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Japan's smoking culture is set to clash with the Rugby World Cup

A smoking area in Japan. Photo/Getty Images

14 years after New Zealand introduced a smoking ban, smokers can still walk into many bars and restaurants in Japan and light up.

It’s seen every night in Japan at pub-style restaurants called izakayas. Salarymen – the term for the white-collar rank and file of the business world – take off their jackets, order a draught beer and some chicken on skewers and light a cigarette.

It seems hard to believe, but 14 years after New Zealand introduced a smoking ban and more than a decade after London, New York and Paris did the same, smokers can still walk into most bars and many restaurants in Japan and light up.

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Even self-proclaimed “family restaurants” often have only a glass divider – if you’re lucky – between the smoking and non-smoking sections.

Trains, airports and office buildings, including Parliament, all have indoor smoking rooms. There are coin-operated vending machines for cigarettes on the streets.

It’s in stark contrast with Japan’s reputation for being super healthy. The national diet consists mainly of fish, rice and vegetables, obesity is almost non-existent and people live so long that there are now almost 70,000 Japanese over the age of 100. And the smoking rate has been on the decline. About a third of men and 10% of women smoke.

But unfortunately for non-smokers, the men who smoke are over-represented in the halls of power. The result is that Japan has one of the least-restrictive regimes governing tobacco use.

No national law bans smoking in indoor public spaces. In fact, the most obvious restrictions are outdoors, where it’s not uncommon to see no-smoking signs on the footpaths or hordes of people puffing in designated shelters in public places.

As the country prepares to host the Rugby World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2020, Japanese politicians are being pressed to do something about passive smoke.

The World Health Organisation and the International Olympic Committee have been promoting smoke-free events since 2010, and all cities that have hosted the Games since then have complied.

The Japanese health ministry has been trying to ban indoor smoking in public spaces by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics, but it’s not making much progress. There’s been widespread opposition from the tobacco and restaurant industries, not to mention politicians insisting on their “right to smoke”.

Then there’s the financial aspect. The Government owns a third of Japan Tobacco, the country’s biggest cigarette producer, and taxes from cigarettes contribute about $25 billion a year in revenue, Taro Aso, the finance minister – and a smoker – told the Parliament last year.

Both Aso and Japan Tobacco have even questioned whether passive smoke is bad for health, even though second-hand smoke is estimated to cause 15,000 deaths in Japan each year.

As a result of this opposition, the health ministry has had to water down its plans. Under its latest proposal, smoking will be completely banned in hospitals and schools from next year, and then from universities and government offices. But customers will be able to continue puffing away in most restaurants and bars.

Anti-smoking organisations have decried the Government’s lack of action, saying it’s a national embarrassment.

Mindful of the approaching Olympics, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike tried to act independently to ban smoking in almost all public places in the capital city, although most restaurants would be exempted if all employees agreed to work in a smoking environment. As if employees in strictly hierarchical Japan would stand up to their bosses.

Anyway, this plan was also sharply criticised – for being unfair on smokers, not for not being strict enough – so it’s been shelved.

That means the millions of us who live in Tokyo and don’t smoke will be coughing and spluttering in restaurants for a while longer.

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.