Do People Smoke in Japan?

In the past 30 years, the culture around tobacco has changed in big ways. Now that many countries recognize that second hand smoke has its own slew of health risks, governments around the world have taken greater steps towards eliminating public smoking spaces where adults and children might be exposed to the tobacco clouds.

So what about Japan? Some might assume that Japan, known for being squeaky clean, has moved away from this guilty pleasure linked to cancer and gum disease among other illnesses, in addition to being a culprit in yellowing walls and leaving tar-like residue on windows.

What are the laws in Japan about smoking, and how many people still smoke?

In July 2018, for the first time the national government approved a smoking ban inside public buildings (think government buildings, schools (a little late on this one, here) and hospitals (really??)). The Tokyo government then followed with a slightly stricter ban for larger private facilities, including some restaurants. Much of this comes in anticipation for the 2020 Olympics, where foreign visitors, many of whom are not used to public smoking, are expected to flood into Tokyo.

If we think about the all-time high rate of smoking in 1966, whereby 83.7% of men identified as smokers, the current rate doesn’t seem so high. As of 2017, according to a survey conducted by Japan Tobacco, 28.2% of men and 9% of women smoke.

Is smoking allowed in public places?

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As we mentioned above, sort of… So this is a tricky one.

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In terms of common courtesy, it’s recognized that  smoking and walking is incredibly rude. No one wants to be walking to work trailing a blazing cigarette, getting a big old cloud of smoke and ash in the face. You’ll often see signs on the street saying it is prohibited to walk and smoke at the same time.

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In reality, there are some people who do not honor and respect this. There will undoubtedly be a select few, though full-well knowing how rude it is, who will light up on the way to or home from work. And yes, it really does stink to be caught behind someone doing this.

Apart from this, when smoking is done in public, it is supposed to be confined to smoking areas. You’ll notice that most companies will have a designated smoking room inside the office or outside the company building. These areas will often have plastic wall-like smoke guards in addition to receptacles for disposing of cigarette butts. If you’ve ever planned a meetup with someone at the famous Hachiko in Shibuya, you’ll be all too familiar with the smoking area that is always packed to the brim. (Poor Hachiko, think of all the secondhand smoke he’s been exposed to over the years!)

Is smoking allowed in private establishments such as restaurants?

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Yes. This is very common. Even in places like family restaurants (ファミレス) and coffee chains, (these are basically the equivalents of McDonald’s in Japan in terms of how they are used for cheap quick space to rest) you will find smoking and non-smoking sections. You will be asked when going into restaurants pretty regularly if you would like smoking (kitsuen 喫煙) or non-smoking  (kinen 禁煙). In some old-school establishments, like kissaten (喫茶店) or western-style Showa cafeteria (shokudou 食堂) smoking will not be divided, and you can expect smoke to be wafting over to you from your neighbor’s tables.

However! If you’re renting an apartment and happen to be a smoker, be wary! Most rental contracts state that you must not smoke inside the apartment and if there is a lingering smell or stains on the walls, your realtor reserves the right to charge you for damages.

Why is smoking still so popular?

Great question. The answer isn’t so simple, but here are a few factors:

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Stress at work.

Smoking (in the short term) can indeed relieve stress and provide a little buzz. This is probably something you won’t find all too surprising. Japan is known for having a stressful work culture. Being a smoker doesn’t just provide the physical gratification, but it gives a person a good excuse to step away from their desk for a few minutes.

It’s a good excuse for socializing.

Hey, you know that person who works in human resources who you share a bunch of hobbies with, but have no chance to actually interact with at work? Well, if you both happen to be smokers, the easiest way to catch up and have a little chat is to step out for a cigarette together.

How easy is to to send the following by company chat:

Meet me outside in 10 minutes? Time for a cigarette break…

While certain behaviors might be seen as slacking in the office, smoking is not one of them. So in a busy workplace, smoking becomes a chance to steal 5 minutes for oneself. Smoking is a way of perking up a person’s social life at work and breaking up the monotony.

In Conclusion

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When first coming to Japan, you might feel surprised by the amount of smoking that you see. For those who do smoke, it can be useful to become familiar with common courtesy so you can enjoy your time alongside the locals and not ruffle any feathers. For those who do not smoke, no worries, you won’t necessarily be bombarded with it either. In general, smoking is confined to certain areas, and it’s easy enough to avoid.

For first time visitors in Japan, what did you think about smoking culture? Were you surprised? Let us know in the comments below!

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