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.

Taking the JLPT Exam

This last Sunday the 7th, I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or in Japanese, 日本語能力試験) at the beautiful Kobe Gakuin University. This is the Japanese government’s official language test, and passing the higher levels is a de-facto requirement for getting a job at a Japanese company. My experience calls to mind an age-old joke, of a man who walks into a bar. He sees a sign proclaiming, “Free beer for life if you beat the challenge!” The challenge is, as given by the seasoned barman, “Chug that half-gallon bottle of pepper whiskey in 6 minutes, and then two more tasks: there’s an incredibly mean old dog out back with a tooth that’s been infected for weeks. No vet can get close enough to extract it. And finally, there’s a girl upstairs who’s never been with a man, so we need someone to really show her a good time.” “That’s the stupidest challenge I’ve ever heard in my life!” says the man. Before the bartender can even reply, the man is already halfway through the whiskey. He finishes and slams it down, smashing it on the counter to smithereens and getting glass shards all over his hands. Doesn’t even look like this man can even stand, but he lets out a whoop and he’s ready. The bartender takes him out back to the dog and shuts the door. After a lot of growling, barking, scuffling, and screaming, the man emerges victorious, shirt ripped to shreds, scratches, bites, and bloodstains all over. “All right…” he pants, “now where’s the dog with the tooth?”

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So yeah, I really screwed the pooch on this test. Anyways, for anyone else taking the JLPT, the format is this: there are three sections, vocabulary, grammar/reading, and listening. By the way, for those unfamiliar, the JLPT is 5 levels, from N5 at the lowest (a gold participation sticker) to N1 (native fluency). I took N3, intermediate. The entire test was scheduled for four hours, with half hour breaks between each section. Sounds excessive, but most of this break time was actually taken up by extremely tedious test-collecting and counting, so in reality each break was only 10 minutes or so. I can’t remember exactly, but I remembered being pleasantly surprised that the test was not as hefty as I thought it’d be– all three sections had about 30-40 questions each.

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Kobe Gakuin University borders the ocean.

Vocabulary consisted of picking a kanji nearest in meaning to an underlined word in a sentence, picking the correct hiragana reading for a given kanji, and picking the right word/words to finish a sentence. Grammar/reading was more of picking the right phrase to finish a sentence, as well as reading comprehension questions. Finally, listening, where I screwed the pooch the hardest, was a mixture of “listen to this conversation and answer the written question,” “pick the most appropriate response to this question” (e.g. “What should we bring to the party? [A] It starts at 8. [B] Bring whatever you want!), and “in this picture, what is something that person A is most likely to say?”

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The “Battle of Santiago,” a 1962 World Cup match so dirty that it partly led to the invention of yellow and red cards.

Since the exam is given only twice a year, it’s pretty high-stakes, all-or-nothing. It was also comically overly strict. The proctors were even armed with yellow cards and red cards, exactly like soccer (in their front pockets, too), and the moment someone breached a rule, like opening their book too early or not putting their pencil down when time was up, the proctor would run over holding the card up in the air. Only thing missing was test-takers gathering around them and yelling in their face and maybe a VAR check. Same rules as well– two yellows get you sent off, and there are some offenses that are straight red, like taking out your cellphone or slide tackling from behind.

I was dreadfully underprepared. Although I speak more than non-zero Japanese, I didn’t start studying grammar in earnest until January 2019, six months after arriving, and even then I didn’t really do it regularly enough. I slacked off way too much, and it felt pretty bad having been here for a year and still having nothing to show for it. My original goal was to make N3 in a year and then N2 in two years. I wanted to have enough skill in Japanese to get a custom-made yukata (summer kimono) for summer festivals this year. Oh well, guess it’ll have to wait!

Going into the exam room solo also reminds me of college, and how much I hate strangers who are taking the same test as me– hearing things like “Oh man, I barely studied at all, I did 10 textbooks but then I stopped for like three days!” or “I literally didn’t study at all, but I took a practice listening test and got 100%.” Who are you trying to impress? Nobody thinks you’re cool because you didn’t study, and admitting that you studied makes you a normal person, not uncool. Also, as a side note, I also took a page from the Japanese’s book and was expecting all whites/other-non Asians to be taking the test, since it’s a test for foreigners. But instead, I was surprised to see that it was almost all Asian foreigners. Whoops!

Akashi Living & Reflections, Part 2

* This is the long awaited sequel to Cherry Blossoms & Reflections. Credit goes to Rika M. for the postcard cover photo.

With the last blog post, I had a startling realization, that had I not recontracted and this were my first and only year on JET, then all I would have to show for my experience is 20-some travel-guide-esque blog posts. The concept of just blogging about *me* and my feelings, etc. is so difficult to me that I only feel comfortable writing instructional-esque material, and even have personal posts in their own category. Although, I suppose, technically all my posts still fall under it.

Anyways, as my one-year anniversary of my arrival in Japan approaches, I thought I should dedicate a post to the city that so graciously houses me and to whose children I am “teaching” English, Akashi City. I know that in the past it’s been a little confusing as to where I actually live, but again, my school is in the town of Inami, despite it being called East Harima High School. I live, however, in Akashi. It is on the south coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, pretty much smack-dab in the middle between Himeji to the west and Kobe to the east.

