Smoke signals: Can Tokyo ever go smoke-free?

With the 2020 Olympic Games looming, we examine the debate surrounding anti-smoking legislation in the capital


Staff Writer

Japan has long held a reputation of being something of a paradise for smokers. Tobacco is, at least by Western standards, relatively cheap and people can still light up in many of the country’s restaurants and bars. In fact, before the turn of the century smokers could pretty much puff away on a cigarette anywhere.

There used to be little social stigma against smokers — they were accepted as a fairly ordinary part of society. People smoked near women who were pregnant or in close proximity to children. If others didn’t want their clothes or hair to reek of smoke, it was up to them to find a smoke-free space.

Within the past decade, the landscape has changed significantly. Many urban areas now prohibit smoking in public spaces on the streets, while a number of restaurants have either created segregated smoking and nonsmoking sections in dining rooms or introduced no-smoking rules during lunch hours. Hospitals and companies involved in public transportation, including taxis, have laid down a complete ban on smoking. The retail price of cigarettes has even increased a little.

Despite the progress, Japan still lags behind other industrialized countries when it comes to anti-smoking measures. Those who wish to create more smoke-free alternatives in society see the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a rare opportunity to put the capital in line with global standards.

This, however, is easier said than done.

Politicians and businesses involved in hospitality have a vested interest in the tobacco industry, says former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa. Kanagawa became the first prefecture to enact an ordinance to prevent smoking in public places in 2009. The ordinance sparked controversy because it not only banned smoking in public facilities such as hospitals and schools, it required large restaurants and hotels to either ban smoking altogether or segregate smokers from nonsmokers. The local government even handed out fines for those who flouted the rules.

“The resentment I faced was overwhelming,” Matsuzawa tells The Japan Times. “It was a constant political battle. It took me three years to dismantle the opposition of lawmakers who were backed by various industries that support smoking.”

The government has a unique relationship with the tobacco industry.

Japan Tobacco Inc., the nation’s only tobacco manufacturer, was a government-run monopoly until 1985 when it was privatized. JT’s cigarette products account for more than 60 percent of the domestic market.

Article 1 of the Tobacco Business Law, which was enacted to coincide with the privatization of JT, says the objective of the legislation is to “ensure the sound development of the tobacco industry in Japan, thereby contributing to fiscal revenue and the sound development of the national economy.”

Related legislation under the Japan Tobacco Law obliges the government to own more than one-third of JT’s listed shares. The Finance Ministry had owned more than 50 percent of shares in JT until as recently as 2013, when the government sold some of its stocks to finance the reconstruction of Tohoku in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The government currently owns 33.35 percent of JT.

As a result, the Finance Ministry has received dividends worth tens of billions of yen in addition to more than ¥2 trillion in tobacco tax every year.

Every step in the production process and sale of tobacco in Japan is overseen by the Finance Ministry. Changes in cigarette prices must be approved by the ministry and the 1984 Tobacco Business Law requires JT to buy all of the nation’s tobacco crop in order to protect the livelihood of the farmers. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party receives plenty of support from those involved in each step of the process, from tobacco farmers to retail outlets.

“The Finance Ministry basically overseas a socialist system,” Matsuzawa says. “Everyone stands to lose if there are stricter tobacco regulations because they all have vested interests in the industry. That’s why Japan can’t regulate smoking.”

Tobacco prices are still relatively cheap in Japan, at least compared to other industrialized countries. After the consumption tax hike in April last year, one box of 20 cigarettes is currently priced at around ¥450, with tax accounting for about 65 percent of the cost. Prices are steadily on the rise, but they are more affordable than packets of cigarettes in countries such as Norway, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia, which typically cost the equivalent of more than ¥1,000.

Bungaku Watanabe, who heads the Tobacco Problems Information Center, says tobacco prices are kept stable because the Finance Ministry wishes to control the tax revenue cigarettes generate. “(In other countries), a ministry or agency in charge of public health oversees tobacco and alcohol, but Japan is the only country in the world where tobacco is supervised by the Finance Ministry,” Watanabe says. “We even have a law that supports the development of our nation’s tobacco industry to secure a steady tax revenue.”

