What we don't like about Japan smoking

Sitting in the small restaurant, listening to American oldies and waiting for our order we had no idea of the impending attack. Slowly, the haze permeated the room and drifted closer to us, burning our eyes and clogging our throats.

Looking around however, we saw no signs that anyone else was being affected. The laughter of a child rang out from the other end of the restaurant and conversation flowed uninterrupted.

We scanned the room again and noticed the culprit of our uneasy breathing. Every adult held a taco in one hand and in the other hand there rested a lit cigarette.

We made eye contact, both of us in obvious discomfort, and read the watery-eyed look on each other?s faces. Turning to the waitress we asked, ‘can you make our order take-out?’

The Only Thing We Don’t Like About Japan… Smoking!


Walking around, we are continually amazed by the number of smokers we see on the streets and especially prevalent in restaurants and bars. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the smoking culture in Japan is very different than in Canada and that, at least to us, there seems to be a larger visible population of smokers.

Perhaps it?s not a high prevalence of smoking, but more the relative numbers of smokers vs non smokers in Japan vs back home in Canada.

When we looked into the stats,?it didn’t?appear as though Japan has too significant of a difference in smoking rates than Canada (at least with respect to the numbers that were reported to the public) however when you compare relative population, it makes a whole world of difference.

Japan has almost 130 million people in an area of about 378,000 square-kilometres, whereas Canada has only 35.5 million in almost 10 million kilometres-squared.

That’s a HUGE difference! The estimated smoking rate in Japan is around 20% which translates to 26 million smokers in a small area.

Back home, we have only about 5.3 million smokers in a significantly larger amount of space.?Maybe it’s just that the chances of running into a smoker are much higher in Japan where cities are crowded and smoking is accepted.

cigarette dispensing japan

Perhaps, it is also?the high tolerance and, for us, uncommon level of accommodation for smokers.?In fact, while we are now used to pretty much all establishments being non-smoking and very little acceptance of smokers back home, Japan seems much the opposite.

Finding hotels with no ‘non-smoking’ rooms is not unheard of, restaurants with ashtrays are the norm, and vending machines for packs of cigarettes dot the streets.

While there is absolutely no judgment on our part, either way, as nonsmokers we do find it uncomfortable and something that requires time to get used to. We both remember the days when smoking in bars and clubs was permitted in Ontario and separate smoking sections were fairly common.

We recall when we’d head home after a night out and the smell of smoke would linger on our clothes, our skin and our hair, but it’s been some time so perhaps the memory of just how prevalent smoking was, has faded.

Before we left, there was already a ban on smoking indoors in public establishments and strict guidelines for smoking near public buildings.

Since we left, Ontario has banned smoking even on restaurant and bar patios and tightened their restrictions on smoking in parks, playgrounds and sports fields.

The Smoking Culture in Japan

jt smoking sign

The discrepancy between the two cultures in smoking habits and acceptance is obvious and while smoking seems to be on the decline in Japan, this doesn’t seem to be due to any rigorous anti-smoking campaigns like those we see in North America.

Cigarette packs do not have the graphic images and warnings that around 50 other countries have adopted on their packaging, prices for cigarettes are relatively low?and while more and more establishments are becoming ‘non-smoking’, tolerance inside restaurants and bars is pretty high.

Rather than ‘stop-smoking campaigns’, Japan Tobacco (JT) has issued smoking etiquette campaigns in the recent past, intended to promote the ?harmonious coexistence between smokers and nonsmokers”.

Signs such as the one above and below were distributed, and in some places we even saw painted signs on the sidewalk suggesting you should not walk along the sidewalk while smoking.

While we like?the promotion of smoking etiquette and the fact that polite smoking behaviour is encouraged, we were surprised?that none of these ads commented on the negative health effects of smoking or attempted to deter smoking in general.

jt smoking etiquette sign

With the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, many Japanese officials believe that it is essential to bring smoking legislation and restrictions to a level that matches many Western standards. Whether this effort will actually result in changes remains to be seen.

