Taking a seat in the no-joking section


Smoke, as they say, gets in your eyes. Not to mention your clothes, hair, nose, lungs, taste buds, teeth, gums and (if you are a smoker) your pocketbook.

Yet, this well-hammered health hazard remains Japan’s vice of choice — a pastime to die for. Literally.

Witness the disparity of smoking to nonsmoking sections in restaurants. Watch the huddle around the smoking zones on train platforms. Consider the trail of cigarette butts on the way to most stations — as if Japanese Hansels were marking their routes home with spent tobacco.

These scenes blur against my personal recollections of heavy smokers: A three-pack-a-day mother to whom an American physician once barked, “Give it up or die,” and a similar stove-pipe Japanese father-in-law to whom local doctors offered nary a peep.

Results? My mother still counts among the quick; my wife’s father never knew his grandkids.

Still, no matter how much one may wish to decry Japan as the land of the rising smoke, a simple observation is that the situation is improving. Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, as well as their domestic counterparts, no longer smolder with the same popularity as before.

But there was a day in the not-so-distant past when tobacco ruled Japan. Even now I cough at the memories.

On the staff of the Japanese school where I first worked, there was but one male teacher who never smoked — me. Sitting in the faculty room was like sitting in a two-alarm fire. I used to pop my head in the toilet for fresh air.

Or take the shinkansen . . .

For years those trains would have been better dubbed “smoking bullets.” When the first nonsmoking cars were added in the late ’70s, a friend of mine postponed a business trip to Hiroshima just so she could ride in one such car and be spared two lungs full of smog.

This friend hopped on board several cars back of her seat and edged her way forward through section after section of puffing travelers. At last she arrived in the nonsmoking car to find it completely empty. Except for one other lonely rider.

Who sat there smoking like a volcano.

No smoking regulations were also routinely ignored in movie houses. In Kumamoto I knew a film buff who grew so annoyed at the glowing cigarettes in the crowd that she always carried a full vial of perfume. Anyone nearby who lit up got doused until he either moved away, snuffed out his butt or succumbed to the spray of eau de cologne.

In more recent times, I once carried my feverish first son to a physician.

“Just a cold. Nothing to worry about,” pronounced the man, who looked fresh from med school.

Still, it’s hard not to worry when the doctor examining your child has a cigarette in his mouth and a tray of ashes on his desk. To me, the examination seemed much more dangerous than the cold bug.

One of the more inscrutable puzzles of modern-day Japan is the way nonsmoking sections are arranged at eateries. Somebody at management school needs to explain to restaurant operators that smoke is a gas. It floats through the air. Thus, simply placing a placard on the floor denoting a nonsmoking section is fairly ineffective. Smokers may obey the sign; their smoke will not.

Once I bopped into a Tokyo coffee shop for breakfast. Between my chair and a table of four chain-smoking coeds lay a distance of 50 cm — in the middle of which was plunked a sign pointing my way and reading, “No smoking from here.”

The girls chatted on, their plumes of smoke curling around my head. Through teary eyes I sought for another open seat, to no avail. Trapped, I tried to whiff the smoke away. Not only did it always return, but my actions soon fetched priceless expressions from the girls, who glared at me like I was the rudest animal in the zoo.

After all, they sat securely in the smoking section. The sign stood right before me. Was I blind? Or just stupid? Or perhaps both?

I suppose I could have fed them my gas argument. Or quoted some grim statistics about secondhand smoke. Or called them a bunch of balloonheads.

But there was no reasoning with the sign, so I choked down my toast and hacked my way out into the soiled air of the city. At least there I could breathe.

As a humor writer, I sometimes toy with an image of restaurants divided not by smoking, but rather by joking. With sections set up for jokers and nonjokers. In between, of course, stands only a sign . . .

I roar a punchline to my dinner mate: “He can’t help it! He’s a goose!” As my friend convulses with laughter, the man at the next table leans my way.

“Sir, could you please keep your jokes to yourself!” “But this is the joking section!”

The man is dead serious. “Yeah, but your quips are floating over here to the nonjoking section. Can’t you go outside and joke?’ “Hey, we jokers have rights too!”

The man is now livid. He wags a finger at my friend, “And do something about that nonstop gaggling!”

“He can’t help it,” I roar. “He’s a goose!”

At which point the nonjoker brains me with the signboard, showing that humor too can be hazardous.

Though not quite as deadly as cigarette smoke. And that’s no joke.