Matt Alt: Screw you for smoking, Tokyo
I'm an outspoken fan of Tokyo. But there is one thing that drives me absolutely and totally nuts about this city. One thing that I can unhesitatingly cite as the absolute worst thing about living here.
Crowded trains? C'mon, get used to it. High prices? No. Avoid expat-infested areas like Roppongi and cut out the burgers; going native takes out a lot of the sting. Earthquakes? Not really. Nuclear apocalypse? Nah.
I'm talking about cigarette smoke.
Look, I'm no health nut. I have my vices. Hell, I love my vices.
The difference is, I don't impose them on other people. When I want a beer or six, I make sure to keep the contents of my stomach a private affair.
Unfortunately, you can't say the same about smokers, who force the rest of us to suck down the same malodorous substances they're so hell-bent on huffing.
Lighting up en masse
I'm not kidding myself about the chances for change anytime soon.
Japan is a smoking culture if ever there was one. As recently as 2001, more than half of the adult male population smoked.
Even now, well over a quarter of the population still lights up. That's a whole lotta butts.
And did I mention that the Japanese government owns a controlling stake in Japan Tobacco?
Besides the fact that the average lawmaker is smack in the middle of the heaviest-smoking demographic -- more than 50 percent of males 40 and over smoke -- it's in their best interests to make sure people keep lighting up so the revenues keep rolling in.
Politicians complain endlessly about Generation Y's terminal lack of ambition, but seat me next to a non-smoking "herbivorous man" any day rather than a Showa-relic ojisan who smells like a walking ashtray.
Keep it to yourself
I have no problem with the concept of smoking in general. I'm all for allowing people to indulge in whatever behaviors they like, so long as they don't harm anyone else.
Smoking at home? Go for it.
Smoking in bars, clubs, and other dens of iniquity? Hey, flame on.
If you're going to abuse the ol' liver, why not toss in the lungs for good measure?
The problem is that smokers have too much damn leeway in this city.
We've all experienced it: stepping into some lovely little establishment only to get knocked back by a solid cube of smoke emerging from the doorframe like the ghost of ciggies past.
Or coming home after even a low-key evening out on the town, smelling like a case of miner's lung.
Let me put it another way. That there are so few real non-smoking sections in the city's eateries is a disgrace to an otherwise progressive city.
Given the prices for food in this town, I think we should be allowed to consume our meals without stink wafting over from the table next door.
One neighborhood establishment seated me in a "non-smoking" section that consisted of the single table without an ashtray on it. Thanks, guys. You know they banned this in a long line of countries and states because it causes cancer, right?
Right? Sorry. I'll pause for a moment until that fit of coughing subsides.
A quarter of Japanese adults smoke. Why do they get to determine how the rest of us enjoy our meals? It's time to end this tyranny of the minority.
Breakin’ the law
And is it just me, or have "smoking manners" gone totally out the window since the 3/11 disasters?
Theoretically, it's against the law to smoke while walking in many sections of town. Emphasis on "theoretically," because it's back in style with a vengeance.
Dodging endless flaming contrails of smoke has turned a mundane stroll along a Tokyo sidewalk from "Lost in Translation" into "Top Gun."
Yeah, I get it, it's a stressful time for everyone. But can't you wait until you get home before lighting up?
Or, I dunno, to the millions of stores, restaurants, video-game arcades, pachinko parlors, and day-care centers that'll let you puff away with impunity?
OK, I'm exaggerating about the day-care centers. But only barely. (And really, what is a pachinko parlor if not a day-care center for adults?)
There's no escape. If we're going to flip out about the potential hazards of maybe possibly getting sick decades hence from minute amounts of radiation in the air, perhaps we should focus on the actual, real, and very well documented dangers of getting sick from secondhand smoke in the here and now.
So here's what I'm proposing. Either partition off smoking areas so they actually work, or ban smoking in restaurants altogether.
Enforce the currently aggressively un-enforced no-smoking laws on the street. Let the smokers have the bars, pachinko parlors, and hostess clubs. And let the rest of us start breathing clean air, or whatever passes for it in a major city like Tokyo.
It may take a while before anything changes, but it will. Why? Because I know I'm not alone in believing the two most beautiful kanji in the Japanese language are 禁煙: "Kin'en, or No Smoking."