Few restrictions have been placed on tobacco advertising in Japan. The Tobacco Institute of Japan, an industry body comprising manufacturers, has created a set of self-imposed regulations to allow messages such as “Smoking causes lung cancer, worsens emphysema and increases the risk of a heart attack or a stroke” to appear on cigarette packets.

However, such warnings are nothing like the graphic images included on cigarette packets in other industrialized countries. “Smoking causes fatal lung cancer,” reads the warning on a packet in the European Union, which also features a photo of a healthy lung alongside a cancer-ridden lung.

“This is what dying of lung cancer looks like,” reads the warning on a Canadian cigarette packet that also depicts a bald woman with hollow eyes lying in a hospital bed. Her name and age are also printed.

Watanabe says such graphic images are effective but unlikely to be introduced in Japan.

“Graphic images and illustrations that warn smokers about the harmful effects of cigarettes are used in about 50 countries worldwide but I think it will be difficult to introduce here as long as the Finance Ministry controls policy,” Watanabe says.

Tobacco companies typically refrain from advertising cigarette products on television and radio. However, JT often runs etiquette campaigns to promote the “harmonious coexistence between smokers and nonsmokers,” urging smokers not to puff on a cigarette while walking or discard butts on the streets.

Watanabe, however, argues that this is essentially advertising disguised as a public service announcement, which violates the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The convention, which came into force in 2005, calls on member parties “to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.” Article 13 stipulates that the states should “undertake a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.”

“Foreign and health ministry officials know that these (JT) advertisements are a violation of the convention … but instead of telling the truth, they cower to the Finance Ministry and bury it,” Watanabe says. “The lack of measures Japan is taking despite being a signatory member of the convention is shameful. There is no other country that contradicts itself in the same way that Japan does.”

Watanabe, 77, used to smoke 60 cigarettes a day before he began his anti-smoking activities in the late 1970s. Those were the days when there was only one nonsmoking car on the Kodama bullet train and more than 70 percent of all Japanese men smoked.

The managing editor of a monthly magazine called “Kinen Jānaru” (“No-smoking Journal”) for 25 years, he coined the term bunen (segregated smoking) in Japanese. He says there was a time when Japan needed to promote bunen, but now the time has come to go further and institute a complete ban on smoking in public.

For the meantime, however, it looks like the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will continue to fight a losing battle against passive smoking as long as the Finance Ministry continues to hold shares in JT. For a long time, the only legal framework that existed was Article 25 of the 2003 Health Promotion Law, which states that “efforts must be made to prevent passive smoking” at schools, hospitals, restaurants and other facilities used by a large number of people. The legislation, however, is completely toothless and lacks punitive consequences. In June last year, the government tried to improve things by revising the Industrial Safety and Health Law to oblige employers to take steps to protect their staff from passive smoking.

Surprisingly, anti-tobacco campaigners are not the only lobby group that is calling for JT to become independent of the government.

“In order for JT to grow as a global company, it needs to be able to compete on an equal footing with other global tobacco companies,” JT spokesperson Dmitry Krivtsov says. “For this reason, we desire the removal of the requirement of government ownership under the Japan Tobacco Law.”

According to 2009 data included in the 2012 Tobacco Atlas, Japan was the fifth-highest consumer of tobacco in the world, following China, Russia, the U.S. and Indonesia. The overall number of smokers in the population, however, is declining every year, dropping from 27.7 percent in 2003 to 19.3 percent 10 years later, according to figures from the health ministry. As a result, the number of tobacco farms in operation is also falling, from 20,938 farms in 2002 to just 6,124 a decade later.

In the U.S., by comparison, the number of smokers dropped from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 18.1 percent in 2012, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Do these figures signal the beginning of the end for the tobacco industry? Is it even conceivable that Tokyo could become smoke-free in the same vein as New York and Paris by 2020?

Krivtsov acknowledges that smoking rates are falling owing to a number of factors, including tobacco tax hikes, tightening of smoke regulations and growing health consciousness.

