Smokin’! in Japan

This has happened to anyone who’s spent any time in Japan at least once.  You’re sitting in a restaurant, enjoying your meal when the dude sitting at the table next to you, hell, maybe someone at your table, leans back in his chair, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and starts puffing away, totally stinking up the joint with that patented tobacco stank and ruining your evening because you are a self-respecting human who is entitled to the experience of first world problems, goddammit!

Make no mistake about it: while the rest of the world may slowly but surely be moving away from a public smoking culture, Japan is still decidedly pro-tobacco.  Be it parks, bars, restaurants, theme parks, or pretty much anywhere aside from inside a train (and even bullet trains have designated smoking areas where you can get your nicotine fix), if you’re a smoker, you’ll feel at home in Japan.

I used to work in an izakaya (a Japanese-style gastropub for you plebeians out there) in a relatively busy business district in eastern Tokyo and there was hardly a shift that wouldn’t end without me coming come smelling like smoke and sweat (and sometimes sweat smoke, but that’s another thing), something that, as a nonsmoker, took a little bit of getting used to.

But, though decreasing, why does it seem that smoking is still so prevalent in the Land of the Rising Sun?

Well, first off, culturally, Japan is much forgiving of “rudeness”.  Bothered by someone’s Marlboro smoke?  If you’re a Japanese person you’re probably less likely to confront that person about it that someone from the west.  If you’re going out to eat with your boss, he probably isn’t going to give a damn about hurting your lungs because, heck, his boss back in the day didn’t give a damn and he’s the boss now.  Being respectful of others in Japan apparently means forgiving another’s hurtful vices while they fail to really respect your well-being.  It’s that classic Japanese hospitality at play.

Secondly, cigarettes are ridiculously easy to acquire in Japan.  As is well documented, there are convenience stores on almost every corner, all of them selling several dozen varieties of those good old cancer sticks.  Sure, you have to be over twenty years old to buy tobacco here but the whole age verification process consists of pressing a big button on a screen promising that you are in fact over twenty with no actual carding or identification process involved.  It’s not completely out of the ordinary to see elementary schoolers head off to the store to buy a pack or two for daddy.  But tobacco access doesn’t stop there.  There are “speciality” tobacco stores in almost every local shopping road in Japan, relics of the post-war Showa era expansion.  Sure, a lot of these places have closed up shop in recent years, priced out of the market by convenience stores but some still remain open, selling sweets and candies alongside cigarettes and cheap boxed sake.


Ah, yes, that good ol’ nicotine vending machine glow…

But perhaps the biggest signifier of Japan’s tobacco addiction lays in the proliferation of cigarette vending machines.  Yes, of course, we’re all aware of Japan’s vending machine culture.  Most of you probably still believe that whole panty vending machine on every corner urban myth that isn’t remotely true.  So what is true?  You can can find tobacco vending machines almost everywhere there is money to be made and in some places where there probably isn’t.  Business districts, local shopping streets, business hotels, serious entertainment companies.  You purportedly need a special I.D. card to use the things but I’ve seen many a drunk salaryman fumble his way into purchasing some cigs without one.  With this ease of access, it’s no wonder people smoke cigarettes here like they’re extras in a 1940s mob drama.

Third, and this is a biggie, in Japan, cigarettes are still “cool”.  That is to say, it’s still socially acceptable to smoke them.  Back in the states, I grew sitting through hours and hours of anti-smoking content, be it through class at school, on television (I will never forget where I was when I learned that you could have a hole in your throat and survive… I was on my couch watching Pokemon), or with anti-smoking campaigns.  Big tobacco was also banned from coming up with “cool” advertising campaigns.  Here in Japan, thought, you don’t really see that as much.  Tobacco packaging is still designed to be aesthetically pleasing (as much as Japanese packaging can ever be aesthetically pleasing), tobacco ads can still be seen in magazines, windows of stores, and on vending machines.  More importantly, less emphasis is placed on how bad smoking can be for your well-being.  Couple that with the incredibly stressful work-until-you-die-from-exhaustion modern Japanese lifestyle and you have a society full of cigarette smokers.  Speaking from experience, this is extremely prevalent in the Japanese entertainment industry as well.

So if you’re coming to Japan, don’t be surprised if everyone is…

But seriously though, living in Japan has probably aged my lungs twenty years and I’m most likely gonna die soon.

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