Secondhand smoke in Japan – decades behind the times

Just around the corner from my favorite cafe is this roped off smoking area. You find similar areas throughout Tokyo as smoking on the street is not allowed (but smoking inside restaurants and bars is...go figure...)

I love living in Japan, but when it comes to cigarette smoking, I feel like I’m in a time warp. I hate that people can light up next to me at a restaurant and every bar, music venue, and many entertainment areas are thick with a cloud of smoke.

Bizarre rules – the restaurant and bar lobby must be strong

Just around the corner from my favorite cafe is this roped off smoking area. You find similar areas throughout Tokyo as smoking on the street is not allowed (but smoking inside restaurants and bars is...go figure...)
Just around the corner from my favorite cafe is this roped off smoking area. You find similar areas throughout Tokyo as smoking on the street is not allowed (but smoking inside restaurants and bars is…go figure…)

Interestingly, smoking is banned in most outdoor areas and on the streets, but not restaurants and bars. At my favorite morning cafe, for example, people line up with their cappuccinos and cigarettes by the bar, and just around the corner people are corralled into a small roped off area because they are not allow to smoke out on the street or inside the office building.

The arguments are the same – and have been proven false

Lighting up in the morning at my favorite local cafe. At least it is summer now and the doors are open. Winter was horrible....
Lighting up in the morning at my favorite local cafe. At least it is summer now and the doors are open. Winter was horrible….

The first five years of my professional life were spent researching secondhand smoke legislation in the U.S. and Australia. When I read about smoking in Japan today, the same arguments and rhetoric are espoused by the smoking lobby that were put forth in the 1980s and early 1990s in other countries.

The tobacco lobby argues that they “aim to create a society that is comfortable for both smokers and nonsmokers, where both can coexist in harmony”, but this argument does not protect the employees who work at such establishments and are subjected to carcinogens every day at work.

A conflict of interest

What I learned upon moving here, however, is that Big Tobacco is deeply in the pockets of the government. The government owns 33% of Japan Tobacco – and until 2013 it owned 50%. The entire process – from production to sales – is overseen by Japan’s Finance Ministry, and the government recieves a large revenue from the sale of tobacco.

What a huge conflict of interest in terms of public health – particularly for a country with a fairly socialized health care system.

Time to catch up with the times

China just announced that smoking is now banned in all public places in Beijing. Come on, Tokyo. If Beijing can do it, so can you. Time to enter the modern world – and save the health of your people.

Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 119 Articles
Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.