The first time I set foot on Japanese soil I was 22 years old. I had gone over two full years without smoking any cigarettes, which I did off-and-on for a short period after turning 18 -- only while drunk though (as if that makes it any better). In Tokyo it was all different. Given their attitude on drinking, it only figures that cigarette smoking would go hand-in-hand.
Let me tell you, I was shocked by what I saw. Not only did it seem like nearly everyone smoked cigarettes, but you were allowed to smoke pretty much anywhere except clothing stores and grocery markets. Even in the McDonald's people were smoking cigarettes as they were at the counter ordering their food! (Clarification: I was not eating McDonald's but rather observing from the sidewalk.) It was unheard of compared to cigarette smoking practices back home in the States, which have become more and more restrictive (as well as taxed) the last decade, particularly in California and New York City. But no tax hikes in Japan -- prices were almost all priced at ¥320 a pack, regardless of brand ($3.50 USD).
Needless to say, between all the people smoking cigarettes and the amount of drinking I quickly found myself doing, it was not long before I was picking up a pack every few days. I fell back into the habit so quickly it was almost scary. But hey, I just went with it, knowing that once I left Japan I would be leaving the tobacco behind as well.
In Japan the legal smoking age is twenty, so of course the vending machines require you to swipe your ID. Not having one, I would either ask people in clubs (and by ask I mean stand next to the vending machine like a gaijin until someone noticed and offered to help) or visit the corner Lawson stores, which are located on seemingly every block. Kind of the way ABC Stores are everywhere in Hawaii.
It is interesting to note that the local Japanese population smoked their cigarettes a lot differently than we Westerners do. Typically in the US, when someone lights up a cigarette they will keep it in between their fingers until the very end, taking a puff every few seconds. In Japan, people light up a cig and after only a puff or two will set it down in the ashtray. They may pick it up periodically and take a few more puffs before the cigarette is done, but some even just allow it to burn all the way down to the filter without so much as another drag. Either way that cigarette spends the majority of its time in the ashtray, not in the smoker's hand. As such the Japanese unquestionably inhale immensely less of the harmful tobacco smoke then fellow smokers elsewhere in the world, at least per cigarette. However, they do light up a lot more cigarettes. Often you would see someone light up a new cigarette only a minute after having extinguished the prior one.
Another interesting thing: Marlboro owns the market here. There are even Marlboro stores on the side of streets, like it was an upscale cigar shop or something. But what I do not understand is where is Camel?
I used to be a light cigarette smoker for a brief period after turning 21 and Camel was my brand for that brief period. I would only smoke a couple cigarettes a day and only at night, with coffee or a beer. Never would I crave a cigarette during work or wake up needing to smoke, and I surely never gave a damn if I didn't have one. I guess you could say I was a social smoker and luckily never got addicted. Quitting for me was as simple as turning off a light switch.
But jumping back to before that rambling confession, what caught me by surprise was the total absence of Camel in the Japanese cigarette market! I remember trying to look it up online and getting no answer, so I tried to contact R.J.Reynold Co and tell them "hey, you guys NEED to expand your market to Japan, you'll make billions." Unfortunately, not sure if you have ever tried to contact a cigarette manufacturer but they sure do not make the process easy -- it would appear as they do not want to hear from their customers and would rather just have them continue to buy packs until they die.
Camel could, with their creativity and styling, not to mention their flair, flavors, and marketing, conceivably dominate the nicotine market of Tokyo and I dare say all of Japan in record time. There has to be some underlying reason why they have not done this yet. Does anyone know why?
I had originally intended to look up the statistics on lung cancer in Japan. However once I stopped smoking I found that my initial curiousity on the subject faded as well. I had not even thought about it until writing this article. Part of me does still wonder if Japanese citizens have higher numbers of lung cancer and other tobacco-related health issues than the United States does, due to the increased prevalence of cigarettes and cigarette smoke.
In closing, I just find it so damn puzzling how a culture which has for centuries strived upon achieving perfection in everything they do and all that they create, could seemingly embrace and accept something as disgusting and as harmful to one's health as cigarette smoking.
The real question is, which is worse: Smoking less cigarettes, but smoking them all the way down to the filter. Or smoking more cigarettes but with only a limited number of puffs from each?
Probably just not smoking at all, eh?
[ UPDATE ] After moving from Tokyo I quit smoking...until I moved to Indonesia in 2013.
Have you observed interesting smoking habits in other places around the world? If so, please share your thoughts and experiences below, thanks!