On Smoking Cigarettes in Japan


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.

IMG_4371But 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.


The Filter
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. 

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27 Responses to On Smoking Cigarettes in Japan

  1. Catspaw says:

    “Invisible Hand of the Subway Car,” – a multi-headed dragon that can’t decide which way to walk.

    The phrase: ‘Moderation in all things’ comes to mind. Maybe it is possible to have too much moderation in all things?

    Japan has a heritage of discipline and precision. Are those traits any less apparent in the attention to the self contradictions of smoking? Innovators don’t always enjoy the longest ride on the gravy train?

    Maybe one of your most subtle illustrations of the character of Japan.

  2. Kathryn says:

    Where did you get the stats on lung cancer? I need to quote them to everyone always.

    I’d never thought about how Western campaigns target the effect on the smoker, Japanese on other people. In Australia, while the government does not invest in tobacco companies, about 80-90% of the price of a packet of cigarettes goes in taxes. That means some incredibly stupid laws, like plain packaging because having pretty colours on the pack makes you smoke more? At the same time, it’s never going to become illegal because of the taxes.

    • Raysa says:

      As an Advertising student, i can say that that law has truth to it, as it has been proved that certain colors or patterns tend to attract more attention than others, thus selling more than other brands whose packages aren’t as visually tempting. Of course it could just be because this or that brand of this or that product is better than the others and sells more because of it, but just take a look at any supermarket anywhere in the world and notice where your eyes roam at first when you look at the shelves – the better looking packages, more colorful or distinguishable from the others, no doubt. You can choose not to buy it for whatever reason, but you have certainly noticed the product and it has already caused an impression (thats called merchandising). A non-smoker could be influenced by the visual, if disregarding what they may know about smoking or if they choose to ignore it, so the government choosing to approve a law that establishes that cigarrette packages must be plain does have its fundament. It may not prevent smoking, but it certainly does help, at least on a somewhat more superficial basis.

  3. zoomingjapan says:

    All I can say is that I REALLY hate smoke!
    Here in Japan it’s actually not that bad, but even here are very inconsiderate people!
    I hate it when I sit in a restaurant and finally the delicious food I ordered comes and the people next to me start smoking. ANNOYING!!!!!

    And I see so many people smoking while in the car with their little kids. WTF?
    That is not unique to Japan, I guess that happens all over the world … unfortunately.

    When my father visited (he smokes …) I realized for the first time that there are actually a LOT of places in Japan where you are not allowed to smoke at all. This is probably why I feel comfortable here most of the time.

    • Catspaw says:

      “I hate it when I sit in a restaurant and finally the delicious food I ordered comes and the people next to me start smoking. ANNOYING!!!!!”

      Can you ask them to wait or, is that, ‘just not done’? There’s another seeming contradiction. The Japanese are known for a uniform sense of courtesy and respect. How could someone just light up, not even ask? Take it outside? Unbelievable, how can they imagine it doesn’t matter to have smoke around food?

      • zoomingjapan says:

        I don’t know. I really don’t understand people like that, but it’s certainly not unique to Japan!

      • booyah69@mailinator.com says:

        “The Japanese are known for a uniform sense of courtesy and respect.”

        Really? I’m guessing you don’t have to ride the Denentoshi at 8 AM each and every day to get to work in the morning.

      • no it is not socially acceptable to ask them not to smoke- you are socially pressured into not imposing on other people your own preferences- since smoking is allowed, you feel guilty for asking someone not to do it in front of you or your kids. None of my friends even asks before they light up in front of me even though I always comment how bad smoking is for you health.

  4. expatseek says:

    So it’s green tea, smoking less of the cigarettes and starting later. OK, cool.

  5. Glenn says:

    Retrograde attitudes and policies toward smoking are what I dislike most about living in Japan.

