Will Japan Ever Have a Smoking Ban?
On this 23rd annual World No Tobacco Day, serious kudos are due for all the countries that have enacted smoking bans since the WHO declared May 31st a day to fill ashtrays with flowers rather than Marlboro butts. However, one developed country missing from the group is Japan, where it’s commonplace for people with a cold to don a face mask to stop their germs from spreading but pretty unheard of for smokers to show concern about their emissions. Although being mindful of neighbors seems to be hardwired into Japanese DNA, the default stance still somehow favors smokers, whose numbers have fallen to 25% of the adult population.
So why is it that Japan, a country so advanced in so many ways, still hasn’t gotten its act together when it comes to meaningful tobacco laws?
To answer this, I talked to Doctor Manabu Sakuta, a 61-year-old retired professor of internal medicine and neurology, who chairs the board of directors of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control. Their aim is to educate the public about the dangers of smoking, help smokers quit, and pressure legislators to put a smoking ban in place that would protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke. Doctor Sakuta explained that the Japanese government’s surprisingly pro-tobacco policies are the result of its major stake in Japan Tobacco, one of the biggest cigarette makers in the world.
A Japan Tobacco representative explained on the phone why they don’t particularly care for a full ban. “Statistics prove that smoking and secondhand smoke do not result in ill effects like lung cancer. Tobacco is a luxury grocery item sanctioned by the Japanese government and we just sell it.” She went on to say that the real issue of tobacco is the “heartless smokers” who burn children on the street and toss their cigarettes on the ground, a belief lawmakers seem to share, which is why Tokyo and other big cities like Osaka and Nagoya have banned sidewalk smoking in some busy areas.
“Japan Tobacco’s manner campaign is a fraud,” Sakuta told me. “Japan Tobacco uses their in-pocket famous doctors, Diet members, Ministry of Finance bureaucrats, mass media, and even ordinary smokers” to work toward stifling regulation. The Japan Society for Tobacco Control, though lacking in funds, is replete with doctors, lawyers, and even government employees among its members that number in the thousands. The organization stages monthly protests, publishes anti-smoking literature, has its doctors lecture schoolchildren, holds anti-smoking commercial contests, and even initiates lawsuits. “If you can get someone to quit smoking,” Sakuta said, “you can save their life.” Although Japan Tobacco insists the solution lies in harmonious separation between smoking and non-smoking areas, Sakuta feels that a strictly enforced ban along the lines of New York or London is the only way to go.
Curious to see what this would look like in Japan, I paid a visit to Bootleg Tavern, one of the only smoke-free bars in Osaka. After 17 years of breathing his customers’ smoke, the 54-year-old owner, Tim Oba, banned smoking last year because he just couldn’t take it anymore. “This will never be a smoking bar again,” he told me. “Now my phlegm is clear. Before it was dark, and I’m not even a smoker!” But some of his regulars aren’t as pleased. “I don’t like him because he don’t let me smoke,” the “millionaire” whined to me in slurred English when Oba snatched the cigarette he was putting in his mouth. “He always says he’s not coming back,” Oba said, “but then he does.” An alternate view was eloquently expressed by a young, bespectacled doctor with a goatee, who waxed on the sundry joys of the smoke-free experience: “The alcohol smells and tastes better,” he said, and ordered me a whiskey to demonstrate his point. “Sushi also—” he went on, but the “millionaire” cut in, putting his arm around me, shouting, “I’m leaving because I can’t smoke here!” But he stayed, fidgeting with his pack, joining in the repartee in a scene that struck me as a Japanese version of Cheers.
So will Japan ever have a countrywide smoking ban? Doctor Sakuta is optimistic, especially because of the newly elected government. “With the Democratic Party of Japan ruling now, they can change things overnight since they have more than 50% stock.” And it’s already happening on a prefectural level. In Kanagawa, the most ambitious ban yet went into effect in April. And who knows—if this catches on, maybe one day Japan too will deserve a pat on the back every May 31st. But I’m not holding my breath, except when confronted by a billowing smoke cloud.
Photo by Tahmid Munaz
Adapted from a story written last year for Kansai Scene.
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