Rene Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” shows us a picture of a pipe, then denies that a picture of a pipe is a pipe at all. Of course, we get it now: It’s a picture of a pipe. In Japan, I find myself thinking in smokey bars: This is not une cigarette. It’s a cultural study, with nicotine.
Ceci N’est Pas Une Kiseru
Shoguns have always been keen on micromanagement, in ways that still seem to be shaping the Japanese office environment. You can consider the rule of one prefectural daimyo that “Nothing new is permitted,” an attempt to ban all innovation in order to spare everyone the headaches of adapting.
This extends into smoking. The Shogun had some very specific ideas about how tobacco should be smoked. Just as the tea ceremony had been formalized and ritualized, tobacco had its own set of rules. The tobacco “ceremony” never caught the imagination in the same way that macha did, perhaps because tobacco was always a foreign import, though it appears in hiragana, the domestic alphabet, outside of convenience stores – an honor not yet bestowed upon “ramen.”
Foreignness, though, is why the instructions were written. In highly formalized Japan, everyday tasks are deeply ritualized. People learned how to perform tasks by repeating individual steps perfectly. In Archery, you spend three months before being able to touch a bow – three months of learning how to walk up to the bow properly. Once these steps are reproduced perfectly, the tradition is preserved. This is why green tea and sticky rice is often prepared and served as it was 300 years ago.
But then there’s new stuff, such as tobacco, that nobody knows how to handle. The daimyo that banned innovation had one approach, but it came down to the Shogun to explain precisely how new things should be done.
The tobacco proclamation, in its absurd detail, read as follows:
“[When one] is to smoke the tobacco which is prepared for guests by the host and which has been placed on the tray, regardless of the quality; a guest should not smoke until his host has entered the room. When the host offers tobacco, the guest should at first refuse to accept it, saying, “After you.” This refusal should be made two or three times in the same way as is customarily observed when sake or tea is offered. Then the host should pick up a pipe (kiseru) and remove the guard. After wiping the pipe, the host should offer the guest, saying, ‘Please enjoy smoking this pipe.’ If the tobacco is of good quality, the guest should praise it. After taking a puff or two he is to replace the guard on the pipe and place it in front of him. Upon his departure he is to wipe the pipe clean with a paper handkerchief and return it to the tobacco tray. However, when the guest notices the guest cleaning it he is to say, “Please, leave it as it is.” Should the guest be the host’s superior, the guest should have the good manners to refuse the gift of the pipe, saying, ‘I am too humble to accept this gift.’”
I like to imagine a scenario where a fledgling bromance is sparked when one guy gets a pipe and invites his new friend over to smoke it, both of them nervously checking the Shogun’s instruction manual about what to do next. Superbad, Kabuki-style.
The Tolerance Movement
This idea of regulating a society through suggestions, rather than through laws, is one of the pieces of Japanese culture that seems so distinct from the United States. Manners, etiquette, and reminding people of the social protocols is still a go-to mechanism for regulation in Japan.
Smoking is a perfect example. The Japanese government owned the only tobacco company in Japan until 1985. It now holds a majority stake, meaning the government basically manufactures 66% of the cigarettes in Japan and runs several major Asian brands – this government involvement in tobacco is shocking to Americans, but a surprisingly prevalent situation throughout Asia and Europe.
But the government is also loathe to regulate itself, and so rather than laws, for decades it simply offered posters making suggestions about behavior for smokers – just as the Shogun did in the olden times, only this time it was on quirky subway ads. Things like portable ashtray use, for example, were encouraged through subway posters, and they actually molded smoker behavior: 69% of smokers in Japan own one. Even the cigarette packages, which in America warn of cancer and in Thailand show decapitated feet (!), Japan’s suggest that “Smoking may have health effects, let’s not smoke excessively.” And then, “mind your manners.”
Subway posters emphasize the social responsibility of smokers (in Japanese and English – they’re the green posters included in this post) and suggest proper social behaviors for how to smoke. As some critics point out, these campaigns double up their impact, first by minimizing social behaviors that might annoy people into anti-smoker bias (as has happened in the states) but second, they present smokers as people who want to avoid making a fuss. The posters criticize rude social behaviors – not smoking. This shifts the debate to one of rudeness and manners, rather than “should smoking be permitted?”
