Smoking in Japan

If you exclude beautiful manners, outstanding courtesy and magnificent cuisine, one of the other things I love most about Japan is the lack of smoking.

Before our first visit to Japan in 2010, the Cute Fellow and I were under the impression that smokers lurked everywhere – flicking ash as they walked, blowing smoke in your direction, assaulting your sense of smell in every public arena.

We had strong mental images of Japanese men smoking non-stop in every available corner. We envisaged smokers in restaurants, cafes, on the street, in shops, shopping centres, public transport, clubs, outside office buildings, inside office buildings and everywhere you could imagine wanting to be.

Consequently a serious discussion ensued about how we’d handle this impending trauma … particularly me as I’ve been a vocal non-smoker from a very early age.  I recall when, at about 7 years old, I was chased around the house by my furious uncle after I stuck a carnation in the end of his dreadful (and hopefully expensive) cigar. Even then I thought the smell was appalling.  He died quite young … suspect all that smoking had something to do with it.

Over to Japan we go and what a surprise! The reality is you can wander anywhere without being poisoned by noxious cigarette fumes.  Such a revelation.  We walked around in wonder and amazement during our entire six week visit.

tokyo-smoking-by-meguro-river-june-2016-dwoodley
Smokers gathered beside the Meguro River in an allotted spot (June 2016)

On our June 2016 trip, we found the oddity of seemingly really nice restaurants which allowed smoking while dining – the “eat and die from lung cancer at the same time” regime.  We avoided those like the plague and only stumbled into one in the back streets around Tokyo Station because we were starving and it was getting late.  That turned out well because most smokers had gone back to work by then.

In reality, the only places where smoking is truly disgusting are pachinko parlours.

Pachinko is a slot machine lover’s paradise. The walls are lined with vertical pinball machines. Players (and there’s a lot of them – all the parlours we visited were packed) fire metal-sounding balls which hit a forest of pins as they cascade down. The noise is phenomenal – mindblowingly deafening.

To add to the misery, a thick haze of pungent cigarette smoke drifts around. It defies logic that players and staff don’t end up with a serious dose of lung cancer after 15 minutes of exposure.

I’ve since discovered that smoking in Japan had changed quite significantly in recent years, in that it’s been declining in popularity over the last decade or two.

In 2014, the adult smoking rate was just under 20% in Japan which is still very high. Compare that with Australia at 13.3% (2013), 19.3% in the UK and 16.8% in the USA. However France, bless their great wine and fresh baguettes, sits around 30% – an amazing figure given they have the most restrictions on smokers (but do the least to enforce them).

Notice painted on footpath in a Tokyo Street

Japan don’t have much enforceable legislation as such, but they do seem to have enforced non-smoking in public places using entertaining signage and fining recalcitrant smokers.

On our recent trip to Tokyo, there were frequent signs posted on footpaths and buildings prohibiting smoking.  Smoking areas have also long been specially designated in offices, restaurants, fast-food eateries, restaurants and public areas.

Smoking’s not actually illegal, but it’s become socially unacceptable.  Whenever I saw someone walking along the street with a lit cigarette, I actually felt shocked.

So all you non-smokers out there, head off to Japan for a wonderful (almost) smoke-free experience.  It’s well worth it!