There was a time in Japan that smoking was rampant, much like it used to be in America. It’s still a prominent-enough part of their culture that when written, the word “tobacco” uses hiragana (たばこ) rather than katakana (which makes it feel like less of a loan-word). “Everyone smokes in Tokyo,” someone told me once, and while that’s something of an overstatement, I do see a larger number of smokers here than in Nagoya. Then again, it’s a massive city, so I’m not surprised. I have noticed over my visits here that while America continues to increase anti-smoking laws, Japan hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
Let me clarify up front: I am a nonsmoker and dislike the smell of cigarette smoke. I tend to support laws and regulations that keep my airspace clear. However, a lot of my family used to smoke, and several of my friends still do, so I understand that it’s habit-forming. This entry is not written to judge, but to compare. (Let this serve as my disclaimer.)
In Japan, smoking generally isn’t allowed indoors in public buildings (though airports have grey, glass-walled smoking rooms set aside). The same can’t be said for bars and restaurants, though. Many fast-food chains are smoke-free — though some (e.g. MOS Burger) still provide closed-off smoking sections — but it’s still common in bars, izakayas, and many other restaurants. They even provide ashtrays on the tables. I’ve also seen at least one restaurant that’s nonsmoking during the day, but allows it at night. Generally speaking, the more bar-like a restaurant is, the more likely it is to allow smoking.
Both countries seem to prefer that people smoke outside, but Japan’s approach is somewhat different. First off, in Tokyo, smoking while walking is generally prohibited. I remember seeing a pamphlet a few years back that said that an adult holds a lit cigarette at the height of a child’s face, and could burn them. Many sidewalks here have signs that discourage both smoking while walking and littering with cigarette butts. To that end, many stations feature a nearby “smoking area.” Some are designed with smoke-baffling walls (either plain or fancy and curved), while some are more open, with a loose border of boxed shrubs. There’s even one in Oomori that looks like a small park bounded by low, bamboo fences.
Not that any of these measures actually prevents people from doing it; I see pedestrians with lit cigarettes on a daily basis. I’m told the cops will hand out fines during the day, but don’t bother enforcing it at night (which seems pointless).
Japan Tobacco has had a campaign for several years now, with odd but pertinent messages that show how being careless with one’s smoke can bother other people, and how throwing away the butts is still technically littering. (A third type of sign indirectly asks people to put out their smokes before throwing them into outdoor ashcans, lest they catch the contents on fire and create even more smoke.)
One thing I haven’t really seen here is the presence of e-cigarettes and personal vaporizers. In the eighteen months I’ve been here, I’ve seen two small shops for vaporizers and two people using them (one foreigner and one vaporizer-store clerk). I imagine that if the Japanese can still smoke traditional cigarettes, they don’t feel the need for substitutes. Chalk it up to Japan’s traditional mindset, I suppose.
Regardless, if you come from a country where smoking is on the decline, you can add this to the list of things to get used to in Japan.