“Our goal is to meet adult consumers’ needs by providing quality products. At the same time, we aim to create a society that is comfortable for both smokers and nonsmokers, where both can coexist in harmony,” Krivtsov says, adding that JT is actively promoting the segregation of smoking and nonsmoking areas.

But Hiroshi Yamato, a doctor and expert on smoking at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, opposes such segregation because the policy doesn’t protect employees in the hospitality industry who work at restaurants, bars and izakaya.

“People only tend to focus on the customers, but employees are in a much more serious situation,” Yamato says. “The amount of secondhand smoke they inhale at work everyday is significant.”

Many restaurant and bar owners are reluctant to adopt anti-smoking measures because they are afraid they might lose customers.

Yamato, however, points to academic papers that suggest otherwise.

The 2009 handbook issued by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, for example, says “methodologically sound research studies from developed countries consistently conclude that smoke-free policies do not have an adverse economic impact on the business activity of restaurants, bars or establishments catering to tourists.”

Yamato has also conducted extensive research on a family restaurant chain that had introduced both nonsmoking restaurants and ones that had segregated smoking sections. Examining sales over a period of five years and comparing the figures posted two years before the policy change against the most recent total, Yamato and his colleagues found that sales had increased significantly in the smoke-free facilities.

“When you think about it, 80 percent of the population doesn’t smoke and the more space there is for nonsmokers, the more customers are likely to be seated,” Yamato says, adding that nonsmoking customers are more likely to frequent places that adopt a no-smoking policy.

In November last year, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Japan Inc. released the results of a survey it conducted among foreign residents on their views on smoking in Japan. About 60 percent of the 400 people who responded thought it was easier to smoke in Japan compared to their home countries and 42 percent said they thought Japan had little awareness toward passive smoking.

What’s more, 72 percent said the municipal government needed to pass legislation to prevent passive smoking in Tokyo before the 2020 Olympics.

“No-smoking policies have become the norm worldwide,” Yamato says. “We are worried that athletes and tourists will come to Tokyo in 2020 and be shocked at how smoky the city’s restaurants and bars are. We risk severely damaging the country’s reputation.”

After the International Olympic Committee awarded Tokyo the 2020 Games, anti-smoking lobby groups had high hopes the local government would look to adopt the IOC’s tobacco-free policy. They also noted that recent host cities all passed legislation to ban smoking in public spaces — including restaurants, bars and cafes — and dish out penalties for those who ignored the rules. Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe even brought up the issue with reporters last summer, sparking heated opposition from Liberal Democratic Party members of the Tokyo Assembly. In September, Masuzoe received a letter stating that anti-smoking measures should be adopted “voluntarily,” and that such policies should ensure that both “smoking and nonsmoking people can live comfortably.”

Masuzoe created an advisory panel last October to examine the issue in more detail but the criticism forced the Tokyo governor to pour cold water on the idea by the end of the year. “There are considerations that make it difficult to enact legislation on penalties for smoking,” Masuzoe told reporters in December, adding that he wished to promote segregated smoking areas instead. “I haven’t completely given up on the idea of anti-smoking legislation but I will work on other policies first.”

Matsuzawa, the former governor of Kanagawa, isn’t surprised Masuzoe has backed away from the issue. He spent three years talking to ordinary residents, businesses involved in the hospitality industry and Kanagawa lawmakers in an attempt to convince them legislation was necessary.

He faced stiff opposition every step of the way, and even started receiving letters and phone calls from people who threatened to kill him. When that didn’t deter him, people turned their attention to his daughters. By the end of his term, Matsuzawa says he had two security men guarding him at all times. “I couldn’t back down,” Matsuzawa says. “I pledged to introduce no-smoking legislation during my election campaign and I had a duty to follow through on my promise. I ultimately had to compromise a bit but that can’t be helped — that’s the nature of politics.”

Hyogo Prefecture followed Kanagawa’s lead and became the second administrative district nationwide to introduce legislation that banned smoking in public places in 2013.

