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Shudou Takeshi's death got me thinking about the culture of smoking in Japan

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by , 31st October 2010 at 11:57 PM (2778 Views)
The recent death of Shudou Takeshi, screenwriter for a handful of episodes of the original Pocket Monsters TV series as well as the first three movies, got me thinking about the culture of smoking in Japan.

I should start off by saying that we don’t actually know for a fact that Mr. Shudou’s subarachnoid hemorrhage was a result of him smoking too much. But it seems to be a logical assumption. He was found collapsed by the smoking section of the train station in Nara, and subarachnoid hemorrhages, from what I’ve gathered, can be caused by excessive tobacco use. It’s possible that his death was caused by a variety of other factors, but smoking seems fairly likely to me.

I’ve been living in Japan for over three years now. When I was back home, I, like many other people, had this stereotype of Japanese people being excessive smokers. Living here has done very little to change that.

There is a McDonald’s near my apartment that I like to go to every now and then. As soon as you walk through the door, you’re assaulted by a big ol’ cloud of smoke. This is because the smoking section is right by the entrance to the restaurant. It also happens to be right next to the cash registers, so when you’re waiting in line to place your order, you almost always find yourself with a lung full of smoke. There’s no door or anything preventing the smoke from escaping into the rest of the restaurant, and no extra vents or fans are in the area, either. That McDonald’s has a smoking and a non-smoking section, but it doesn’t really matter because you can still smell the cigarette smoke no matter where you are in the building.

There’s a chain of family restaurants in Japan named Gusto. The Gusto near my house has a similar problem to the McDonald’s in that you actually have to walk through the smoking section before you can get to the non-smoking section. Seriously, whose bright idea was that? The cash register is also in the smoking section, so when you get ready to pay, you have to be subjected to cigarette smoke.

That’s the thing about this country. Places have “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections, but it almost seems like it’s all for show. Kind of like a “Hey, look at us, we care! Really!” Or maybe the restaurants are merely trying to copy what other countries are doing without really understanding the concept that people sit in non-smoking sections because they don’t want to smell cigarettes? Could the people who design these restaurants actually be unaware of that?

And then there are plenty of places that don’t even bother with the pretense of having a “non-smoking” section. You want to eat at that locally owned ramen shop down the street, you say? Hope you don’t have a cigarette allergy.

In the streets of Tokyo, it’s actually against the law (I think?) to walk around with a lit cigarette in your hand. But I see plenty of people do it anyway. Similar to the way Japan talks about wanting to “go green,” there’s a rather large disconnect between what is said and what is actually done.

I have an Australian friend who’s married to a Japanese man. Recently, she had a baby in this country. She told me that throughout her pregnancy, she was never explicitly told not to smoke or drink alcohol. It was written out on a list somewhere, but it was never emphasized the way it would be back in either of our countries. Her husband used to have to go up to people and ask them not to smoke around his pregnant wife because it was bad for the baby. Sometimes they did, but other times, they gave him puzzled looks as if that was the craziest thing they had ever heard.

I have another friend, this one Japanese, who told me that his mother smoked throughout both of her pregnancies. His sister smoked through a recent pregnancy as well.

You know how, in America, the polite thing for smokers to do is to ask whether or not it’s OK for them to smoke in front of you? That same attitude doesn’t see to exist in Japan. Out of all my Japanese friends who smoke, I can’t recall ever having one of them ask if I mind if they smoke. They just light up without asking.

And then, of course, there are the kids shows that feature characters smoking all the time. I remember, as a kid, hearing about a kid who wrote to some trading card company complaining about them making a card where Wolverine was smoking a cigar. I can’t imagine a kid in Japan making a similar complaint about, say, Sanji from One Piece. I also can’t say I’ve ever seen an anti-smoking ad anywhere on TV.

Of course, I realize these stories are all anecdotal. I’m not going to pretend that my little stories “prove” anything or that my tiny city is representative of the entire country. But that aforementioned stereotype of Japanese people being heavy smokers has, in my personal experience, proven to be true. Maybe other parts of Japan are more accommodating to non-smokers. I kind of doubt it, though.

The country is getting better, though. A few years ago, cigarette vending machines started requiring a card that you had to apply for in order to use them. Getting this card requires you to prove that you’re of age (the legal smoking age in Japan is 20), so at least they’re trying to keep underage kids from getting their hands on them. The cigarette tax in my prefecture just went up a significant amount, and I know a lot of people who are thinking about quitting because of the cost. So Japan is trying. Maybe not as much as they should, but at least they’re making some progress.

So, I dunno. If Shudou Takeshi’s death really was caused by cigarette smoking, I would say that a part of the cause is his country’s attitude toward smoking in general. I know that the death of a writer for a kids’ cartoon isn’t going to change any policy in Japan, especially when it’s unclear if the cigarette habit we’re assuming he had was the cause of the hemorrhage in the first place. Still, I think it’s a conversation worth having and hope the country will stop being so relaxed about this potentially deadly habit.

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  1. 63cohen's Avatar
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    Nice blog. I like how in Japan the smoking age is actually higher than in the states. Do you happen to know if Tobacco dip is popular there yet? Where I live, kids 14 and up do it, and there is little to no awareness to its effects. I've seen a 16 year old ask at the gas station for it, and the guy asks what flavor.
  2. Yamato-san's Avatar
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    I dunno. When I went over there, I didn't see too many people smoking. Maybe it's because my hotel was in Shiomi (a relatively quiet neighborhood) and I was mostly indulging in the nerd culture, like Comiket and Akihabara. I'm betting otaku are too devoted to their hobbies to even think about wasting money on crap like tobacco. Still, I also visited a shrine in Asakusa, and I was also in a shopping mall at one point (I forget the name of the area it was in, I'll have to look at my map again). In all these places, the majority of people seemed pretty clean. But maybe I just got lucky.


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