Home > Focus on Japan 2004 > Smoker’s Paradise Lost? Not Yet…

Smoker’s Paradise Lost? Not Yet…

March 10th, 2004

Last weekend, Sako and I met to discuss the goings-on at The Expat, and sat down to eat at an Italian place near Hashimoto Station. As we were being seated, I asked if there was a no-smoking section. Sorry, the waiter told us. Not here. Afterwards, we went for a drink at Starbucks, the ubiquitous U.S. coffee and snack lounge–one of the few places in Japan that is non-smoking. That contrast might show the divide between past and present in Japan, but the country is still pretty firmly on the smoking side of things.

Historically, Japan has been a smoker’s paradise. Whatever concessions that were made for non-smokers was superficial, at best, and many times they still are. For example, not long ago I stopped at a McDonald’s for a quick lunch. I was told that in the seating area, there was a non-smoking section–but before I even got there, I knew what I would find. And sure enough, the “no smoking” section was three small tables at the back end of the room (almost always opposite from the windows), and not more than five feet from several other tables filled with smokers, with no air currents favoring the no-smoking area. When I left a half hour later, my clothes and hair smelled like an ashtray.

That’s what has been called the “Menagerie Lion,” a famous child’s mispronunciation of “Imaginary Line,” a standard smoking issue in Japan. Separate areas for smoking and non-smoking are found only when they are naturally formed, like restaurants with tables on two different floors. Sometimes the floor area is great enough to allow for some actual semblance of separation. But usually, you can expect no real protection from the smoke, and precious few eating establishments have entirely no-smoking policies.

Some areas have improved, however; trains and train stations are an excellent example. Local trains are now of course no-smoking, but many trains with seat reservations (like the Narita Express) have smoking cars. That would not be so bad, but the non-smoking cars allow smoking in the areas at the ends of cars near the doors. There is a door closing that area off, but it is motion-activated, and since the smoker almost always sets it off every minute or so, the smoke rushes in–which is less of an issue anyway as the air conditioning is recycled and shared through the areas, meaning that it’s pretty much a smoking car anyway.

Train platforms are mostly non-smoking; the Keio Line recently banned smoking altogether on them. Other lines have a few smoking areas along the platform, and despite the outdoor ventilation one generally has to stand a fair distance away from them (or upwind if there’s a breeze) to stay in fresh air–not that smokers will always honor the no-smoking signs.

Things are improving, but at a snail’s pace. I do remember back in the mid-80’s having to get up from my seat at the movie theater every other time I saw a film to tell some guy five rows in front to stop smoking (it’s not just the smell, it gets in the way of the picture), and that never happens to me any more. I see fewer people taking ashtrays from smoking areas into the non-smoking areas for a few puffs. And the yakitori place I’ve been a regular at for 15 years, despite being a smoking joint, watches out for me–the guys behind the counter, knowing my preferences, kindly try to arrange seating for me so as to keep me segregated enough to make a big difference.

But it should be noted that Japan’s tobacco industry is still coddled by the government, which is still a major stockholder in Japan Tobacco, the third biggest cigarette company in the world. Warning labels, last time I checked, were still very mild (along the lines of saying, “Try not to smoke too much”). Campaign girls can still be seen handing out free sample packs on the streets near major stations. And cigarette butts decomposing on the sidewalk and streets are still more ubiquitous than cell phones. So it’ll be a while yet. But things are getting better.

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  1. Virulent smoke-hater
    March 11th, 2004 at 08:48 | #1

    Have you been to Akihabara lately? Smoking is banned on the streets entirely, and they have special smoking rooms for the severely addicted. Last time I was there, the few people ignoring (or ignorant of) the rules were foreigners.

  2. Luis
    March 11th, 2004 at 13:35 | #2


    I didn’t know about Akihabara! Though I had heard about a similar ban in Hibiya, or the Ginza, somewhere in that central area. I should have put that in the entry… if I got time tonight, maybe I’ll do an edit. Good point, thanks!

  3. Jen
    March 12th, 2004 at 01:20 | #3

    I sympathise – I remember the smoking in Japan when I lived there. Same problem in most of Europe, too.

    There is now a smoking ban in New York state in restaurants & bars. There has been virtually no publicity about the benefits. Instead, we are still hearing a lot of agitation from local media to bring the smoking back…an obvious case of pandering to local businesses who advertize with them. No effort has been made to attract the new customer base of people who previously avoided those places.

    So I guess I will have to do my bit for Public Health and start hanging around bars more often.

  4. March 15th, 2004 at 08:30 | #4

    Smoking has been banned in all public facilities that get less than 80% of their business in the town where I go to school (Huntington, West Virginia USA). Personally I find it bothersome, as there is nowhere left to smoke but outside and at home. Pandering to the tobacco industry is not a good thing, I agree, but when an establishment already has distinctly separate parts of their place reserved for smoking and non-smoking (i.e. separate ventilation or two rooms), this kind of regulation just gets ridiculous.

  5. Luis
    March 15th, 2004 at 09:44 | #5

    Ah, were that only a problem here in Japan! Both ends of the extreme, it seems.

  6. Andi Smyth
    March 22nd, 2004 at 08:29 | #6

    I’m a bar owner in Saitama and have been for the past 15 years. I have split my pub in two to cater for the Non-smoker. Installing new air conditioning etc.I had to raise prices in the non-smoking section to get a return on my investment.Non Smokers will often queue up in the smoking section to make their orders and carry them through to the N/S/section just because prices have remained the same in the smoking section. I recently called the police when a couple of smart ass women would not pay the service charge for using the non-smoking section.LOL.

  7. Anonymous
    August 17th, 2004 at 08:18 | #7

    Funny how Japan is more free than the U.S. Japan is awesome, beer and cigarette vending machines and you can smoke almost anywhere.

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