According to the website http://www.health-net.or.jp, 38.9% of men and 11.9% of women in Japan smoke today. Although the percentage of smoking amongst Japanese men has dropped from its 83.7% peak in the 80’s, Japan still remains one of the heavy-smoking industrialized countries. The numbers for women are even more alarming, as they have not dropped at all in the long-term. In fact, I have personally observed that while there may not be more Japanese females who smoke, they certainly smoke much more, now that it is significantly less taboo for them to do so in Japanese society (and perhaps because they now occupy similar stressful job positions as men).
The continuous drop in smokers probably has to do partially with strict enforcement of laws prohibiting smoking in office buildings (except designated smoking rooms), train stations, and other public areas – including entire streets! Yes, you could find yourself walking down an ordinary, quiet street during your travels in Japan and be asked to turn off the cigarette in case you tried to light up. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other place.
Although I firmly believe that the way to combat smoking is in creating alternative positive incentives, images and role models (mostly sports-related) instead of taxing and banning, the almost ridiculous price of cigarettes in Japan could be playing a significant role in the Japanese smoking epidemic – especially teen smoking. Despite recent tax surges, a pack today goes for around $4, which in the Japanese economy is still very affordable, and allows easy access to almost anyone.
That being said, every Japanese cigarette vending machine offers a vast selection of smokes, in terms of nicotine content. If we accept the conclusion of studies that negatively correlate the addictiveness of cigarettes with the amount of nicotine in them, it’s fantastic that you can find 1mg cigarettes as opposed to only the regular 4-6mg and up. (The addictiveness depends, according to these studies, on genetics as well, meaning 1mg could be just as addictive for some.)
Cigarettes may be harmful physically, but many Japanese lose their souls to gambling. Certain polls (http://www.writer.co.jp/data_9/vol629.html) show that 60% of the Japanese have tried Pachinko in the past, and 12% still play regularly (18% in other polls). Pachinko is a legal gambling game, in which you insert small metal balls into a vertical pinball-like machine, where they jump around until they fall at the bottom. (See Pachinko Photograph.) Pachi-Slot is a cross between Pachinko and slot machines – 8% of the population in Japan is currently addicted. The image of people glued to their plastic chairs, hours on end, inside huge Pachinko parlors with endless rows of these machines, deafening cacophony, and suffocating cigarette smoke, is something to be witnessed by every Japan traveler. There are over 12,000 of these places throughout Japan!
Stress is a part of the Japanese way of life just as Starbucks is for New Yorkers (though it could be that the Japanese are catching up on that one). They work long hours and have strict etiquette and societal norms, but take pride in their way of doing things. Some steam, of course, must be blown off. Whether cigarette smoking and Pachinko are national pastimes and simply part of who the Japanese people are, or instead harmful and unwanted epidemics, are for you to decide.