We say it’s the one thing we don?t like in Japan but it truly isn’t something that has tainted our experience. We love the country so much, we’ve even wrote about, what we call, our passionate love-affair with Japan.

It has shocked us a little every time we’ve sat down for a meal and someone pulled out a cigarette, but for the most part the people we’ve met and spent time with have always been courteous and asked if we mind before lighting up.

Since Japan isn’t at the top of the list for smoking rates, we’re sure there’ll be other countries which will be a shock for us as well, but?we’ll do the same thing there as we’ve done here: appreciate the cultural differences and expect to frequently find ourselves washing the smell of smoke out of our clothes and hair.




43 replies
  1. Ryan Biddulph
    Ryan Biddulph says:

    Hi Guys,

    I am beyond stunned that an advanced culture would be in the dark ages on smoking. Hey, everybody smokes like a chimney here in Bali it seems but every ad and carton cover is accompanied by either graphic pictures or a warning that smoking causes DEATH lol….with a dude smoking, and skulls around him. They get the drill.

    Ditto on my home, in New Jersey USA. Hell, you can’t smoke anywhere it seems in NYC any more and that’s fine with me. Thanks for sharing guys.


    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It seemed strange for us as well. Sounds like they are trying to reform the regulations before 2020 though, so we’ll see! We’re definitely not used to rooms full of smoke anymore though!

    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      Thanks! We weren’t aware of it either until we got here. Not sure how much longer it will be like this, but it’s definitely an interesting contrast from back home for us!

  2. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    I’ve never heard of this. I guess there are just many things other people look over and other people notice. People with asthma must hate it there!

  3. Michael Huxley
    Michael Huxley says:

    Yes! I totally agree with you! It isn’t just Japan though, so many countries still do this. Although given how advanced Japan is in many other areas I am surprised they haven’t banned it yet. I hate smoking with a passion, it is a disgusting, antisocial habit and I can’t stand it when someone pollutes my air with their foul smoke. How would they like it if I walked up and released a spray can of deodorant with a load of added poisonous chemicals in their face? Anyway, I’m so glad most western countries have banned it in public spaces and cannot wait for the rest of the world to catch up. Normally I love the differences of each country when travelling, but on this I make an exception!

  4. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru says:

    As a former smoker, I am still amazed when we get to certain countries to find how prevalent it is. Here in Germany, woe to you if you don’t bag up your dog’s poop, but a sea of cigarette butts everywhere on the ground is status quo. No one ever talks about the rates of smoking-related illness, either. Germans and Japanese people must get lung cancer, right?
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru recently posted…West Sussex Village LifeMy Profile

  5. Will
    Will says:

    Very informative and unique post on on cultural differences…hope they can educate the locals before the olympics coming up in 2020.

  6. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    WHHAAAT?? This is such an eye opening post. I always picture Japan as such a health conscious society and often in health literature here in Canada, Japan is used as an example of what we could be doing better (like eating more fish, more tofu, more greens). I think your analysis is spot on – it’s not the percentage of smokers that is so different, it’s the congestion (pardon the pun) in a densely populated area. Being in smokey environments really aggravates my normally mild asthma so this is something that would definitely influence my travel plans.

    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      We were surprised for the same reasons as well! Like we said, it didn’t ruin our experience but it is something to take into consideration. We also noticed that the further south we travelled, the more “smokey” it got.

  7. Karilyn
    Karilyn says:

    When I was last in Japan I was a smoker so I didn’t mind the smoking EVERYWHERE, but now that I am a non-smoker with a child, I have been a bit more hesitant to go back. I absolutely love it there and can’t wait to take my son, but i’m hopeful that they will start some non-smoking initiatives soon!
    Karilyn recently posted…Camping at Malibu Creek State ParkMy Profile

  8. Natasha Amar
    Natasha Amar says:

    I’m shocked, considering that Japan is quite advanced versus other countries that have a similar tolerance for smoking. But having smoking permissible in restaurants and other public places is unpleasant indeed. With that annoying smell in your hair and clothes, and the effects of passive smoking, there’s nothing harmonious about this level of co-existence in my opinion.
    Natasha Amar recently posted…Hotel Review: Unwinding in Luxury at Al Ain RotanaMy Profile

    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It definitely seems counter to their courteous nature! It seems to be getting better, but we were often enveloped by the smell of smoke, even in non-smoking sections. Amazing country though!

