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Japanese Smoking Culture Proves Hard To Snuff Out

Jan 2, 2012
Originally published on January 2, 2012 6:49 am

For generations of Japanese, smoking has been all but synonymous with manhood and hard work. During Japan's high-growth period in the 1960s, the smoking rate for males topped 80 percent, twice as high as the rate during America's smoking heyday.

In a country that's so tobacco friendly, it's no wonder anti-smoking initiatives have trouble gaining traction. That's despite the estimated $90 billion being spent on cigarette-related health costs and damages every year, three times what cigarette sales bring in annually, according to the Japan Health Economics Association.

Anti-smoking activist Bungaku Watanabe says Japan has been dragging its feet on the kind of smoking regulations that are now common in other advanced countries.

"It's not that Japanese love smoking so much," he says, "it's that tobacco has been a pillar of Japanese national policy."

It's no accident that the national headquarters of Japan Tobacco, the world's third-largest tobacco company, is located near the seat of government in Tokyo.

Japan Tobacco is a majority government-owned company and Japan's tobacco lobby has used that proximity to successfully fend off several anti-smoking initiatives.

So while only about a quarter of American men smoke, the rate for Japanese males remains stuck at about one-third. Activists say most Japanese smokers want to quit, and would if prices were in line with other first-world countries.

But with lung cancer rates spiking, there finally seem to be changes afoot. On the main streets of Tokyo, where pedestrians once slung their lit cigarettes with abandon, smokers have now been banished to segregated areas of buildings and train stations.

Bubbles Instead of Ashes

And then there's the quirky alternative that Mina Abe, an executive assistant in her 20s, and Kota Osabe, a 30-something I.T. engineer, are promoting. They stand in what was once the smoking area of a Tokyo restaurant wielding green plastic pipes that they hold like cigarettes. The pair contentedly fills the air not with smoke, but with bubbles.

"This used to be an ashtray and we filled it with soap that we can blow bubbles with," Abe says.

"Everyone thinks we're crazy," Kota adds. "When I demonstrated this for a TV show, people stared and one guy tried to drop ashes in my bubbles."

Abe and Kota say they weren't looking for a way to wean smokers off their addiction. They were just looking for an alternative to a social ritual so deeply ingrained in Japanese culture that it's hard to imagine society functioning well without it.

"You have to be in that community of smoking people to be able to reach out to important people," Abe says. "It's really a tool to get to the people you want to talk to. So you don't really want to smoke, but you feel like you have to be smoking in order to be a member of that kind of community."

Restaurant owner Hima Furuta agrees that without their nicotine props, shy Japanese often have a hard time breaking the ice.

"The smoking area is a kind of a communication space for the Japanese people because usually they can't communicate with different types of people," Furuta says, "especially the higher class of the company."

It's not exactly a movement yet, but Abe and Kota are taking their quiet bubble crusade to shopping centers, festivals and eateries in hopes of showing this stubbornly tobacco-friendly nation an alternative to one of their preferred social pastimes.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

To the world's third largest economy now, where the tobacco industry still holds a lot of power. Low pricing on cigarettes and little regulation means Japan still lags behind other industrial nations when it comes to clamping down on cigarettes. Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: For generations of Japanese, smoking has been all but synonymous with manhood, and hard work. No wonder that in Japan's high-growth period, the 1960s, the smoking rate for males topped an astonishing 80 percent – twice as high as during America's smoking heyday. Anti-smoking activist Bungaku Watanabe says Japan has dragged its feet on regulation that has become common in other advanced countries.

BUNGAKU WATANABE: (Through Translator) It's not that Japanese love smoking so much. It's that tobacco has been a pillar of Japanese national policy.

CRAFT: It's no accident that the headquarters of Japan Tobacco are right here, near to the seat of national government. Now the world's third-largest tobacco company, Japan Tobacco remains majority government-owned, even though cigarette-related health costs and damage are estimated at $90 billion - three times the revenue reaped by cigarette sales - the tobacco lobby has successfully fended off many anti-smoking initiatives.

So, while only about a quarter of American men smoke, the rate for Japanese males remains stuck at about one-third. Activists say most Japanese smokers want to quit, and would, if prices were in line with other first world countries. Even so, with lung cancer rates spiking, changes are afoot, even in this stubbornly tobacco-friendly nation.

Smokers now have been banished to segregated areas at train stations and in most large companies. And nonsmokers are trying to promote a new kind of puffing chic.

KOTA OSABE: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: Mina Abe, an executive assistant in her 20s, and Kota Osabe, a 30-something IT engineer, are standing in what was once the smoking area of a Tokyo restaurant – they have launched their own quirky solution for the erstwhile smoker's paradise.

So this used to be an ashtray?

MINA ABE: This used to be an ashtray and we've filled with soap that we can blow bubbles with.

CRAFT: Wielding green plastic pipes like Marlboro Lights, the pair contentedly fill the air, not with smoke, but with soap bubbles.

OSABE: (Through Translator) Everyone thinks we're crazy. When I demonstrated this for a TV show, people stared and one guy tried to drop ashes in my bubbles.

CRAFT: The two were spurred to action, not because they wanted to wean smokers off their addiction, but because they were pining for an alternative to a social ritual so deeply ingrained in Japanese work culture, it's hard to imagine society functioning well without it.

ABE: It's really a tool to get to the people you want to talk to. You don't really want to smoke, but you feel like you have to be smoking in order to be a member of that kind of community.

CRAFT: Restaurant owner Hima Furuta agrees that without their nicotine props, shy Japanese often have a hard time breaking the ice.

HIMA FURUTA: A smoking area is a kind of a communication space for the Japanese people, because usually they can't communicate with different type of people, especially the higher class of them company.

CRAFT: It's not exactly a movement, but the soap bubble promoters are taking their quiet crusade to shopping centers and festivals, as well as eateries.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.