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Also home to Akashi Castle (Ruins), demolished in 1874 and never rebuilt.

Nearly every city in Japan, be it Tokyo or a countryside town where trains run only once an hour, has some random claim claim to fame or some other kind of specialty. For example, Akashi’s neighboring Awaji Island is known for its onions, as well as the place where the gods pulled Japan out of the sea. I have a friend who lives in a modest rural town of 40,000, and their claim to fame is being located in the geographical center of Japan, as well as having connections with the Australian Olympic ping-pong team (no idea why). Tokyo, besides being the capital of Japan and all that, is also apparently known for its bananas, because the special souvenir snack you can only buy there is always “Tokyo banana,” despite the fact the amount of Tokyo banana plantations may be close to zero.

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Credit goes to Rika M. for this photo.

As for Akashi, we have three! First and foremost is Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Funnily enough, when I was visiting my girlfriend in 2017, she took me to this bridge as a day trip. It was a 2-hour drive from her place in Osaka, and at the time I thought it was, well, pretty neat. It passed out of my mind and I never imagined I’d be back one day.

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Secondly, and in fact the thing I pull out the most when people ask where I live, is that Akashi is where the national time of Japan is set, at the Akashi Planetarium.

Thirdly, Akashi has its own special dish called Akashiyaki, which is a fried ball of batter, heavy on the eggs, with a piece of octopus in it, dipped in dashi, a light fish broth and the base for nearly all Japanese soups, from miso soup to ramen. It is, in fact, the precursor of the now much more famous takoyaki that was invented in Osaka.

With that out of the way, I want to dedicate this post to some of the negatives of living in Japan. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll have to take everything with a grain of salt because I think I am pretty positively biased towards Japan. Nevertheless:

 Asian in Japan

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More relevant than you think. This is, of course, from King of the Hill.

The experience of being a foreigner in Japan is probably talked about and blogged about more than the weather. Is being a foreigner in Japan indeed like being in the seventh circle of Hell, where instead of a lake of boiling fire it’s constant passive-aggression, or is it a land of infinite friendliness, hospitality, and adventures, of being invited to carry a sacred shrine at a festival, just for being a cool foreign dude who happened to walk by?

For me, it’s not really either. I’m stuck in between the two worlds– I’m not Japanese, but I’m not the *cool* or *interesting* kind of foreigner either. I can’t help but feel some kids were a little disappointed to hear they were getting an American JET, only to find out that it’s some Asian dude. In fact, when I sent a self-intro video to a fellow JET for his school’s intercultural project, his kids had apparently reacted with just “he’s American?” and not much else. The general image of Americans in the Japan is still the good ol’ all-American Joe Football, tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Either that, or to a lesser extent, African-Americans. Outside of major cities, my foreign friends who fit this bill still get a lot of attention, like getting free food at restaurants or excitedly asked for pictures of with drunk salarymen. I, on the other hand, am free to blend in and stand out as I please, which brings me to my next point.

Can Asians tell other Asians apart? Yes, they can, to a certain degree. However, most of the time, I blend in– restaurant staff always look to me as the group’s interpreter, despite the fact that I am often the one with the lowest Japanese ability among everyone. People don’t stare at me on the train. I see cashiers occasionally switch to English for my friends but speak in Japanese to me. After all, in a country that’s 98.1% ethnically Japanese, it’s pretty safe to assume that any light-skinned Asian person is most likely Japanese too. Other times, though, people can tell I’m not Japanese right off the bat, or they find out from the moment I open my mouth. The problem is, when people find out I’m not Japanese, they usually assume I’m Chinese.

Six months into the program, there were still teachers at the school who thought I was Chinese, despite having mentioned my Thai heritage in the many self-introductions I had to do when I first arrived. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting your ethnicity confused; it happens, but the problem is that if people in Japan are prejudiced, the most commonly disliked group is the Chinese. Perhaps it stems from the history between the two nations (fuel for the older generation) and the huge amount of tourists, who often are seen as having horrible manners (fuel for the current generation). The hate is so mainstream and fairly accepted that I once saw a TV show all about “look at what those Chinese are doing!” featuring things like people dumping trash in public or jaywalking and almost getting hit by cars. Pretty crazy that something like that could be allowed to air on TV at all. in the screencap below, an expose on Chinese manners, the captions say something like “They bought some dango, touched it, ate it before paying, and then said they didn’t want two anymore!”

In the top right, “Chinese tourists manner faux pas!”

Anyways, as a result of that, I am always hyper-aware and paranoid of breaking any social rules, be it as minor as standing on the wrong side of the train door or putting money into someone’s hands rather than on the table at stores. I never want someone to look at me and think to themselves, “Oh look, it’s one of those BAD kind of foreigners,” especially since I’ve already lost my chances on being the cool foreigner from the cosmic lottery. For this reason I try to hide the fact that I’m a foreigner as much as I can in most situations, for example never, ever defaulting to English first and responding “that’s okay, no problem” to questions when I have no idea what they said. Yeah, that’s my life, I am way too caught up in the opinions of strangers.

But to conclude, although I still will never feel like the “good” or exciting kind of foreigner, at the end of the day, I am happy to blend in. I’m also happy that even when I don’t, I can give Japanese people an opportunity to learn that Asian-Americans do exist, and yes, they can be pretty cool too!