Home > Focus on Japan 2010 > Butts Are a Pain in the Ash

Butts Are a Pain in the Ash

September 30th, 2010


I have long held that in Japan, you can stop almost anywhere on any street and spot at least half a dozen cigarette butts in various stages of decomposition. While Japan is a relatively clean country, and although smoking rates have fallen in recent years, cigarette butts remain the #1 litter problem in the country.


I remember back in the 80’s seeing a Japanese letter-to-the-editor translated and published in the English paper, in which an older Japanese woman complained about people eating while walking in the streets, the main criticism being that such behavior prompted littering. At the time, I thought that while this could be true, I didn’t (and still don’t) see many people in Japan eating while walking–but you saw (and still see) people smoking and walking all the time, and using the street as an ash tray–rather liberally, I might add. It’s not just butts, either. I have seen, more than once, a smoker crumpling up and tossing on the ground an empty cigarette pack as he walked up to a vending machine to buy a new pack, even though the machine had a built-in trash receptacle.

I was reminded of that this morning when walking to the train station. A guy in front of me slowed down suddenly and so I started to go around him–and almost got hit with a lit cigarette as the guy flicked it away, behind him and to the right, without any attempt to glance at where he was flicking. I made an annoyed sound as I passed him and he started and immediately apologized as I passed–but the thing is, that did not represent an isolated action. That’s habit. In Japan, they call it poi sute, “poi” being the onomatopoetic sound for flicking something away, and “sute” being short for throwing trash away.

Which is not to say that many smokers in Japan are not polite or considerate; many, of course, are. But the ones who are not do stand out a tad. Using the street indiscriminately as an ashtray remains a strong habit. On my way into school, prompted by the near-miss with the flicked butt, I did a few random stop-and-counts, and got the same depressing results as always. I even spotted a lit cigarette on the street, the owner no longer in sight. Whether he (or she, though maybe 2/3rds+ of Japanese smokers are men) dropped it by mistake or wastefully discarded it before it was even partly smoked I don’t know–but it makes for good art at the top of the post. I snapped the shot and then ground it out. It may have been dropped or thrown from a vehicle; despite having ashtrays, many drivers in Japan still discard to the street, something which more than annoys me when driving a scooter.

Japan is less of a “smoker’s paradise” than it was before, but still remains more than a little friendly to the nicotine-inclined. Back in the 80’s, it was horrific–I remember the 10-hour flights over the Pacific where smoking was allowed, making the “non-smoking” areas rather a poor joke, especially the seats close to the smoking area. Smoking was allowed on trains, in all offices–well, really, everywhere. Even at home it was hard to get away from it, as smoke pours from the windows and balconies of neighbors. I bought a dining room table used once, and wondered what the reek was after I got it home; it took months before the smoke smell stopped being a pain.

Even after smoking was banned on trains in Japan (though until recently and, for all I know, still today, smoking is allowed on some cars on long-distance trains), the platforms were still havens. Recently, they are much better, but even as of 5 years ago, smokers defiantly disregarded the smoking areas. I think it’s mostly better now that most platforms allow no smoking at all.

Non-smoking areas in eateries were just as bad a joke, with the border between sections more a matter of imagination than of actual segregation–but that remains mostly true even today, with most normal restaurants being smoker-friendly and “non-smoking” areas, when they are offered, still (a) not significantly separate enough to make them actually smokeless, and (b) more often than not in the bad seating areas. McDonald’s has, for a long time, relegated non-smokers to the poorer seating areas. If there are seats in the basement and on the 2nd floor, there was usually no question about the smokers getting the 2nd-floor area, with the non-smokers usually getting only half of the basement–which is to say, not really any space at all.

Beginning the change to non-smoking establishments were places like Starbucks, which completely banned smoking inside, and later some Subway sandwich chains. McDonald’s started to get a bit better more often, and now plans to ban smoking at one-third of its outlets as they are renovated over the next several years. (But only one-third, and slowly; the shops near train stations will remain smoking areas.) Some places, like Narita Airport, and even a prefecture now (Kanagawa) are beginning to impose eatery bans and other restrictions. Many busy streets in Tokyo ban smoking among pedestrians, thought the ban is still ignored and even the smoking wardens (usually pairs wearing no-smoking bibs) rarely if ever fine anyone for breaking the rules. The photos taken above, including my discarded-butt count, were on a no-smoking street.

Nobody is pretending that the paradise is no more, but the smokers here are beginning to feel the pinch more and more.

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  1. matthew
    October 1st, 2010 at 11:05 | #1

    Timely blog–as of today cigarette prices in Japan have been raised. about 36% I believe.
    Still cheap, however.

  2. Troy
    October 1st, 2010 at 17:41 | #2

    yeah smokers was the worst thing about living in Japan.

    Well that and the mosquitos, cockroaches, and semi.

    Speaking of cockroaches,


    yeay! Looking forward to moving back to Tokyo later this decade!

  3. Stuart
    October 2nd, 2010 at 04:36 | #3

    Smoking was banned on the Shinkansen and JR Ltd. Express trains in 2007.

  4. matthew
    October 2nd, 2010 at 10:51 | #4

    @ Stuart

    You can smoke on Shinkansens. Some have designated cars and others have smoking rooms.

  5. Stuart
    October 2nd, 2010 at 11:32 | #5

    Sorry should have been clearer – you can’t smoke on any JR East Shinkansen trains. This wouldn’t affect the Tokaido Shinkansen

  6. K. Engels
    October 2nd, 2010 at 12:51 | #6

    My college in the US just instituted a 25 foot from the building smoking ban; most of the smokers can’t get 2.5 inches from the building before lighting up. Campus security doesn’t seem to give a damn.

  7. Ken sensei
    October 5th, 2010 at 14:46 | #7

    This post emphasizes the tenacity of smoking culture throughout Asia. The verdict is in about smoking; the hazards are clear and well-recognized. And yet Asia still has a booming tobacco market.

    Let’s be blunt; smoking is a status symbol in many parts of the world, especially in Asia. Like owning a Lexus or a good set of golf clubs, those who smoke are members of that old, elite club, and those who don’t smoke are stigmatized as “square”, “inexperienced” or even “untrustworthy”.

    But if you want to see real smoking bigotry, go to China. China is a country where a man is not a real man unless he smokes, no matter how poor. In that strange country, it is reasonable for a man of little means to spend 60-70% of his monthly salary on cigarettes. And Chinese bus drivers (nearly all of whom are men) smoke while driving their busses to their passengers discomfort. This is unheard of in Japan. Smoking in Chinese restaurants, theaters, tea houses, clothing stores, hotels, elevators, etc. are the norm. Although non-smoking signs are prominently displayed, they are for the most part ignored (Oh, THAT sign? It doesn’t mean ME…).

    And I have never heard a Chinese non-smoker complain about the smoke. No one steps up to say “Take it outside”, “Get that thing out of my air space”, “Enough is enough”. It is all a part of tolerating things that must be tolerated.

    Thank goodness for Starbucks for putting smoking where it belongs–outside the establishment! Starbucks has taken a internationally unified approach to smoking; “it will not be tolerated in our shops, even in China”. Moreover, Starbucks cashiers take the initiative to ask customers to properly “mind the queue” (you guys living in China know exactly what I’m talking about), which is another civility generally ignored in China.
    I never thought I would praise a large corporation for promoting the sense of responsibility that we should be following as individuals. One can only hope that other chains will follow their lead.

  8. Luis
    October 5th, 2010 at 14:56 | #8

    Yikes. Not that I was really intending to, but that nixes China as a place for me to live and work…

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