OPINION: Japan Finally Bans Smoking Indoors (Sadly)

Can you believe that in the year of our Lord anno Domini 2020, in Japan of all places, often seen as decades ahead of everyone else, still allows indoor smoking? That’s right– at most restaurants you can light up right at the table, even in freaking Burger King. And of course, bars too. If anything, it was weird to be in a bar that didn’t allow it. Needless to say, it is probably visitors’ #1 complaint of an otherwise “perfect” country for holiday, and of course many of my fellow ALTs complain about it too. However, as of yesterday, April 1st 2020, indoor smoking is now effectively banned in all but small mom-and-pop restaurants. As foreigners all over Japan rejoice, the vast majority of whom are not even going to be in Japan more than a few weeks, or a few years,  I’m quite sad, even as a fellow temporary resident. Japanese people too, of course, are alternately happy or dismayed as well.

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Gone are the days of Chesterfield Christmases with Ronald Reagan.

Smoking is definitely on its way out, at least in the West. Most major movie studios have independently adopted ban on depicting on-screen smoking unless rated higher than PG-13 or for historical accuracy purposes, though if you notice, a majority of movies set in the late 20th century or before it are still mysteriously devoid of it despite how sterile it makes historical dramas look. Also: did you know, movie-smoking nowadays is achieved using herbal cigarettes, which contain no tobacco, tar, or nicotine. Commercials on TV have been banned since the 1970s in America. Even tobacco companies themselves don’t really promote “traditional,” combustible smoking anymore– one of the first jobs I applied for out of college was at R.J.  Reynolds, owner of Camels and American Spirits, and one of our duties would have been to try to convince smokers to switch to alternatives like snus or E-cigarettes. While in Japan, smoking is very much a part of daily life, being normalized to the extent that children’s textbooks still contain examples like “the old man is smoking” alongside “the boy is playing with his dog,” it is following along in the same footsteps with things like this ban.

To most people outside of Japan, and even in it, this ban is a good thing. But to me, while it is untenable to say that it is objectively a bad thing, I wholeheartedly disagree with this ban. And to those whose minds are already set, or who believe there is only one objectively correct answer to what should not even be a debate, I humbly entreat you to open your ears, and your mind.

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The dangers of secondhand smoking, while well-documented and somewhat warranted, are still overblown, and Japan is one of the best arguments in support of this seemingly crackpot theory. In a country where exposure to secondhand smoke/smoking is just a fact of daily life, especially in enclosed spaces, you would think that given how dangerous it is said to be, there is no possible way that Japan could be #2 in life expectancy, second only to Monaco, a country with a population of 39,000. Meanwhile, Japan consumes 1,583 cigarettes per person per year, about 1.5 times the global average of 1,083 and putting it in the top 20%. For comparison, the US is just about average at 1,016 yet #43 in life expectancy, a full five years less. Of course, there are many other factors at play in Japanese people’s longevity too, including simply genetics, and the fact that the Japanese diet is pretty healthy compared to other diets of the world. Daily movement is also a big part of life, with the rigor of PE and club activities in schools growing up and just the idea that you have to walk so much from place to place, helping put Japan in the bottom 10 for obesity.  Given this, I think one can fairly confidently conclude that for all its dangers, its impact on mortality is not as much of a death sentence as it is made out to be; insofar that it neither magically cancels or even has a visible effect on otherwise healthy lifestyles.

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In the same vein, it is undeniable that smoking rates are declining worldwide. Instead, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and yes, asthma are all increasing. There are much bigger fish to fry, and the fact of the matter is, anti-smoking legislation has gone far enough. Gone are the days of smoking in hospitals and on airplanes. For the majority of people reading this, if you don’t want to be around smoking, you never have to be. We no longer live in an era where you were constantly around it, in it, and constantly inhaling it from others in all environments, something the previous generation had to suffer, and who make up pretty much all of secondhand smoke deaths to this day. Otherwise, nowadays, in the 21st-freaking-century, the incidental exposure you may get, from walking by someone who is smoking, or passing by that pachinko parlor, is completely negligible given that merely being outside is actually leaps and bounds more harmful– in Europe, air pollution literally kills more than even “firsthand” smoke does. Yet, no one bats an eye at the daily aerial smorgasbord they face of car exhaust, factory fumes, smog, and heck, even methane originating from cow “emissions” they face on a daily basis, and only the most salient yet infinitesimal aspects of it.

Nevertheless, I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, especially not with facts and statistics. This comes down to personal beliefs and preferences, more than anything else. I believe very strongly in two principles: “vote with your dollar,” and that the government should leave people in control of their own lives. For the former, support businesses if you support their practices, and businesses with universally unpopular practices will change, suffer, or eventually fail. For the latter, if people want to smoke, drink, drive fast cars, shoot guns, or whatever it is, give the freedom to both them and the relevant businesses to make their own decisions. The government should not play the role of moral arbiter in this respect, leading to endless circles of why is X regulated while Y isn’t?

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A poster from the 1970s about designated non-smoking times on the train platform.