It also suggests that the risk of annoying people is given the same priority as avoiding cancer, perhaps even more, as there are no subway posters warning about that nasty side effect, but plenty warning you that smoke gets on people’s clothes. This is a way to socially regulate tobacco.
Consider a handful of court cases brought up against Japan Tobacco where anti-smokers wanted stronger restrictions on tobacco use, citing the health reasons. The courts, generally, have not been impressed.
In 1980, when a group of non-smokers sought to expand non-smoking seats on the Shinkansen, a judge ruled (seven years later) that the non-smokers had not proven the situation went beyond “toleration.”
The same could not be said for this television ad for Cosmos Cigarettes:
Then in 1998, another 7-year-long trial in which non-smokers sought an American-style set of regulations on tobacco, such as ending such devastatingly effective advertising as we just saw, but also banning vending machine sales and sports sponsorships while placing stronger warnings on packaging. The judge rejected the entire suite of proposals, saying that there were no proven links between diseases and smoking, and even rejected the claim that nicotine was addictive. This was in 2005. In another case, the court ruled that smoking was a moral choice and that regulation wouldn’t be necessary.
Fundamentally, the idea of “toleration” in Japanese smoking habits has kept ooki-tobako (big tobacco) in pretty good shape compared to its American counterparts (just imagine if Lucky Strikes was owned, and profits claimed, by the US Treasury Department). Second-hand smoke risks are treated as a matter of rudeness – a social, not legal, liability in Japan. One judge explained his ruling by saying that “There is good reason to expect that nonsmokers will be protected from indirect smoke by social regulation.”
In the US, that means anarchy.
Coffee and Cigarettes
You used to be able to smoke almost anywhere in Japan, legally speaking. People refrained when walking (you don’t often see food consumption mid-stride, either), but the Shinkansen was smoke-friendly and still has smoker-friendly sections on the train: phone-booth sized rooms with nicotine-stained mirrors where you have to watch yourself smoke under gross fluorescent lighting. The restriction on the Shinkansen was voluntary, a reaction to social pressure, not government regulation. That Nozomi train to Osaka could switch to all-smoking cars tomorrow if JR saw money in it (actually, it does – half of the tiny cigarette tax hike in 1998 was earmarked for railway subsidies).
Cafes and bars are still smokey, with a few minor exceptions and a major one: Starbucks, which is committed to smoke-free cafes as part of its corporate branding. Starbucks has been influential in establishing a cafe-culture in Japan, divided into two camps: The Cafe and the Japanese Kisaten, the prime distinction to my eyes being that you can smoke in a kisaten and they often have weird lamps and elaborate chairs filled with old men. The kisaten imitates Paris while the Cafe imitates Seattle. Coffee-and-cigarette enthusiasts have plenty of Starbucks competitors to flock to.
And 47% of Japanese men still smoke; down from 84% in 1966 – right now, the number of smoking men in Japan matches the number of American men smoking in Don Draper’s Golden Era of Tobacco. (Strangely, Japan has the lowest number of female smokers, so the “total percentage” of smokers is on par when you combine male and female smoking numbers). Tobacco generated a whopping 3% of the annual tax income for the Japanese government in the 1990s, and is still worth $19 billion a year (USD) to the coffers.
You can buy cigarettes anywhere – from tobacco shops to convenience stores to grocery stores to any of the 629,000 vending machines (the real number) dispensing them. A friend of mine, whilst snowboarding in Hokkaido, was handed free packs of cigarettes to promote a new brand.
Cigarettes are priced to sell – about 420 yen a pack, or $5, with very small taxes (Roughly $30 tax on every 1000 cigarettes). It’s so prevalent, cheap, and socially acceptable where I live that I started smoking just for fun – the combination of long workdays and stressful environments made them an extremely satisfying social vice. (I was never a proper smoker, and haven’t touched them in a while).
The Japan Paradox
One could accuse the Japanese government of being an international death merchant, but there is something weird about Japanese cigarettes. If the health concerns in Japan seem minor, it’s for a reason: Japanese men, despite smoking in the largest numbers in the world, aren’t getting lung cancer.
