To Puff in Peace: Japan Tobacco Adds Style

For the Captain, smoking is more than a casual diversion; it is as important as breathing. So hooked on nicotine is he that when his first cigarette of the morning doesn't set him straight he knows that day's ridiculous demands of junior reporter Junko will be even more grating than usual.

Japan, though, is starting to slowly impinge on the time-held freedoms smokers, like the Captain, have typically enjoyed. This week he examines some of the makeshift accommodations arranged by tobacco giant, Japan Tobacco, to combat the new laws and social restrictions taking hold.

The sleek silver "SmoCar" sits in the center of the Otemachi financial district in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. It is a converted camping trailer - which sells tobacco paraphernalia and offers a small lounge area - concocted by Japan's tobacco behemoth, JT (Japan Tobacco Inc.), as a refuge for smokers threatened by the ward's recent ban on outdoor smoking.

It is also a sign of the times: Paradise is being lost, at least, the smoker's paradise that is Japan.

Japan's smoking scenery is slowly shifting. Earlier this year certain train companies prohibited smoking on platforms and removed ashtrays - in days past, always found to be smoldering and overflowing at the morning and evening commuting crunch; select coffee shops are increasingly not permitting smoking altogether; and poisute (littering) patrols can be seen in Chiyoda Ward ticketing violators of the law instituted late last year with fines of 20,000 yen.

What has happened to the carefree days of lighting up at one's leisure?

"Smoking is becoming more difficult in Japanese society," observes a 38-year old former Japanese marketing representative (wishing to remain anonymous) at a tobacco company in Tokyo. "But they [changes] are very, very subtle."

It wouldn't be accurate to declare that Japan will soon be unfriendly to smokers. Restrictions and deterrents are still very few. But changes are afoot, and JT is not idly fuming in silence. Its specially arranged smoking sanctuaries, like SmoCar, sprinkled around the nation are allowing smokers to puff away in peace.

SmoCar is like an oasis, its own sovereign smoking state where like-inclined individuals can relax in air-conditioned comfort while enjoying a canned coffee and cigarette in an area tantalizingly close to the now-forbidden ward's sidewalks.

The former tobacco company representative, who primarily enjoys Marlboro and Kool cigarettes in social drinking situations, thinks the ban is a move in the right direction because Japanese smokers tend to have poor manners when it comes to enjoying a nicotine fix in public places like sidewalks and restaurants.

"I think that it is very good to have such places [like SmoCar] where smokers can freely enjoy smoking without any trouble," he says. "I would encourage other tobacco companies to do the same thing."

From ashtrays mounted next to public restroom urinals for facilitating a few drags when nature calls to office buildings allowing smoking at employee desks or within smoking chambers, time was, limitations on lighting up in Japan have traditionally been nearly non-existent.

This is primarily due to the fact that tobacco is more than just a recreation, or even merely a large industry; it is literally a government investment. The Japanese Government maintains a stake in JT that is over 60%, an amount that generates 2 trillion yen in tax money - the top source of government revenue.

But the indirect costs have been high.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, from 1965 to 2000 the total number of deaths in Japan from all causes increased 40% while deaths from throat and lung cancer increased five times.

JT's future business, though, remains a bit cloudy. The fiscal year ending this past March saw sales fall 3.5% from the year before. In citing an explanation, JT's quarterly report for January-March 2003 indicated, "Japan's aging population, growing health consciousness and the continuing downturn in the domestic economy have negatively affected cigarette demand nationwide." A tax increase of one yen per cigarette implemented this month by the government is expected to further choke revenues.

The SmoCar is not the only puffing paradise offered by JT. In Akihabara, a region of Chiyoda Ward dominated by consumer electronics shops, is the "Smokers' Style" cafe - a space within the first floor of an office building consisting of tables with a capacity for 50 standing persons.

The amenities are similar to SmoCar. Smoking products - excluding cigarettes - are available in vending machines; a white-gloved receptionist sits behind a counter to distill any necessary information on the premises; and historic advertising and propaganda posters on the walls hearken back to simpler days when tobacco-use discrimination was less apparent. (In an allusion to another time when the rights and freedoms of citizens in Japan were also occupied by a force other than their own, one poster has the text "Do You Know? It is against the law to sell or give duty-free tobacco products to Japanese Nationals." directly above a woman adorned in a kimono.)

Traffic is brisk. During all times of the day, a steady stream of potential puffers can be seen entering the cafe's glass doors emblazoned with "Smokers' Style" in bright green for a turn at butting up against any of the tables equipped with individual air filtration systems.

Once they leave, though, their lighters and packs are secured to their person as posters - which feature the exclamation "NO!" and white plumes of smoke rising ominously above a fedora-wearing man within a crowded street scene - are plastered around the area to remind passersby of the ban.

JT's plan is for the SmoCar in Otemachi to travel to various locations with additional trailers being added if the response is positive. Already, another trailer offering the same smoking services exists in Sapporo.

In spite of these efforts by JT, smokers are getting the message behind Chiyoda Ward's ban.

"This ban is changing my lifestyle," says 26-year old Takeshi Yokomine, who is an office worker in the ward's Ochanomizu district. "I do not smoke when I walk anywhere now, not just in the banned areas. And I have realized how bad smoking is for non-smokers."

Specifically, the health issues for society around him, Takeshi says, have become more apparent. And, when he adds, "I have a bad lung because I have been smoking since I was 19 years old," maybe it is about time.

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