Smoke and a Pancake?
You are going out for dinner with around 15 mates, heading to a lovely yakiniku place to feast on chunks of beef, self-cooked over an open flame at your table. As you are shown to your table, you order a round of drinks for everyone. With nibblies on the way, everybody sits down. And as they do so, 15 packets of cigarettes simultaneously come out of pockets and are flicked carelessly onto the table, along with a range of lighting devices too. Couldn't happen anywhere else but in Japan, especially the part when you all stop eating midway through the entree for a smoko break - and there is even no need to leave the table....I mean why would you? After all, the beer and chu-his can't be taken out of the restaurant!
You can smoke everywhere in Japan. McDonalds, the train station, the local supermarket, you name it, you can smoke. Maybe with the last example I am over exaggerating a little, although I am sure if I did no-one would look twice (but that could just be because of the "crazy gaijin" factor and they would probably be too scared to stop me).
This is a country where smokers' have rights and non-smokers have...hmm...well they have their homes and had better hope that their flatmate doesn't spark up. With cigarettes at less than $3.00 a pack, and more readily available than bread, via vending machines not simply on every corner but usually in groups of 3 or4 bringing the total of cancer sticks waiting for consumption at over 100 different brands and flavours , it is no wonder smoking has become Japan's national pastime - and if it isn't yours when you first come here, then it soon will be. I can definitely attest to that, and it is a habit I will definitely leave in this country too.
In fact, wherever you go in Smoke Friendly Nipponland, the odour of stale and dead cigarettes follows you around, embedding itself in everything from your clothes, to your hair, to your normality. It is so entrenched in your smell receptors that when you have those rare occasions to find yourself in a place without this smell, as happened to me last week, it is sometimes difficult to put your finger on what isn't right. I was in an eating/market complex in the centre of town, that had been designed to recreate the old streets of Osaka at the turn 20th century. As I reached into my handbag for a Marlboro Light to contemplate this, I became aware that there was not an ashtray in sight. The first thought that came to mind was "What? They didn't smoke 100 years ago?" And this almost made sense to me, considering Japan had isolated itself from the rest of the world for so long, and at this point in history, the opening of the ports was still fairly recent.
In shock, I approached the counter of the nearest sashimi stall and in a halting voice enquired "Haizara onegasi ishimasu?" (ashtray please?), expecting that I would be turned down as the sushi chef stared at me almost incredulously for having asked. Since he didn't say anything I asked again, this time holding up the cigarette packet in my hands while flashing him a huge smile. This time he responded, and I was mightily relieved when he reached under the counter and produced an ashtray! As I puffed away on my newly cigarette, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Upon having a short conversation with the chef, it turns out that this particular complex is extremely well ventilated. Apparently developers had wanted to avoid the problems normally associated with smoking indoors, especially seeing as this setting is supposedly an outdoor one. Banning smoking wasn't even an option. I got it hand it to them, the Japanese are extremely adept at resolving problems when faced with them.
So as long as the Japanese government refuses to admit that smoking causes a myriad of health problems, there are no restrictions on tobacco advertising, no health warnings anywhere and no extra efforts made to generally educate the public on the effects of smoking, smoking is definitely here to stay.
As one friend put it so eloquently during his 4-week visit last January, just before he sparked one up, "If you can't beat 'em join 'em." And would you believe it? He is actually a non-smoker.