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When men were men and smoked like chimneys

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

The question “tabako wo osui ni narimasuka?” (「タバコをお吸いになりますか」”Do you happen to be a smoker?”) is something you don’t hear all that often. So many public venues in the Tokyo area have banned smoking altogether, or simply operate on the assumption that no one in their right minds will smoke. And now that the new Kōseirōdōdaijin (厚生労働大臣, Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare) Yoko Komiyama mentioned the possibility of sticking a ¥700 price tag on a pack of cigarettes, aienka (愛煙家, heavy smokers) everywhere are, um, fuming.

Komiyama has said that by increasing cigarette prices, the government hopes to pool funds for Tohoku fukkō (東北復興, Tohoku earthquake recovery) and discourage people from smoking at the same time. To which several top-level bureaucrats in the Zaimushō (財務省, Ministry of Finance) were rumored to have spat on the marble floors of their private offices and said something along the lines of: “Get that babaa (ババア, old nag) out of the Cabinet, NOW.”

Zaimushō has direct control over tobacco taxes so you’d think they’d turn around and thank Komiyama-san. Didn’t happen. As for the majority of the kitsuen (喫煙, smoking) public, they’re quietly stocking up on cigarettes and ducking out for smoking breaks as often as humanly possible. One of my brothers — a dedicated smoker since the age of 15 — says that at this point, the smoking tamariba (たまり場, hangout) restricted to a few square meters of damp pavement outside the back door of his company building, has the same population density and cranky desperation as the Yamanote line during rush hour.

Speaking of which, there was a time when smoking was allowed everywhere: in trains, on station platforms, theaters, taxis, grocery stores and of course, in cramped apartments teeming with babies. It was the norm for men to exhale smoke pretty much every minute of their waking hours — and plenty of women did the same.

My grandmother smoked a pack a day, claiming that the times she lit up were the only moments she could take a break and sit down. I can see her now, a Mild Seven cigarette held between her elegant fingers, bent over a book and quite effectively shutting out the incessant demands of chores and family. She looked irreproachable, even beautiful. The family knew better than to intrude on that time. Her sons were all avid smokers until well into their 60s, before finally tapping into the health and fitness boom. Her grandsons — now in their 30s and 40s, keep quitting and rescinding, no doubt the result of starting the habit at a tender age. None in the family worried about nicotine stunting their growth. Indeed, my mother (also a smoker for the same reason as my grandmother) used to laugh and say that the house itself could benefit from a little stunting, especially the staircase landing where the ceiling sloped and was blackened and dented after years of boys’ heads bumping into it.

Many women used smoking as an accessory item, and back in the late 20th century it was the commonest way to lose weight. None of those exercise crazes or the desperate hunting around for hosei shitagi (補正下着, posture correcting underwear and corsets). Even calorie counting was considered obasan-kusai (おばさんくさい, smelling of middle-aged women) and ineffective.

The best way to beat the fat was to stop eating, and the surefire way to kill the appetite and look good doing it, was to smoke. Certainly we were swamped with otehon (お手本, role models), particularly ads featuring sleek foreign women wearing slinky dresses and reaching for cute, skinny cigarettes (remember those?) stashed in lovely pink purses. Those days are gone. Very few women light up in public anymore and calorie counting has become a favorite pastime, tracked on a sumaho (スマホ, smartphone) screen and checked religiously.

Interestingly, one of the things revealed in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami was the sheer number of chain smokers in the Tohoku region. For people working in the fields and fishing in the sea, smoking is a way to chill out and realign. (In fact, a lot of tobacco farms and cigarette factories are concentrated in the northeast.) In shelters from Saitama to upper Miyagi, thousands of men professed to miss their cigarettes and complained that it was hard to feel a sense of normalcy unless they had a cigarette between their lips.

Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was one of the first public figures to start a cigarette fund, and sent over nearly 1000 boxes to smokers in Tohoku. A case-hardened smoker himself, Miyazaki said in a TV interview that in times like these, nicotine is a source of nourishment, and that it was folly to apply normal health standards to those under severe strain. Did the ¥700-per-pack bit of news cause him to spit on the floor of Studio Ghibli? One sincerely hopes so.