Japan Glances

Japan’s Changing Attitude to Smoking

Society Culture

Japan is working to improve smoking manners in the country. A growing number of municipalities are passing ordinances banning the practice indoors and in public spaces, relegating smokers to designated areas. With the 2020 Olympic Games just over the horizon, the push to clear the air of secondhand smoke is gaining momentum.

A 400-Year Old Habit

According to 2014 health statistics, the ratio of Japanese men the legal age of 20 and older who smoke was just over 30%. This is a considerable decline compared to 1966 when smokers were at their peak, accounting for more than 83% of the male population. The ratio for women stands at nearly 10%. Not so long ago, cigarettes made prominent appearances in such places as lyrics of popular ballads and on television dramas. However, the image of smoking has changed in recent years. So much so, in fact, that Miyazaki Hayao’s 2013 film The Wind Rises caused a stir for its numerous scenes of the main character puffing on a cigarette.

Smoking paraphernalia common in the Edo period.

While the roots of tobacco in Japan are somewhat unclear, it appears likely that the habit arrived in the sixteenth century, accompanying guns and other imports brought by Spanish, Portuguese, and other European traders. By the Edo period (1603–1868), smoking had become a popular pastime among the general populace. Tobacco farming eventually developed in Japan, centering in Tōhoku in the north and on the island of Kyūshū. In 1949, the government formed a public corporation to regulate the sale of tobacco, which it monopolized until the operation was privatized with the establishment of Japan Tobacco in 1985.

A pack of cigarettes in Japan currently costs from around ¥210 for discount brands to about ¥460 for high-end varieties. Sales of tobacco are an important source of revenue for the government, with a 64.4% tax rate on products adding ¥2 trillion to the state’s coffers in 2014. At present, foreign visitors to Japan are allowed to bring in up to two cartons of cigarettes tax free.

Smokers on the Decline

A smoking area outside of Tokyo’s Shinbashi Station.

Smokers puffing on a cigarette as they walk along the road or a person freely lighting up in a restaurant or cafe were once common aspects of life in Japan. In 2002, however, Chiyoda, Tokyo began a trend by passing the nation’s first ordinance outlawing smoking on sidewalks in certain areas. It is now working to expand regulations with a law to bar outdoor smoking throughout the municipality and to punish those who toss their cigarette butts on the ground.

In 2014, neighboring Minato established its own ordinance prohibiting smoking (except in designated smoking areas) in all public spaces, including parks and sidewalks, and banned discarding used cigarettes on streets and sidewalks. Other municipalities have also followed suit, with some implementing fines for offenders. In 2015, Chiyoda set its penalty for smoking outside of smoking areas or for flinging cigarette butts on the ground at ¥2,000.

At the heart of this push to govern smoking is the goal of improving public health. Walking with a lit cigarette can harm passersby, such as by inadvertently burning their skin or clothing, with children being particularly in danger of having their faces burnt. There is also the issue of discarded cigarettes, which are not only unsightly but pose risks to toddlers, who may accidently ingest them.

Smoking Spaces

A smoking room at Shin-Aomori Station.

Along with no-smoking ordinances, municipalities have established designated smoking areas, located mainly inside stations and at parks. Shinkansen and express train platforms, as well as many office buildings and commercial structures, also have smoking rooms. Most family restaurants and cafes offer smoking and nonsmoking sections, while many other eating establishments limit smoking to certain times, such as in the evenings. Shops are increasingly prohibiting smoking altogether, however, with smokers having to indulge their habit in detached areas away from other patrons.

A sign marking smoking and nonsmoking areas.

Japan moved in 2003 to limit the effects of secondhand smoke in the workplace when it passed the Health Promotion Act. With this law the government offers financial assistance to businesses looking to build smoking areas in  offices or other facilities.

A shift in smoking habits can also be seen in households, with the practice taking a back seat to the health and hygiene concerns of the whole family. Smokers indulging at home are increasingly apt to do so while standing under a kitchen ventilating fan or while out on the veranda or balcony, earning them the tag hotaruzoku (firefly tribe) for the nighttime glow of their cigarettes.

Buying Cigarettes from Vending Machines

A Taspo card.

While cigarettes can be purchased from vending machines, since July 2008 doing so has required the use of a Taspo card. To create one of these cards, smokers must fill out an application form and provide a driver’s license or other picture ID proving they are of legal age to smoke. Around 98% of cigarette vending machines use the system, which was established to prevent underage smoking.

(Banner photo: A no smoking sign on a sidewalk in Chiyoda, Tokyo. Photo by Martin Abegglen.)

tobacco smoking smoking manners second-hand smoke cigarettes