Matsuzawa, who is currently an Upper House lawmaker and secretary general of Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations), believes lawmakers need to introduce anti-smoking legislation at a national level before the Tokyo Olympics. He has created a nonpartisan group of lawmakers that aims to hammer out legislation promoting a smoke-free Tokyo.

“We need to make the Tokyo Olympics a success but that won’t happen without anti-smoking legislation that is in line with global standards,” Matsuzawa says. “There will definitely be opposition from lobby groups with vested interests, but I know I will at least have the support of the international community.”

The war against tobacco in Japan is just heating up …

“Passive smoking disaster in Tokyo or Japan” essay contest
Foreigners living in Japan are invited to submit essays on their experience on passive smoking in Japan. The essays can be in either English or Japanese, and must be no more than two A4 pages. The deadline is April 30. The ¥50,000 first prize will go to two winners, five applicants will win ¥20,000 and 10 will receive ¥10,000. For further information, call Japan Society for Tobacco Control at 03-5367-8233 or email

  • Vinny Gracchus

    This isn’t a news report, it is antismoking propaganda. Reject smoking bans.

    • Iain Macpherson

      Amen. Reject the Starbucks-ization of the Japanese cityscape.

  • Terence Nomoto

    Vinny – yep pure propaganda, there is this incremental move to foist western ‘correctness’ on the Japanese, but with smoking they have got as far as they can get, any further and they get blow back. In Yokohama the local gov tried to ban smoking in the pubs and clubs but pub kyokai got together and told the local gov to go take a hike. Kanagawa pref banned all kinds of activities on the beaches like smoking, drinking, barbeques and music – that’s why nobody goes there anymore and local businesses have suffered.

  • Duke Klauck

    We’ve been leading onsen tours for gaijin for years and are importers of handmade nihonshu to the US. We find everything about Japan to be delightful–the people, the culture, the environment, the food, the skiing. There’s one exception–after a night out at an izakaya or entertainment venue, it’s necessary to take a bath and wash every garment–even underwear–due to the disgusting odor of stale cigarette smoke.

    Because of the intensity of smoke in most restaurants, we’ve gotten super-sensitized and almost immediately upon entering most of them start to have an allergic reaction. There’s no getting away from it in most of the country. What’s the alternative? Eat conbini food in the hotel room?

    People on our tours are always shocked by the Japanese lack of sensitivity to the health risks and can’t believe that a culture that prides itself on cleanliness can foster something that is so dirty, in every sense of the word.

    Restaurants and bars in the US saw no decrease in business when they implemented no-smoking rules. If Japan is serious about attracting foreign tourists, it’s high time to enter the twenty-first century in regard to its smoking policy.

    • Tony Alderman

      The biggest problem is that most Japanese are simply uneducated about smoking. They still think it’s ‘cool’; even young girls.

      • Stephen Kent

        Yeah, a lack of awareness and education is a big problem, but on a positive note there was actually a survey done not so long ago that suggested high-schoolers in Japan don’t even see it as cool anymore despite the best efforts of advertisers.

        Another massive problem is the vested interests in what is essentially a government controlled monopoly. Something needs to be done about that I think.

  • GBR48

    A lot of non-smoking tourists (including me) wouldn’t walk through the door of an eaterie (shop or indoor venue) that clearly permitted smoking. Hotels in Japan are often of borderline quality in their offers of ‘non-smoking’ rooms and floors, which does reflect badly on the industry. It’s not unusual for a Japanese ‘non-smoking’ room to stink a bit of tobacco smoke, which ensures a bad review. Before I book a hotel, I check the reviews to avoid ones that offer but then haven’t delivered ‘non-smoking’. Particularly for European and North American families with children, who would have an expectation that, if offered such accommodation, neither they nor their kids would be exposed to smoke, it suggests low standards and a complete absence of the famous Japanese attention to detail.

    As the ratios for many first world countries are increasingly hitting 80/20, it doesn’t make a great deal of economic sense to actively put off the majority of your potential punters.

