Smoking Culture: America vs Japan

A seemingly obsolete habit in the states looks very different in Japan.

This summer, I got the privilege to travel to Japan for a few weeks. Aside from the obvious differences in language, food and culture, the most interesting culture shock was the widespread acceptance of smoking. 

Among youth in the United States, it’s generally regarded that smoking cigarettes is on the way out. Between high cigarette taxes, legislation banning flavored cigarettes and the dying older demographic that uses them, cigarettes are no longer as intertwined with social culture as they once were in the 1960s. Of the teenagers that still use tobacco products, the vast majority vape or use nicotine pouches. 

Walking around Bend, you may smell the distinct odor of cigarettes in the distance around bars or grocery stores. However, you certainly don’t smell them consistently when walking around busy downtown streets. 

In Japan, cigarette culture is a part of culture itself. At the height of Japan’s high-growth period in the 1980s, over 80% of adult males smoked cigarettes. Although this number has since fallen, it’s hard to tell the difference as an outsider. 

A lot of the restaurants that I went into were filled with smoke. Even ones that weren’t considered bars had customers of all ages enjoying a meal with a cigarette between their fingers. The ones that didn’t allow smoking would have a smoking room near the bathroom, with an air filter and tinted windows. These smoking rooms are commonplace at train stations, hotels and museums — even an indoor theme park I went to had one on every floor. 

On the streets, people didn’t exactly walk around and smoke, but there was always a reminder that smoking was a given. There were outdoor smoking sections everywhere you looked, booths that sold cigarettes and most commonly, cigarette vending machines. 

Japan is known for its all-purpose vending machines, serving everything from snacks, coffee, ramen, whole meals, deli meat, alcohol and cigarettes. These cigarette vending machines are exactly what they sound like and have been a staple for many years. Until recently, you didn’t need to scan an ID to use them. 

The new ID policy hasn’t stopped underage use. According to our tour guide, businesses do not card in Japan. Instead they simply ask you to click a button by the register that asks if you are at least 20 years old. This system takes the legal pressure off the merchant, and instead operates like an honor system. 

Because of this system, I saw quite a few people who looked underage using nicotine products. Instead of vaping like we commonly see in America, many young people had devices that looked and functioned just like a vape. Instead of using a liquid to be vaped, the device takes inserted cigarettes and heats them up.  

A lot of cigarette use is attributed to the government’s relationship with tobacco enterprises. The Japanese government owns the majority of stake in Japan’s biggest tobacco company, and its headquarters are near the political district in Tokyo. Because of this, regulations are hard to pass, as the government has no incentive. Any sort of anti-smoking campaign supported by the government focuses on cigarette etiquette, not cessation of smoking due to its harms. 

In the United States we tend to have an innate desire to follow the newest thing. Concerning tobacco, this notion has left the usage of cigarettes in the dust. For Japan, a notoriously high-tech and clean country, the widespread use of cigarettes was surprising. Perhaps it’s an example of Japan’s relationship with tradition, or maybe just a familiar habit allowed to grow without consequence. Regardless, cigarette smoking was not a major cultural difference that I was anticipating.