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.

Looking Back on a Year of JET

It’s been exactly 20 days since the anniversary of my first arriving at my apartment in Akashi to begin the JET Program. In that time– you know, I spent a long time sitting and staring at the screen, wondering what highlights to put to make it sound like I’ve had the experience of a lifetime in Japan. You know, “in that time, I’ve loved and lost, danced the night away in the neon streets of Dotonburi, watched the sun set over the hills of the origin of the world, and made relationships with people whom I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Even then, I had to try really hard to make it sound like I really made the most of my time here. I didn’t. I also didn’t love and lose either,  just wanted to sound poetic. But I still enjoyed this year more than any other out of my entire life. Instead of another wall of text let’s make a list of more things I’ve learned about myself, and about Japan, in my 365+ days here:

  1. Nobody uses soap. Ever since I first noticed a teacher not wash his hands with soap after using the bathroom (rather just running water over their fingers for a few seconds), I can’t stop noticing it among everybody– in train stations, bars, homes, everywhere. It’s the exception rather than the norm to see someone actually use soap when washing their hands. Some bathrooms, like at temples or older train stations, don’t even have hand soap at all. Why not have a bottle there, it’ll last years anyways.
  2. Japan can still be pretty dirty. For example, our school, over three decades old, has probably never been deep-cleaned aside from the daily dry-broom-pushing from the students. The toilets, including the teachers’, are also cleaned by the students, but that is done probably once a month or less. And since students clean them, well, how thorough and diligent would you be about school toilet cleaning if you were 14 years old? A lot of places are like this, with the idea that they are “ritually” clean (outside shoes have never made it in) rather than literally clean. Some districts, especially the nightlife ones, are absolutely filthy come morning time, with trash strewn all over the street. Nevertheless, outside of these old buildings or happening places, are still just as the stereotype of Japan is. Kirei!
  3. I still can’t speak Japanese. Immersion helps a lot, but I have been too lazy all the time. I was hoping to make JLPT N3 by this last July, but, well, I have no excuse other than that I’m worthless. I can mostly order at restaurants, but I’m hopeless in any kind of conversation.
  4. I have barely traveled at all. All the blog posts in the Travel category is actually all the travel I’ve done, with the exception of Kyoto. I have no good reasons for why I haven’t done it. Various things have kept me lashed to the Hyogo area, and although I know I won’t be here forever, I got settled in and comfortable pretty quickly. That shall change this year.
  5. Students are still incredibly well-behaved. The “worst” in-class behavior I ever witnessed was a group of boys who would purposely be out of sync/louder than everyone else when the class was repeating after me from the textbook. That’s it.

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    Elementary school visit with ESS (English Speaking Society) Club.
  6. I still feel the same about teaching. Before JET I had only the barest minimum of experience– just a few weeks here and there of volunteering. But when I did do it, I always enjoyed it, and I’m lucky enough that being in a teaching position has never made me nervous. A year later, I have a better grasp of what activities to do in class that work with the kids, and of what doesn’t, but my core approach still hasn’t changed: be confident, make the kids like you, and try your best to make English fun.
  7. I still feel the same about Japan. Studying at Osaka University in the summer of 2014, being in Japan for the first time ever, was one of the highlights of my college career and indeed life. As I said in my personal statement for JET, hokey as it is, “I was awed by people’s friendliness, by the culture of mutual respect, and a rich history that spans thousands of years.” I still see evidence of it every single day.
  8. Without language, you’ll never know people’s true feelings. Of course, people hide their true feelings all the time, in all cultures. There are people who put on a public face and hide what they are really thinking and feeling, to the detriment of themselves and of forming potential intimate relationships. In Japan, it is widespread and prescribed as the correct course of action, as the two concepts are very clearly defined, named as honne (what you are really thinking) and tatemae (what you present to society, in order to preserve its harmony).
    Social interactions are all about “getting the hint.” For example, there is a teacher who I know for a fact dislikes me. Though they teach classes with me, they avoid speaking with me as much as possible, so I do my part to also avoid putting them in such a situation– for example, volunteering to go unlock the classroom first and wait for them there, so we don’t have to walk together. Before this, there had been a lot of subtle signs that I wasn’t able to pick up until a few months in, to be able to unequivocally conclude that they are not a fan of me.
  9. Even with language, you probably might never know people’s true feelings. After all, the concept of honne and tatemae reaches beyond merely a language barrier. It is a way of life and a way of keeping society running, in a collectivist nation where 98% of the people are Japanese. Even with Japanese friends who speak very good English, it’s really difficult to ever get them to admit anything negative.
  10. Many friendships are fleeting. I’m not just talking about with Japanese people. Being in a big, unfamiliar place, people tend to stick together with people like them, in order to feel safe, secure, and socially supported. You see this when first moving into the college dorms, or during study abroad programs. People are brought together by the context and excitement of where they are, which is why I feel you’ll often find yourself hanging out with people in Japan, Italy, Peru, or wherever that back home, you usually don’t hang out with or even get along with. I am fully aware that many people I meet here, I will probably never see again upon leaving this country. Nevertheless, I am always searching for genuine, deep emotional connections, but having a fun night out with strangers and acquaintances is always fun too.
  11. Foreigners are still foreigners. Being from America, many of my students, and people at large, may still think of me as a Westerner. Japanese people have occasionally still expressed surprise that I am so deft at using chopsticks, or that I am capable of sitting seiza, on top of your legs tucked under you. They don’t seem to realize that Asian cultures still share a lot of similarities.
  12. I’m glad I came here with more experience. Most JETs come straight out of college, and with that, I feel that among some there is a sense of entitlement and the idea that “the world should conform to ME!” It is a common complaint that we have to work during the summer, even when there is no class. We still get paid, yet people either want to get paid for not working, or pass up on free money by getting summer vacation like the students. Coming from a hustle-and-bustle, fast-paced industry as Hollywood, I’m incredibly thankful for how lenient this job can be. Yet, for many it’s still not enough. Complaints abound of working too much, working too little, or even about being so strictly expected to arrive on time.
  13. Coming here at all, and then recontracting, are two decisions I have zero regrets about. Though I still vaguely worry about what to do after this program, I am happier than I’ve ever been before. I don’t dread waking up in the morning– perhaps for the commute, yes, but for the actual job, not at all. I’m wholly satisfied with the work-life balance, of the workload, and the amount of interaction I get to have with the students. I only wish I could travel more, but that could be fixed at any time. I certainly have the freedom to.

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!