“Is it OK if I smoke during the interview?” I ask Bungaku Watanabe, reaching into my coat pocket.

A look of incandescent outrage flashes across the 81-year-old’s face, before I quickly reassure him that I was joking.

“No. No. No,” he says firmly, breaking into a smile before settling back down with an amiable chuckle.

There is no one in Japan less likely to entertain such a request than Watanabe. Since founding the Japan Action for Non-Smokers Rights 41 years ago, Watanabe has been at the forefront of the war on tobacco in Japan, battling politicians and industry leaders in a country that has long held a reputation as a smoker’s paradise.

In 1966, when smoking was at its peak, a whopping 83.7 percent of men and 49.4 percent of the overall population of Japan were smokers, according to Japan Tobacco Inc.

But last week, a survey by JT revealed that the number of smokers in the nation has fallen by half from when the Heisei Era began in 1989. At that time, 36.1 percent of the total population smoked, but in 2018 the figure had dropped to 17.9 percent.

For Watanabe, who has devoted half of his life to pursuing a smoke-free society, the latest figures attest to the fact that his efforts are paying off.

“Society is now much more sympathetic to people who want to quit,” he said last week at his cramped office in Tokyo, which is festooned with no-smoking posters from around the world.

“There are no-smoking restaurants and smoking is banned on trains and planes and at stations,” he said. “There are fewer places where you can smoke, and that has made people who want to quit more likely to actually do so. It’s become an easier environment to give up the habit.”

Forty years ago, the landscape was starkly different. Smoking was allowed in most public places in Japan — smokers were free to light up at train stations, hospital waiting rooms, theaters, baseball stadiums and almost all bars and restaurants. On the Kodama shinkansen, smoking was permitted in all but one car.

“When the last train left Shinjuku Station, the tracks would be completely white, strewn with discarded butts,” Watanabe said.

“Most people didn’t think of tobacco as a health hazard. It went without saying that people would smoke. I knew I had to do something about it, and that’s when I started to get involved in campaigning.”

Watanabe was a heavy smoker himself, puffing his way through 60 cigarettes a day to feed his addiction, rather than for any real pleasure.

He finally decided to kick the habit on May 6, 1977, and less than a year later he formed Japan Action for Non-Smokers’ Rights, deliberately choosing the name to make it a matter of human rights, rather than a question of taste.

Watanabe has fought relentlessly ever since, lobbying politicians, promoting no-smoking campaigns, making media appearances and producing a monthly newsletter, the Kin-en Journal.

His fight, however, has been a difficult one.

JT was the nation’s only tobacco manufacturer and a government-run monopoly until it was privatized in 1985. Legislation under the Japan Tobacco Law still requires the government to own more than one-third of JT’s listed shares, and the Finance Ministry held more than 50 percent until 2013, when it started to sell shares to finance reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. It currently owns 33.35 percent.

Watanabe takes issue with the fact that the government still has a stake in tobacco.

“The French government owns 15 percent of (automaker) Renault’s shares,” said Watanabe. “In Japan’s case, the government holds more than a third of JT’s shares, and the Finance Ministry supervises tobacco. No other country has a situation like this. In other countries, tobacco is supervised by public health departments.”

Watanabe believes Japan’s unique system has made lawmakers reluctant to crack down on smoking, but there has also been recent progress.

Last June, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government passed an ordinance banning smoking in any bar or restaurant with employees that partly took effect this year. It also prohibited smoking inside and outside of schools and day care centers. The city of Chiba subsequently passed its own no-smoking ordinance.

The Diet last July also passed its first national legislation banning smoking in public facilities, which will be implemented in phases and take full force by April 2020. It also outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants over 100 square meters in size, except in separate, sealed smoking rooms.

The law does, however, come with caveats, including loopholes for nonburning tobacco products, which have grown in popularity in recent years.

“The law is still too weak, especially with regards to bars and restaurants,” Watanabe said. “The global standard is to ban smoking in indoor spaces altogether, but in Japan they allow indoor smoking spaces, and nonburning tobacco products are permitted indoors. We want them to be tougher.”

The country’s low price for cigarettes isn’t helping, either. In 1989, a pack of 20 Mild Seven cigarettes — a mainstay JT brand now known as Mevius — cost ¥220. That has risen to the present-day price of ¥480 but still remains far cheaper than in other countries. A pack of 20 Marlboro cigarettes in Britain currently costs the equivalent of about ¥1,415, while in Australia it is about ¥2,245.

“The first thing they should do is raise the price of cigarettes,” said Watanabe. “It’s still cheap. If they make it expensive, more people who want to quit would actually do so.”

Watanabe believes the media have played an important role in reducing Japan’s smoking rate, publicizing health information that he says was sorely lacking in the past. But he also thinks they can — and should — go further.

In 2003, Japan became a signatory to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into effect in 2005. The treaty called for a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, among other things, but JT ads can still be seen on TV, as they now typically promote smoking manners rather than the products themselves.

“They aren’t advertising the product, but they’re selling JT’s image,” said Watanabe. “That’s the biggest obstacle.”

Watanabe will not compromise on his principles, but he acknowledges that Japan has made significant strides during the 40 years he has fought for nonsmokers’ rights. And yet, the octogenarian is determined that the fight is far from over.

“It’s a transition period,” he said. “You look at places like New Zealand, Finland and Bhutan, where there is hardly any smoking. Our goal is for smoking to cease to exist — then there will be no need for us. We’re aiming for a tobacco-free society.”

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