  9. Michele TravelwithMrsT
    Michele TravelwithMrsT says:

    When I moved to Greece in 1986, I felt the same way. Everywhere I went, there was a cloud of smoke. Of course, just to get there on a plane, there was a smoking and non-smoking section at that time! I’m a non-smoker, and though everyone has their vices, I do not like having the smell of cigarette smoke in my hair and on my clothes!
    Michele TravelwithMrsT recently posted…TBT: Here Yesterday, Gone TodayMy Profile

    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It was a definite shock – i’m sure we’ll be getting more of that experience as we go (especially when we head to Europe) but it seemed so out of place in a country so conscious of being polite and courteous!

    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      It really doesn’t seem to fit, does it? We focus on the drink machines as well! We were just waiting for a train the other day after walking in the hot sun with no water and said “if we were in Japan we wouldn’t be thirsty right now!”

  10. Francesca @onegrloneworld
    Francesca @onegrloneworld says:

    This is exactly how I felt in Paris… smoking is so normal there even though everyone knows the harmful effects it has on the smoker and those around them. People don’t smoke inside, so that’s good I guess. I had no idea smoking was so common in Japan. I’ve never seen any of my Japanese friends smoke, but I’m realizing it must be because the laws here are a lot more strict!
    Francesca @onegrloneworld recently posted…Snorkeling to Flamenco Beach with SS Tobias – My Favorite Day Trip!My Profile

  11. George
    George says:

    I was in Vienna in April this year. They also had cigarette machines on the street (with American brands) and smoking permitted in bars and restaurants. In one place, the waiter was smoking when he brought my food.

    In Prague, what air there is in the bar was already blue when I entered.

    Three years ago, in Egypt, smoking everywhere. On the Nile cruise boat, smoking was permitted throughout except your own stateroom. Ashtrays were conveniently provided outside each room.

    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      WHAT! Smoking while he was serving your food! WOW that’s crazy hahah!! I’m sure as time goes on the rule will slowly change in these countries. They just recently change the smoking indoor laws in Spain and we noticed that everyone hangs out outside now, it’s a really nice sight :)

  12. Halida A.
    Halida A. says:

    Smoking has become such a culture in Japan that the 3rd verb they teach in a textbook after “Eat” and “drink” is “smoke”! True story. But i still prefer the smoking culture in Japan than in my home country Indonesia. At least Japanese people don’t blow their smoke to non-smokers. Here people walk, eat while smoking and it drives me crazy whenever i have to be around them. Cigarette is also so cheap that evryone can afford them, even the poorest and school children!

    • onemoderncouple
      onemoderncouple says:

      You’re right! Japanese people are very considerate when it comes to smoking, for the most part, restaurants have designated smoking areas and when our friends were about to light up, they would always ask if we were okay with it.

  13. Brooke of Passport Couture
    Brooke of Passport Couture says:

    Most of the time I hear how clean and peaceful Japan is, so I’m surprised to hear there are so many smokers! It’s crazy that a country that is known for being clean would take on harmful habits in the open that are known to endanger others who don’t smoke. I’m glad to hear that despite this you have enjoyed your time in Japan, but the smoking is something I’ll be aware of when I visit.
    Brooke of Passport Couture recently posted…Friday Afternoon At Chicago Botanic GardenMy Profile

  14. Gemma
    Gemma says:

    It’s mad to think not everyone is up to speed like our own countries, we really take it for granted. Although it’s not cigarette smoke in Van, it’s weed! It’s everywhere now you can say you have a splinter in your finger and get a prescription for it!

  15. andy
    andy says:

    yep, couldn’t agree more, its the one thing that spoils going out for dinner in japan … being taken out to a great restaurant with friends and entering through the door, getting hit in the face with smoke and knowing this is going to annoy me for the rest of the night :-(


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