Societies change and evolve in ways that make them nearly unrecognizable when viewed across a bridge of years. What worked for a majority in 1960 has become unimaginable to a society in the twenty-first century. I remember seeing Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK and commenting to the person beside me on how accurately, along with dress and hairstyles the director used smoking to recreate an atmosphere of America in the 1960s. In our society at least, 1963 was a time when everyone and their mother smoked cigarettes. Smoking was allowed in movie theaters, in college classrooms, in hospitals, courtrooms and in every room of every house in the land. “May I smoke?” was in those days a mostly unnecessary courtesy. But such times are long gone.
In arguments today over smoking and non-smoking spaces, more often than not proximity to others is the key issue. One may not like to be around cigarette smoking, but if it occurs in a place not nearby, then the complaint is without validity. Following this premise, crowded cities present more than a few challenging problems in keeping people happy, or at least untroubled by conflicting freedoms. In recent years health problems associated with smoking have given the non-smoking movement a great boost, leading both smokers and the tobacco industry to feel beleaguered by increasing restrictions and banishment.
During the years I lived in Japan cigarette smokers and secondhand smoke were often inescapable, but recent years have seen a definite decrease in both the number of smokers and the prevalence of smoked-filled areas. The problems of smoking are now a part of Japanese consciousness, but this gradual shift has gone only a short way toward providing solutions. Restaurants and bars are still smoky, if less so than in previous years, stations and train platforms are mostly smoke-free except for designated areas in older stations. Many stations provide small plexiglass smoking rooms normally so thick with smoke they’ve earned the nickname “gas chambers.” In the last few years a few of Tokyo’s wards have passed an ordinance against smoking while walking along streets, but enforcement has proven difficult. It’s important to remember that fifty-percent of Japan Tobacco (listed at number 312 on the Fortune 500 list) is owned by the Japanese government and profits are huge. Still, they have to be credited with selling one-sixth of their shares to raise money for reconstruction following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.
New on the Tokyo scene is a sprinkle of pleasantly appointed smoking lounges called Ippuku (one puff) which provide smokers with padded rails to sit on, small tables for a drink, cell phone chargers, and a continuous flow of fresh, circulating air. The lounges are equipped with a water-flushing system for cigarette butts, walls coated with a stain-resistant substance, and aromatherapy scents pumped into the air. Another comfort to smokers in these new smoking lounges is the peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about non-smokers and enjoying a cigarette in a space all their own.
The entrance fee is a little more than fifty cents, easily paid at automatic entrances much like those at Tokyo train stations with a quick swipe of either of the ever-present Pasmo or Suica pass cards. General Fundex is the company behind these lounges and their belief is that smokers are willing to pay a small amount for a more enjoyable few minutes in a comfortable setting. They plan to open three dozen additional Ippuku smoking lounges around Tokyo in the next three years.
With the arrival of a movement in Japan decrying the dangers of tobacco smoke, a willingness among non-smokers to speak out has come with it. Traditionally non-confrontational in nature, the average Japanese until recently would never have dared to tell the nearby smoker that his cigarette smoke was bothersome. No question there are still many reluctant to do so, but the tide is turning.