Will the Tokyo Olympics End Public Smoking in Japan? The Pro and Con Arguments


As someone who lives in a state in the United States where all public smoking is forbidden by law, I’m still taken aback when I walk into certain Japanese restaurants and kissaten (coffee bars) and am hit with a wave of cigarette smoke. After a couple of visits, I’ve adjusted (re-adjusted) to it, and have come to view it as a fact of life in modern Japan.

However, that may change rapidly. Facing pressure from the World Health Organization ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the Japanese government is considering a new set of regulations that would greatly curtail smoking [Japanese link]. Under the proposed law, smoking would be banned outright in public schools and public spaces. Eating and drinking establishments, as well as airports, would also face a ban, but would be able to institute smoking rooms. (Currently, some large restaurant chains in Japan already have some form of separate smoking room.)

It’s still unclear whether the legislation will pass, and in what form. Arguments for and against abound. On the pro-ban side, supporters point out the known health dangers of second hand smoke. Others argue that the reported phenomenon of 外食離れ (gaishoku banare, the flight from eating outside of the home) can in part be attributed to people not wanting to eat in smoke-filled stinkholes.

Writing on Excite (yes, Excite still exists), columnist Katsube Genki decries second hand smoke as a form of violence [Japanese], and counters the argument that those who don’t like second hand smoke should just find somewhere else to be dull and depressing instead of killing everyone else’s good time:



There may be people who retort “If you don’t like smoke that badly, maybe you should go to another store” to this, but that’s a bombastic argument that ignores the damage being done to non-smokers. As of January 19th 2017, there are some 848,992 stores cataloged on Tablelog [a Japanese equivalent of Yelp – ed.], but only 127,761 of those stores are completely smoke free. That’s only 15.05%.

Since only 19.3% of the population smokes, if 80% of stored banned smoking and 20% allowed it, that would, from a population perspective, be fair. But 84.95% of stores are inflicting second hand smoke damage on people, and there are many cases of people suffering damage due to second hand smoke. Whittling down the choices that victims need to make in order to avoid suffering damage to under 1 in 5 is clearly unfair.

Weighing in from the other side is the chairman of Yoshino Holdings, Abe Shuuji. (Yoshino Holdings owns and operates Yoshinoya, a Japanese chain restaurant.) Mr. Abe is himself a former smoker of many years who gave up the habit, but he argues that the economic damage that would be done to small stores is too severe to let the anti-smoking law pass:




I agree with JF [Nippon Food Service Kyoukai, the Japan Food Service Group] that, in addition to offering various options on their menus, companies should be able to offer various choices with regard to their services. And that means it’s important that companies have freedom of choice. Smoking is one such choice, and it could be said that the more choice that consumers have, the richer society becomes. In today’s Japan, thanks to the efforts of business people, that richness has been realized. To impose a general ban will do nothing but take that choice away from consumers. That would be a most upsetting situation.

There may be those who argue that, by allowing smoking areas, that choice is being preserved. But large companies with economic power have already banned smoking, or created separate smoking areas. Another angle on this is that being able to round up people who love smoking is one of the strengths held by stores that can’t afford such measures. For individual store operators, taking this power away from them will inflict substantial damage on their ability to operate.

When creating a rule, it’s easiest to just enact a uniform ban, but is that ultimately for the best? What’s best is to leave this to the effort of individual owners and to the judgment of the marketplace. There are a lot of non-smokers, and if the needs of smokers decrease, stores will likely move toward full bans in due course.

Given the tide of history in other countries, the mounting international pressure, and the sheer number of non-smokers in Japan, it’s likely some sort of ban will go into effect before 2020. It’s hard to drum up support for a habit with such obvious negative externalities as smoking. The question is whether the Abe administration or others in the Diet will append additional exemptions in favor of izakaya and other small eateries – which, as we discussed in our previous post, are already facing financial hardship in the face of changing economic and culinary habits. Given the potential threat to traditional Japanese businesses, and the opposition of people like Mr. Abe, I expect to see significant revisions to this proposal before it becomes law.



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