National | MUSEUM MUSINGS

Shibuya museum links tobacco, salt past and present in curious harmony

by Taiga Uranaka

To the uninitiated, the combination of tobacco and salt in a museum is a curious one.

Opened in November 1978, the Tobacco and Salt Museum is run by Japan Tobacco Inc., while its predecessor, the Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corp., still had exclusive rights to produce and sell these commodities under a government monopoly.

Domestic sales of tobacco were liberalized in 1985, while regulations on salt were lifted in 1997.

Staff at the museum admit that the topic of tobacco is a turn-off for many in an increasingly antismoking age, but they emphasize that the museum has a lot to offer, even for nonsmokers.

“Although the museum is run by a tobacco company, it is not our intention to promote smoking,” claimed Yumiko Horochi, the museum’s curator.

The museum, nestled amid the hip shopping streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district, houses some 3,000 tobacco-related articles, ranging from antique Chinese sniffing bottles and water pipes to a collection of cigarette packets from around the world.

The exhibitions introduce visitors to the history of the use of tobacco leaves and tobacco’s cultural background.

The origins of tobacco use date back to prehistory and the distinctively shaped leaf was already widely used in the New World by the time Columbus arrived in 1492.

In Japan, where tobacco is believed to have been introduced around 1600, the plant’s leaves were shredded into strands as thin as individual hairs — a practice not found in other parts of the world.

While there is no clear reason for this method of utilizing tobacco, it led to the development of unique pipes and other smoking paraphernalia that evolved into sophisticated art objects, incorporating engravings and embroidery.

The museum’s display of modern cigarette packages also shows how their designs reflect social trends.

For instance, English names on cigarette packs were replaced with Japanese ones while the nation was at war in 1940, as part of a nationwide campaign to “boost national prestige” on the 2,600th anniversary of the enthronement of Emperor Jimmu, Japan’s legendary first emperor.

Despite the museum’s theme, young visitors are not uncommon, including students on school trips, although some apparently include the museum on their teacher-approved itineraries merely to spend time in the fashion mecca of Japan’s youth, according to museum officials.

In the salt section, blocks of rock salt from various parts of the world are on display, the biggest among them a 1.2 ton chunk from Poland.

While visitors may touch the slab, they are advised to exercise caution before putting their hands on it, as some visitors cannot resist the temptation to lick the block.

Not blessed with salt mines or saltwater lakes, Japan developed a method of producing salt by boiling down seawater, a process followed even today at modern plants. The museum demonstrates the production process through miniature models.

“The exhibitions offer an interesting historical insight, as the history of tobacco is closely connected with each local culture, while cigarette packages are also informative from the viewpoint of art design,” Horochi said.