    If you don’t like gaijin tourists, particularly Westerners, of course, it is one way to keep the numbers down a bit, in your establishment.

    I’m not sure that workers who have to suffer the ill effects of working in a smokey environment in Japan stand much chance of the Government riding to their rescue. Politicians rarely care much about the health of voters.

    As pressure on hotel space increases, an absolute guarantee of ‘non-smoking’ throughout a hotel may well allow operators to charge a premium. It’s certainly something I’d pay extra for on stays, providing the reviews made it clear that I’d be getting what I paid for. I’ve no desire to pay for a room that smells, and that makes my hair and clothes smell.

    Whenever visitors experience unexpected and unpleasant odours in their hotels, Japan’s reputation as being tourist-friendly certainly suffers. It doesn’t matter how clean the sheets or how perfect the service, if the room stinks like a doss house.

    • bob

      It really doesn’t matter much if the entire building is anti smoke rooms if the owners allow smoking in the main front entrances, and the doors are open where the smoke just filters inside. I see this a lot at many convenience stores so what’s the point. I was at one eatery where they had the rooms segregated by a installing a glass partition but to no avail as the insulation was all on the same circulation and ended up polluting the entire eating area, the list just goes on and on, without even touching the subject of bicycle riders smoking at the same time and in front of the police who do nothing.

    • Terence Nomoto

      total BS, most hotels have a smoking room and non smoking rooms don’t smell of smoke – I am a non smoker. Hotel standards in Japan and Asia are of much higher quality than Europe and particular that dreaded island the UK, unless you are talking about the cheaper business hotels or love hotels.

      the view from outside the empire is different from the view inside the empire – stay home and leave us alone.

    • Terence Nomoto

      “don’t like gaijin tourists” – you are deluded, it’s not so much that they don’t like you rather than you are a pain in the ass.

    • Mark Makino

      I haven’t had this problem in a hotel, but many restaurants let smoke from the smoking section waft unimpeded over the non-smoking section. Good way to ruin a meal.

    • GBR48

      I don’t normally respond to abusive replies as they don’t merit it, but I will here, to clarify my initial remarks.

      The comments aren’t ‘BS’, but from personal experience and from reviews by others on the major hotel sites.

      Japan, perhaps more than any other country, bends over backwards to accommodate tourists, tourism being vital to its economy. But tourism is not homogenous. The majority of tourists come from Asia, from countries where smoking rates may be higher than in the West, and may have different expectations of Japan. From the West, expectations of Japan, seen as a first-world, developed nation, are high: non-smoking accommodation would be expected to be just as stated. Increasing parts of the West are non-smoking by default, certainly hotel accommodation, and all eateries in many countries. Smokey places are just a bit too 1970s, and not in a good, retro way.

      Accommodating Westerners as well as Asian tourists with different expectations may be essential for the future in Japanese tourism. As muslim countries vanish from the Western tourist map, alongside Thailand (now a military dictatorship), Japan remains the shining star for Westerners seeking exotic holidays. Numbers of Western tourists should rise much more in the next few years, regardless of the value of the Yen (which affects Asian shopper-tourist numbers).

      Japan has already gone some distance here, with non-smoking shops, public areas and rules for transportation, but it has to sort out the hotels and the eateries if it wants to maximise the numbers of happy tourists in the future. Non-smoking areas don’t work: It’s one or the other.

      For the staff, it’s a health issue; for visitors, it’s the smell. Nobody wants to spend a lot of money on an exotic holiday or an expensive meal and then have it ruined by the stench of tobacco smoke. Maybe in a lesser nation than Japan, tourists would accept a lower standard, but Japan is internationally renowned for its standards of service. This is one of the few issues left to deal with. It won’t be easy, but until it is sorted, it will remain one of the few flies in Japan’s tourist ointment.

      In comparison, the last English hotel I stayed in, which was a budget hotel, smoking anywhere on the premises would have netted you a £150 (¥26,800) fine. Despite the low cost, it was clean, customer service standards were high, and there wasn’t an unpleasant smell anywhere.

