Sitting in the small restaurant, listening to American oldies and waiting for our order we had no idea of the impending attack. Slowly, the haze permeated the room and drifted closer to us, burning our eyes and clogging our throats.
Looking around however, we saw no signs that anyone else was being affected. The laughter of a child rang out from the other end of the restaurant and conversation flowed uninterrupted.
We scanned the room again and noticed the culprit of our uneasy breathing. Every adult held a taco in one hand and in the other hand there rested a lit cigarette.
We made eye contact, both of us in obvious discomfort, and read the watery-eyed look on each other’s faces. Turning to the waitress we asked, ‘can you make our order take-out?’
The Only Thing We Don’t Like About Japan… Smoking!
Walking around, we are continually amazed by the number of smokers we see on the streets and especially prevalent in restaurants and bars. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the smoking culture in Japan is very different than in Canada and that, at least to us, there seems to be a larger visible population of smokers.
Perhaps it’s not a high prevalence of smoking, but more the relative numbers of smokers vs non smokers in Japan vs back home in Canada.
When we looked into the stats, it didn’t appear as though Japan has too significant of a difference in smoking rates than Canada (at least with respect to the numbers that were reported to the public) however when you compare relative population, it makes a whole world of difference.
Japan has almost 130 million people in an area of about 378,000 square-kilometres, whereas Canada has only 35.5 million in almost 10 million kilometres-squared.
That’s a HUGE difference! The estimated smoking rate in Japan is around 20% which translates to 26 million smokers in a small area.
Back home, we have only about 5.3 million smokers in a significantly larger amount of space. Maybe it’s just that the chances of running into a smoker are much higher in Japan where cities are crowded and smoking is accepted.
Perhaps, it is also the high tolerance and, for us, uncommon level of accommodation for smokers. In fact, while we are now used to pretty much all establishments being non-smoking and very little acceptance of smokers back home, Japan seems much the opposite.
Finding hotels with no ‘non-smoking’ rooms is not unheard of, restaurants with ashtrays are the norm, and vending machines for packs of cigarettes dot the streets.
While there is absolutely no judgment on our part, either way, as nonsmokers we do find it uncomfortable and something that requires time to get used to. We both remember the days when smoking in bars and clubs was permitted in Ontario and separate smoking sections were fairly common.
We recall when we’d head home after a night out and the smell of smoke would linger on our clothes, our skin and our hair, but it’s been some time so perhaps the memory of just how prevalent smoking was, has faded.
Before we left, there was already a ban on smoking indoors in public establishments and strict guidelines for smoking near public buildings.
Since we left, Ontario has banned smoking even on restaurant and bar patios and tightened their restrictions on smoking in parks, playgrounds and sports fields.
The Smoking Culture in Japan
The discrepancy between the two cultures in smoking habits and acceptance is obvious and while smoking seems to be on the decline in Japan, this doesn’t seem to be due to any rigorous anti-smoking campaigns like those we see in North America.
Cigarette packs do not have the graphic images and warnings that around 50 other countries have adopted on their packaging, prices for cigarettes are relatively low and while more and more establishments are becoming ‘non-smoking’, tolerance inside restaurants and bars is pretty high.
Rather than ‘stop-smoking campaigns’, Japan Tobacco (JT) has issued smoking etiquette campaigns in the recent past, intended to promote the “harmonious coexistence between smokers and nonsmokers”.
Signs such as the one above and below were distributed, and in some places we even saw painted signs on the sidewalk suggesting you should not walk along the sidewalk while smoking.
While we like the promotion of smoking etiquette and the fact that polite smoking behaviour is encouraged, we were surprised that none of these ads commented on the negative health effects of smoking or attempted to deter smoking in general.
With the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, many Japanese officials believe that it is essential to bring smoking legislation and restrictions to a level that matches many Western standards. Whether this effort will actually result in changes remains to be seen.
We say it’s the one thing we don’t like in Japan but it truly isn’t something that has tainted our experience. We love the country so much, we’ve even wrote about, what we call, our passionate love-affair with Japan.
It has shocked us a little every time we’ve sat down for a meal and someone pulled out a cigarette, but for the most part the people we’ve met and spent time with have always been courteous and asked if we mind before lighting up.
Since Japan isn’t at the top of the list for smoking rates, we’re sure there’ll be other countries which will be a shock for us as well, but we’ll do the same thing there as we’ve done here: appreciate the cultural differences and expect to frequently find ourselves washing the smell of smoke out of our clothes and hair.