    >People refrained when walking (you don’t often see food consumption mid-stride, either)
    Come to Setagaya-ku in Tokyo, stand in any crowded area and you will see dozens of people walking with lit cigarettes (often wielded around the height of a child`s head). You will also see tossed butts littering the sidewalks. If you are fortunate to live in one of the priciest central Tokyo wards, where smoking on the streets and sidewalks is banned, you may get the wrong impression about the rest of the city and country.

    The celebrated Japanese manners, in spite of the ad campaigns mentioned here, have a gaping blind spot when it comes to smoking. Since our daughter was born, I found how tough it could be in some areas to find a completely non-smoking restaurant (though this is fortunately improving). After several times settling for a place where smoking was allowed and being directed with our baby to the remotest corner surrounded by numerous empty tables, only to have a group of 5 or 6 people come in a few minutes later, sit at the very nearest table, and all light up, I gave up even attempting to enter a place that is not explicitly non-smoking. But seeing so many parents smoking around their own small children, how can I expect them to have any regard for mine?

    Education on the topic is abysmal, because in Japan not the health ministry but the finance ministry controls tobacco policy. So instead of education about the undeniable health effects we get the aforementioned ad campaigns which (sponsored as they are by Japan Tobacco) exist primarily to promote cigarettes. What could I say to my chain smoking colleague and his chain smoking wife when they decided to relocate from Chiba to Western Honshu out of fear of Fukushima radiation effects on their small child? People actually think this way.

    >Japanese men, despite smoking in the largest numbers in the world, aren’t getting lung cancer.

    Except that they are, as you point out just a few sentences later (“It’s just that this outcome isn’t as prevalent as it is abroad”). And why no mention of second-hand smoke? I can only hope green tea will offset the effects from all those hazy company izakaya parties.

    Things are getting better, it`s true. But there is a long way to go. Oh, well, the way things are going the clouds of dust and pollution now starting to invade Japan from the West might end up make the tobacco problem seem minor.


    • even though its banned in places smokers dont give a crap- I take it right out of their mouth and keep walking as if its normal to do so. I dont even say anything- eve when I am riding my bike.

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  7. Anii says:

    I was is Asakusa on my vacation and even though it is supposed to be a pricy area, you see almost every resident smoking on the streets. I am fine with smoking in restaurants but as a smoker I have to say, there should at least be enough courtesy to have separate.smoking areas that are well ventilated

  8. What is amazing is their is social heath insurance! so any tax benefits go right out the window with health care costs- great so less get cancer how many have COPD? or strokes? how many people have you seen dragging a limp leg or arm and half their face looking like the walking dead?

  9. Stop smoking says:

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  11. This was a very interesting article and insight on Japanese culture that often isn’t “seen.” Since smoking in most countries is strongly legally regulated, as well as socially looked down upon, your local culture and regulations is usually most of what is known. I would like to see the percentages of the anti-smoker movements broken down into native Japanese vs people who moved/live in Japan. I feel a strong percentage probably would be the people who relocated to Japan, and are trying to impose their moral values and beliefs onto others.

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  13. Naomi says:

    I’ve wanted to visit Japan for years now, maybe even participate in the Teach in Japan program, but my allergic reaction to tobacco smoke has been steadily getting more severe. The reaction can’t be stopped with an inhaler or other medication since it is not your typical asthma attack (I cough spasmodically and end up suffocating myself because i can’t keep a breath in long enough for my lungs to take in the oxygen), the only thing that works is to leave the area of contamination. So I’m trying to figure out if I should cancel my dream of visiting Japan, walk around with a gas mask on (which I’ve already found out works perfectly) which is bulky and embarrassing, or risking literally killing myself by just hoping I don’t encounter a situation that I can’t leave fast enough? If someone could tell me how often on a daily basis you encounter tobacco smoke in Japan, that would be great!

    • zoomingjapan says:

      I feel your pain Naomi.
      I’ve been living in Japan for over 6 years now and while I’m not allergic to smoke, I almost lose my voice, can barely breathe and get strong headaches. So, I try to avoid smoke as much as I can.