  • Stephen Kent

    I find the smoking situation in Japan to be completely intolerable, and I wish there were more people like Shigefumi Matsuzawa who were willing to stand up and try to implement common sense measures to protect the health of the majority of the population (not to mention the poor staff in bars and restaurants who are forced to breathe air that is often significantly more polluted than Beijing on a bad day).

    Lack of awareness of the dangers of passive smoking is a fundamental problem when it comes to anti-smoking legislation in Japan, and I think TV programs often reflect this awareness gap. For example, not so long ago there was a TV drama called Dear Sister in which one of the characters, ‘Misaki’ I believe, was working as a hostess while pregnant, and in one scene she was confronted with the dilemma of whether to accept a drink that was being offered to her by a particular persistent customer; but the fact that people around her were smoking didn’t seem to be of any concern to her whatsoever. It’s fairly obvious that the producers of TV dramas try to incorporate information that viewers might find useful (they will, for example, show two female characters discussing breast cancer statistics and how often a woman should go to a clinic for a check up), so the fact that they didn’t even allude to passive smoking having health implications suggests to me that they are totally ignorant of the facts or that they deliberately tried to imply that passive smoking is not harmful to pregnant women (a bit ‘conspiracy theorist’, I know).

    Once people become more aware of the health implications of second hand smoke (including for smokers themselves), then hopefully it will become more politically feasible to implement laws along the lines the UK government enacted in 2007 which effectively ban smoking indoors except at home. No smoking sections are OK and I definitely welcome the increasing numbers of them you find these days, but they are not the solution to the problem because smoke, by its very nature, moves around and seeps through gaps, meaning that even in places that are completely segregated the PM2.5 levels are around those at which the Ministry of Health would advise people not to go outdoors. As for the impact on smokers themselves, in the UK all that has happened is that they now have to walk a few metres away from others in order to smoke, and indeed there are many smokers who actually prefer the situation as it is now as they also get the benefit of a cleaner environment.

    On a cultural note, in Japan I’ve always found it hard to understand how a society that prides itself on consideration for others can reconcile damaging the internal organs of other people for the sake of one’s own pleasure. Perhaps the absurd outdoor smoking rules are a reflection of this contradiction, but smoking indoors would seem to be completely incompatible with an aspect of Japanese culture that is often held up as one of its finest, so I feel that if people were truly considerate of others then they would have no objections to laws being passed to protect the health of non-smokers.

  • Squidhead

    As a casual “only when I’m drinking” smoker I really do appreciate having the option to light up or not.

    If you don’t like places that allow smoking then please by all means, do not come in. Everyone inside, including the smoking gaijins, will appreciate it.

  • SR400

    The biggest problem with the smoking thing in Japan, is the “totally out of whack” balance; by this I mean that apparently, around 20% of the population smokes – But this is not reflected in the number of bars/clubs/restaurants/cafes that permit smoking, which is surely inversely proportional to that 20%.
    This leaves the minority with a wealth of choice, and the majority, with very little choice.
    I’d be much happier if 20% of establishments permitted smoking, so that I could freely patronize the 80%; alas, as things currently stand, the reverse is true.

  • keratomileusis

    Just hold your breath, nothing will be changing anytime soon.

    I was in Paris in November, and while the interiors of restaurants and the like were smoke free, everyone smoked on the streets, which meant that no matter where you went, there was cigarette smoke in the air, often in your face. And the streets were filthy with cigarette butts.

  • keratomileusis

    Il est vrai que, si on arrive à changer l’avis des Français, même les Italiens, on pourrait espérer un tel changement chez les Japonais. Cependant, il ne s’agit pas de la liberté au Japon, mais de la coutume. Désolé, mais ceux qui fumaient dans la rue à Paris m’embêtaient beaucoup, même les mégots partout. Difficile de s’en échapper…

    It’s true that if you can change the minds of the French, even the Italians, you might expect a similar change with the Japanese. However, it’s not about liberty in Japan, but custom. Sorry but people who smoked in the street in Paris bothered me a lot, even the cigarette butts everywhere. Impossible to avoid…