any way worthy of imitation.

permanent coughs, bad breath, and a healthy contempt for authority were par for the course, and even the government accepted that, sooner or later, we all have to die of something.

Clever use of the term ‘healthy contempt’. Not.

The government accepts smoking for a number of reasons: the tobacco tax is one, another not often expressed aloud is the fact that many smokers will die sooner rather than later, thus helping ease the squeeze on pensions. What do the politicians care if smokers spend years not only coughing but suffering heart attacks, strokes and debilitating emphysema before they forfeit their pensions?

5 ( +11 / -6 )

The best way to stop people smoking is to keep raising the tax on them. Make them unaffordable.

6 ( +9 / -3 )

I think this article was intended for smokers. It wasn't for anti-smokers to get on their high horse about.

0 ( +8 / -8 )

@CitizenSmith

I agree, the title is a big give away.

In broader world, I think it is interesting has it help put things in perspective not only about tobacco.

-5 ( +2 / -7 )

People who smoke tobacco, if one cares to research it, cost the healthcare system less than most other people at the time of mortality because lung cancer is one of the more foolproof and expeditious ways to exit this place and, generally, smokers exit a bit earlier and do not run up anywhere near the costs that 'healthy' very old people with extended senescence do, the very serious problem that Japan and other countries are facing today. In fact, the smoker should, maybe, be lauded for 'self-sacrifice'.

BradleyToday 01:11 pm JST

The best way to stop people smoking is to keep raising the tax on them. Make them unaffordable.

In that case, how about a tax on FAT people also because they use up WAY more of our healthcare resources, have way more chronic illnesses, and consume perhaps twice as much of our ever scarcer food resources as the usually significantly thinner smoker.

And regarding 'second hand smoke', one whiff of diesel exhaust and a person has encountered the very same carcinogenic substances as released by campfire or other burning vegetable matter such as tobacco but in much greater concentration plus the submicron Carbon particulates which drive the alveolar lymphocytes crazy and cause constant immunological attack and the same consequent chronic tissue injury and destruction we see in, for example, Black Lung disease, Asbestos related diseases, and several other such damages which are known precursors to lung cancer. Should we begin raising taxes on diesel owners also?

What many people who fear thinking about death don't understand is that not everyone wants to leave claw marks on the face of Life as Death drags them back to where we all come from. Certainly few WANT to leave unless pushed to terminal desperation, but inevitability must inevitably be faced and realizing that once past the 'event horizon' death becomes a lot easier, effortless and free from care as it were. And smokers accept that as part of their pursuit of happiness.

And these taxes are known as 'SIN' taxes which, REALLY, explains their attraction to those who want to punish people for just living their lives the way they choose. 'Freedom' from petty fears is a strong cause of jealousy in those who must compulsively adhere to every little 'should' that comes their way. And smokers have generally been more than happy to 'socially distance' and stick to their own little groups because smokers are a bit 'different' and have more enjoyment with other smokers than with those for whom disapproval is a way of life.

Again, if smokers are to be burdened with sin taxes, then FAT people should also share in that burden because their addiction is much more expensive to society as a whole than is the smoker's.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Honestly if you still smoke and aren't angling to quit, it is probably a handy article to know where smoking is permissible, because it is the opposite of a lot of places I have traveled to. Not to mention it has changed immensely in the years I have been here. You used to have smoking areas on train station platforms when I first came.

I am in a weird hybrid situation of not smoking anymore, but still actively seeking out smoking areas to vape in (incidentally the only way I have successfully quit smoking). While it is not always subject to the same restrictions as smoking, people are unfamiliar enough with it here that I only do it in areas which also allow smoking or specifically vape shops. Given it is a lot more prevalent overseas, it could be good to know when tourism starts to become possible again.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I spent my childhood living with heavy smokers - both adults and an elder brother - none of whom lived long enough to draw a pension. (Though my brother lived a number of years on a disability pension.)

smokers accept that (an early death) as part of their pursuit of happiness.