      It’s actually not that difficult. In my daily life I don’t have to deal with smoke at all!
      You just shouldn’t hang out in izakaya bars at night and if you go to a restaurant make sure they have only non-smoking seats (or that the smoking area is properly separated).

      Many public spots don’t allow you to smoke. Even most train stations have now a small glass cabin for people who want to smoke.

      When you book a hotel, make sure you get a non-smoking room.

      Nowadays smoking is forbidden in public transportation.

      It’s not impossible for you at all to come in Japan and stay healthy. :)

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  16. ekadish says:

    About your closing comment… “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.”

    What is so wrong about “reluctance to stray from the path everyone else is on”? One would reply, it hampers creativity and innovation, yes? (Aside : That seems to be Disney’s everlasting theme, why why why) I’ve heard this argument against the ‘conformism’ of the japanese people often. But can one ever say creativity and innovation ever hampered in Japan? Definitely not, wouldn’t you agree? So then? How is it bad?

    I’m actually curious.

    • owwls says:

      Creativity and innovation is absolutely hampered in Japan. They have some science breakthroughs and streaks of novelty, but in daily life — most corporations, education, and certainly government — you see extremely slow change and adaptation to modern times. Just because they have robots, fast trains and other technological accomplishments doesn’t mean the society isn’t slow to respond to a crisis. Look at how Fukushima was handled, look at how the government is handling the population drop. A good book on this is “The Paradox of Harmony,” which I helped edit– it’s a great argument in favor of the conclusion that the same things that make Japan amazing are contributing to it’s decline. It’s a real catch-22!

  17. Zorg says:

    There is a lot a hatred thowed here in the comments, even if the OP didn’t do anything to start this flaming.

    Reading it from France, where I live, I’m really amazed by all this reactions.
    I just spent a full month in Japan (Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo, mostly), and thought that Japan was the harshest country ever with smokers. And here, people think it’s not enough regulated ? Really ?

    First of all, in big cities downtowns, you can’t smoke in the streets. That means you can’t smoke while walking, and you cannot EVER smoke while sitting on the outside. As a smoker, it really is painful. I always believed that NY was the only city in the world with non-smoking streets, but it was before I landed in Japan.
    On the other hand, smoking in bars, pubs, cafés, or restaurants, is allowed. WTF ?!?

    It’s not because you’re a smoker that you’d enjoy the smell on your clothes, your hair, or you’d like coughing or having a burning throat when waking up. Those smoking areas are awfull.
    They park smokers like animals, and you can’t even breath for more like a minute without feeling dizzy. I would really prefer a 1,000 times getting out to take a smoke, rather than staying 5 minutes on an inside full of smoke.

    It is what the French regulation does since 2002 (and it’s mostly the same thing everywhere in Europe) : no one is allowed to smoke on the inside if the place has a free entrance (shops, restaurants, pubs, offices, train stations, subways…), but you’re free to smoke anywhere you want on the outside.
    And of course, if you’re on a crowded outside (e.g.: bus stops), the most basic courtesy is to take a few steps outside the crowd if you want to light up a cig.

    Japanese regulation about smoking is both fascist (you take a fine for smoking on an empty street, by night, with a disposable ashtray in your hand), and stupid (almost every cafés are full of smoke).

    Smokers are not bad people. They are not better or worst than any kind of population. They is courteous smokers, and hateful ones as there is courteous non-smokers, and nazis, like some people here in this comments section. We should not be “parked” as if in quarantine, but spread everywhere on the outside, where smoking won’t bother anyone.

  18. hope says:

    smoking is cool.

  19. Today, many countries has banned the smoking in public area. Japan has also banned the smoking in public area. You have provided very nice piece of information on smoking. I enjoy to read your blog. I hope smokers will read your blog and quit the smoking

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