For centuries, smoking in Japan was unregulated and subjected to few, if any, legal restrictions. Some studies suggest that more than 25% of the total population in Japan smoke, and cigarettes were long available in vending machines where even those under the legal age could purchase them. 21st century policies have changed the laws somewhat, and some believe the new laws are a precursor to a ban on smoking in all public places, country wide.
The tobacco industry has historically wielded considerable influence over laws regarding smoking in Japan. While the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe began to pass increasingly strict laws regarding smoking, Japan kept permissible policies and did not spend much time enforcing the laws they had in place. In 1999, the Health Ministry of Japan set a goal to cut smoking rates by 50% within 11 years, though they were not met with much success. After joining the World Health Organization’s efforts to stop tobacco use in 2004, smoking in Japan became much more difficult, but it is not illegal.
One of the first major changes was to implement identification scans in vending machines that sell cigarettes. These scans help to ensure that no-one under the legal age of 20 could purchase tobacco products. In 2008, the machines began to include a facial scan that can determine age range, to prevent children from using someone else’s identification card.
A frequent complaint of tourists to Japan has been that there are no non-smoking sections in restaurants. Many non-Japanese chains, such as Starbucks, chose to instate no-smoking policies in their Japanese locations. Some Japanese cities and regions are considering passing smoking bans in restaurants, but no nationwide law has been passed.
In Tokyo and Hiroshima, smoking is banned on many of the streets and outdoor locations. Tobacco companies have thoughtfully provided community ashtrays in the few areas where smoking is still allowed. Major Tokyo cab companies have also banned smoking while in taxis. Many public trains throughout Japan now offer non-smoking and smoking cars, and this is said to be fairly well enforced, depending on the area you are in.
Recently, author Dave Sedaris decided to quit smoking by moving to Hiroshima for several months, where smoking is banned in most public places. His resulting book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, notes the comparative gentleness of warnings about smoking in Japan compared to warnings in other countries. His analysis agrees with a large portion of people against smoking in Japan, that the health risks are not taken seriously enough.
If you are a smoker and planning to visit Japan, check local laws. While there is no nationwide ban on smoking in Japan, many large cities do have strict policies governing the locations where smoking may take place. Most laws in Japan are strictly enforced, and the unwary visitor may find themselves subject to large monetary fines if they are caught breaking local smoking laws.