This glitch was first noticed by researchers in the mid-1970s. Japanese men smoked more than American men, but for every 100,000 men in the population, 130 American men got lung cancer while only 43 Japanese men did. Without getting into a very boring explanation of numbers, the risk of getting cancer as a smoker in Japan was at a 4, while for Americans and Europeans it ranges from 8 to 19. Here’s the twist: 93% of men (and 71% of women) who do get lung cancer in Japan get it from smoking. It’s just that this outcome isn’t as prevalent as it is abroad.
Researchers assumed it was genetic, but a study of Japanese men in Hawaii and Japanese men in Japan found that Japanese-Hawaiian smokers may as well have been American. So then they looked at Japanese tobacco. The problem was, 60% of Japanese Tobacco originates from Virginia. So next, filters: Nope. The filters are charcoal filters, used since 1968, the same used in the USA.
Researchers found three main reasons, each one rather unique to Japan:
1. Social Rituals. A study by RJ Reynolds found that Japanese people left “notoriously long butts,” that is, they smoked more cigarettes, but less of the actual cigarette. It is gauche to smoke the whole thing. They’ll smoke 10 to 15 percent less of a stick than smokers in other countries, and they’ll inhale less deeply. I don’t have a clue why, when Japan is a “finish your rice” culture and not a “leave some food on the table culture,” but I’d guess it has something to do with chopsticks. Get a bunch of tobacco on your fingertips and then bring a bowl of Japanese pub food up to your face – all you’ll smell are nicotine fingers. But it’s also a socially reinforced behavior – don’t smoke the entire cigarette.
2. Follow Rules. The second reason is that smokers in Japan – myself once included – start later in life than smokers in Europe or the States. This, despite how common vending machines are (which only started requiring ID cards in 2008 – again, not by regulation, but by corporate response to public demand) where minors had easy access. 70% of Americans begin smoking before they turn 20; 60% of Japanese smokers start after they turn 20, the legal smoking age. A lot of which would have to do with the extremely long hours that students in Japan are supervised; and the idea that smoking may be related to work-related drinking parties.
3. Drink tea. In repeated studies, 10 cups of green tea a day is one of the strongest preventative actions you can take against cancer. While American green tea is often Nutrasweeted or Sugared into what is, essentially, a less fizzy bottle of green Pepsi, Japanese tea is typically unsweetened. It is served as often as water in restaurants, found in vending machines more often than soda, and often baked into desserts like cakes and mochi (which also have less sugar than their American counterparts). Cold unsweetened tea is served to baseball teams during the summer. And just to get the point across, you can literally take a bath in green tea at onsen, though to be fair, I once took a bath in rosemary and onion soup at an onsen, too.
By coincidence, Japanese culture is apparently an antioxidant.
From my experience, Japan’s relationship to tobacco is dense with historical, cultural and modern political significance. It shows how social control works so well in Japan, often to the extent that the legal system is unwilling to intervene. Taking a note from Adam Smith, it’s a kind of “Invisible Hand of the Subway Car,” in which an individual’s effort to maximize social acceptance shapes the society at large. Rather than passing laws – which are inflexible – Japan goes soft, making suggestions about what kind of behaviors are socially acceptable.
This goes a long way toward understanding many reservations about Japanese culture – such as its reluctance to use foreign labor who may not grasp “the Japanese way.” It also displays how social control works – not through direct appeals to the respect of authority, but with subtler suggestions that “this is the way things are done,” a form of social authority rather than an exercise of power.
That this is precisely how the Shogunate operated hundreds of years ago is also revealing. In a society so enamored with tradition and struggling to negotiate foreign cultures into its own, Japanese society rely on the social protocols reinforced by media experts, government public service announcements, and even the education system, which is designed to inform as well as to instruct the next generation about expectations for behavior and traditions.
This is a sign of problems, too: The stifled innovation of Japanese companies can be tied to the culture’s general sense of seeking direction through consensus. It makes for a polite society, lower crimes rates, a united sense of cultural identity, but it also fuels reluctance to change and stray from the paths everyone else is on – a multi-headed dragon that can’t decide which way to walk.
Liking “This Japanese Life” on Facebook is like electric birds chastising grown-ups with turnips.