It must be said, I don’t deny that smoking is bad for you. It certainly is. It definitely causes cancer. But secondhand smoke, the only reason people care about a ban in the first place, is not all that bad and has already been regulated to a place where most people never have to encounter it, and even when they do, it is not nearly enough to have any effect whatsoever. In fact, thanks to regulation, it is now more a minor annoyance than anything else. In the pursuit of nonsmokers’ freedom to breathe clean air, it has gotten to the point where they have that already, many times over, yet the march against people’s freedom of choice of what to do with their bodies continues. While you may argue that one should not have to deal with ANY negative effects of anyone else’s decisions, I believe that is just how it should be. I don’t expect the world to change to suit my needs and preferences. There are plenty of things *I* don’t like and secretly wish could be banned that I have to be around, but if having to is the cost of such freedom and independence for others and society at large, then I’d happily pay it twice over.

Coronavirus Hits 1,000; Titanic Iceberg Soccer

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Saying goodbye to Siseko, pictured here whispering South African economy statistics. Credit goes to Julie S. for this photo.

You know that scene in Titanic where it’s just struck the iceberg and people are playing soccer with the ice chunks? That’s the kind of the spirit of this post. Since my last one, cases in Hyogo prefecture have trickled up to just over 100. I have a bad habit of underestimating/making light of disasters, and this one seems to be no exception either. A lot of the world is shutting down now, and it became more real when recently one of my closest friends here (together with two other people) all decided on Tuesday to quit their jobs, with four days’ notice to their schools, to move out of their apartments and fly out of the country on Sunday.

Japan, God bless it, REALLY hates change, and it is really resistant to corona-chan’s attempts to affect day-to-day life. Schools did close a week early for spring break, but they are still stubbornly going ahead with opening school as normal in April. Just yesterday, we had a sort of orientation for the incoming freshmen, with hundreds of kids running around the school all day. And as a “compromise” between exposing kids and closing schools, the usually-daily club activities have resumed practice, but *only* four days a week (instead of 6) and no more than two hours a day. Wowee! “Social distancing” has not yet even been recommended here, though the government does still come out to say “don’t travel between this and that prefecture unless necessary” every so often. A second motivator is that Japan really does not want to postpone the 2020 Olympics, so rumors are that the government is undertesting to keep numbers low. I have heard thirdhand (so take that with a grain of salt) of two JETs being told by doctors “you probably have coronavirus, but we won’t test you. Just stay home for two weeks,” and whatever reason for that your guess is as good as mine. UPDATE: As I wrote this post, it looks like Prime Minister Abe did admit they’ll have to postpone.

So, almost three months since corona began, Japan still isn’t shut down, and cases still haven’t exploded exponentially like they have in, say, Italy. As of writing, Japan has about 1,000 cases spread over the country. Businesses are all still open. Markets haven’t run out of anything, although toilet paper has become quite scarce and face masks disappeared since the beginning of this epidemic. Other than that, if you just totally ignore the news you’d never know this thing is going on in Japan. However, it’s only a matter of time until things really go south, given the total lack of any significant response or widespread quarantine practices, and the fact that around the world “it took 67 days… to reach 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000, and just four days for the third 100,000.” (source) Either that, or we find out that the quaint Japanese tradition of totally eschewing hand soap actually builds mega-immunity. I’ve already tempted fate once, because my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival may very well have been ground zero. As I have said to many people in the ad nauseum conversations about it, what a crazy time to be alive. So, to the one person reading this, be thankful the ship hasn’t started leaking yet, but it DID hit that iceberg and it’s probably better to be padding those lifeboats than kicking ice around.

 

 

Coronavirus Strikes Japan!

I have lived through many health scares, from avian flu to zika virus (that is, they existed while I was alive), though they have never personally affected me. I thought coronavirus would be much the same, but little did I know that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would create some ripples on Thursday the 27th by suddenly requesting ALL SCHOOLS in Japan to close the following Monday. This sent schools into a panic, in a bureaucratic system where I am required to submit “travel reports” for a 200-yen ($2) train fare that must be stamped by hand by me, office staff, the principal, and the board of education before I get it deposited back into my account weeks later. Not only that, but many schools are still finishing up final exams, and some haven’t even had their graduation ceremonies yet.

Yet, today, Monday, students are still streaming into schools. In fact, from what I heard most schools hated the move. Many, including mine, agreed in contravention of Abe’s advice to have one or two more days of school to finish up exams, and then close. And guess what, schools being closed just mean students don’t have to come. We teachers still have to.

This has been a rapidly developing situation, and it has finally given me enough material to make a blogpost about it. Although it had been happening all over Japan, first nearer Tokyo, and then down as close as Osaka, I thought it was only a matter of time before a case popped up in Hyogo. And one did, just last night! My local community center has cancelled all events for the next month. Trains were a ghost town on Saturday night, and as always, people are wearing surgical masks (which, by now, are almost impossible to find in stores). It has affected bigger things too, for example the Grand Sumo Tournament in March being closed to spectators. Things are happening, but there is no widespread panic you see in day-to-day life as the news are implying. At the end of this all, I hope that if nothing else, back in the West this’ll bring masks into vogue, because what’s not to love? They cover half your face and look good too! More to come soon, of course, as coronavirus starts to ravage Hyogo.