My Mum, when pleaded with to please stop smoking, always insisted that it was her only pleasure in life. A pleasure that took away from her, at the age of 50, the pleasure of seeing her children happily married, the pleasure of holding her beautiful grandchildren in her arms, and the pleasure of seeing those grandchildren produce equally beautiful great-grandchildren. Not to mention the pleasure of living a long and happy married life with my Dad, who followed her 15 years later and also missed out on watching his grandkids grow.

Living with smokers is a sure-fire way to become vehemently anti-smoking.

 Should we begin raising taxes on diesel owners also?

Taxes? No, that just means the rich can afford to continue to pollute our air, and to be arrogant about it coz they're paying. Tokyo has had restrictions in place since 2003; large diesel vehicles that do not meet the emission standards are not allowed to drive in the metropolitan area, as a result of which Tokyo air has drastically improved since 2004. Expanding the restrictions to cover smaller diesel vehicles is the next logical step.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

both adults = both parents

3 ( +4 / -1 )

10 years now since I "just quit". No substitutes just did the cold turkey. Took a couple of years to settle down and even now I get a desire every now and again. Until I smell the smoke again. Reckon I saved myself at least ¥2 million.

Really glad by the time of my cancer op last year my lungs had recovered a little and got out all the monoxide. I had low blood oxygen levels for a few months. It would have been much worse had I been a smoker.

Regret ever starting in the first place.

My advice, "just quit".

9 ( +11 / -2 )

My advice, "just quit".

Good on you for quitting, zichi.

Better advice, 'don't starting the first place.'

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Cleo, not to cast a shadow on your grief at the precocious departure of your parents but did they both pass of lung cancer? Even for heavy smokers, 50 is a young age unless there are comorbidities. Is it possible that there was the complication of chronic subclinical scurvy because smokers use up about 35% more Vitamin C (major anti-oxidant) than nonsmokers which even physicians rarely know. And, as I mentioned, diesel exhaust contains even more serious carcinogens than vegetable smoke in greater concentration including Formaldehyde, a potent cancinogen, which is also more and more ubiquitous in our indoor and outdoor environments as Corporate finds cheaper but more dangerous ways to fool us.

And your Mom made a choice which we all do and we live or die with those choices for which none of us can predict the outcome. And not being flippant, Jeanne Louise Calment, the oldest documented Human (122), quit smoking at 117. We just don't know. Would your Mom have been happy NOT smoking?

Don't blame them, because they would not want you to remember them with bad feeling. Certainly they took good care of you while they lived. And they lived as they chose to live and did not hurt others, only themselves perhaps. We must all be free to do live as we choose or what is the point? Celebrate them in your grandchildren who would not be except for OTHER choices they made which were more successful.

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

My advice, "just quit".

I strongly feel that this is the only kind of advice that an article giving "tips" on smoking should focus on.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

diesel exhaust contains even more serious carcinogens than vegetable smoke in greater concentration including Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is given off when cigarettes are burned. Diesel engines are not run in restaurants or other indoor locations.

Some of the chemicals found in tobacco smoke include:

Nicotine (the addictive drug that produces the effects in the brain that people are looking for)

Hydrogen cyanide.

Formaldehyde.

Lead.

Arsenic.

Ammonia.

Radioactive elements, such as polonium-210 (see below)

Benzene.

The weak "see what cars are doing" retort by smokers does nothing to reduce second hand smoke deaths caused by the sadly addicted to nicotine crowd. It is a red herring logical fallacy.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Agree with @CitizenSmith

It's hilarious how some posters are wrinkling their noses at George Llyod, the author. It's clearly a cleverly written article aimed at holding up a mirror to the fast vanishing tribe of smokers in Japan.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

It's clearly a cleverly written article

Which article were you reading?

The one I read was a rambling list of self indulgent complaints by a person unhappy with the fact that society does not welcome his harmful past-time with open arms the way it used to back in the good old days.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

did they both pass of lung cancer?

No. Lung cancer isn't the only atrocity that tobacco inflicts on the body.

https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/what-are-the-health-risks-of-smoking/

And your Mom made a choice which we all do and we live or die with those choices for which none of us can predict the outcome

No one told her she would be dead at 50. And if they had, she would likely have taken the self-deceiving path taken by many smokers as we see on this thread; 'we all die sooner or later', 'at least I'm not fat', 'it won't happen to me', etc. etc.

Would your Mom have been happy NOT smoking?

She would have lived a lot longer. And because she loved her family, I know she would have been over the moon at the weddings and births and seeing her family grow. So yes, I believe she and my father would have been much happier much longer if they had not smoked. And the rest of the family would have been much happier if they had not died so young.

Don't blame them, because they would not want you to remember them with bad feeling

I don't blame them at all, and the feelings I have for them are of love and regret. They both started smoking when they were young, when it was 'cool' and smart to do so, and the dangers were either hidden or played down. Cigarettes were marketed to their generation as beneficial to the health; good for the nerves, an aid to staying slim, something to share with friends; a positive. By the time it became generally understood that smoking was detrimental to the health, they were both hopelessly addicted. After his first heart attack my Dad tried really, really hard to quit, and simply wasn't able; he was too strongly addicted.

I blame the cigarette manufacturers and advertisers who deliberately hid the research on the effects of smoking and passed the habit off as cool, stylish and sophisticated instead of as the filthy addiction it is in reality.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/big-tobacco-kept-cancer-risk-in-cigarettes-secret-study/

And JT articles like this one do not help.

And they lived as they chose to live and did not hurt others, only themselves perhaps.

It's well-known (now) that smoking mothers have smaller babies; I was tiny, so was my younger brother. As a child I suffered repeated bouts of asthma, that cleared up after I left home and went into a non-smoking environment.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

How someone can be so disconnected from society (and reality) is quite baffling.

Oh, poor you. Indeed the world is a cruel place, Mr. Smoker. Let's hope more mothers keep shielding their children from this oh so healthy habit of yours.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

How someone can be so disconnected from society (and reality) is quite baffling.

The tobacco does things to the brain.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

No one told her she would be dead at 50. And if they had, she would likely have taken the self-deceiving path taken by many smokers as we see on this thread; 'we all die sooner or later', 'at least I'm not fat', 'it won't happen to me', etc. etc.

I'm very sympathetic. I lost my little sister to cancer at 41. She had breast cancer unrelated to smoking, but in her final years while she was struggling with it she expressed a lot of frustration at that attitude of some smokers because they placed so little value on something (not dying of cancer) that she would have given anything in the world to have.

Now that she is gone, I keep a bit of her anger about it alive in me.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Rainyday: My condolences on your loss.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Tobacco was the backbone of making America a super power, so be careful of what you complain about.

Opium will make Afghanistan a super power under the Taliban as it did to the English long past.

Everyone has their vices.

And the Biggest one is what William B. posted above. Obesity cost more on societies much more so that smoking had, has and will ever.

Good posts William B. Perhaps it might open up some eyes.

-9 ( +0 / -9 )

Tobacco was the backbone of making America a super power, so be careful of what you complain about.

Why should the rest of the world be careful complaining about tobacco addiction, just because America made money off it?

If it's wrong, it's wrong.

And tobacco is Wrong.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Why should the rest of the world be careful complaining about tobacco addiction, just because America made money off it?

Not just the US.

Smoking is just horrible, and the faster it becomes a distant memory the better off society will be.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Rainyday: My condolences on your loss.

Thank you.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I respect everyone's opinions however I do disagree with the gentlemen's sentiment of "sadly" in reference to the current day bettering attitude of bigger support for nonsmokers. I do have smoking friends and I see many times they just light up in a crowd without thinking and I have to remind them of the impact on others. If we could all just have proper manners and thinking of others this issue would be lessened. Unfortunately when such as this gent longs for the days of lighting up on a crowded enclosed plane I think this is only a dream

2 ( +3 / -1 )

My Japanese brother-in-law died from lung cancer two years ago in his mid 50s. I gave up the habit 20 years ago but still suffer the consequences of 40 years of heavy smoking. As I write this I am connected to an oxygen concentrator that pumps that life supporting gas into my COPD damaged lungs. If I could change one thing in my past life it would be smoking.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

You are thought of as a pariah because you subject others to breathe the fumes of your habit. You show zero consideration for others, you are a selfish, self centered moron and you also reek.

Perhaps you should switch to smokeless tobacco.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

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