While tobacco is a declining business in most of the world, Japan’s industry has largely managed to stay strong. Here you’ll find a much more smoker-friendly environment than in most Western countries. This is because the tobacco lobby is generally very strong, due in part to the fact that the government finance ministry owns about a third of the Japanese Tobacco Inc! Although only around 20% of Japanese people smoke nowadays, at one point in the 20th century, over half the population were smokers.
All that being said, there are still a few important rules to observe for smokers when visiting Japan to make sure you don’t fall foul of the country’s regulations. You can smoke in a large number of restaurants, bars, and clubs, but smoking on the street is generally frowned upon. You’ll also want to be sure to stick to designated smoking areas and be careful not to leave any cigarette butts or other trash behind.
As long as you stick to some basic rules of etiquette and don’t act entitled to light a cigarette wherever you go, you’ll do just fine. Here’s a quick overview of where you can buy cigarettes in Japan, where you’re allowed to smoke, and where you need to exercise some caution.
Cigarette Prices and Purchases
If you’re from a country where the government has launched a tax crusade against smoking, such as the UK or Australia, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the prices here. A pack of 20 cigarettes from a domestic brand costs just around ¥400. These brands include the multi-flavored Seven Stars and Mevius, which are great in terms of the price-to-quality ratio.
As for International brands, you’ll find most of the big US and Australian companies selling their wares here, at slightly higher prices hovering around ¥500. Unlike other countries where cigarette branding has been hamstrung by regulation and forced to only use plain packaging, in Japan you’ll find all the familiar logos and colors (for better or worse).
No matter which you’re buying, you’ll have to confirm that you’re over 20 years of age by providing photo ID. Well… I say that, but in reality no foreigner is ever really asked for ID at a store in Japan, unless they’re very clearly underage. Instead, you’ll just have to tap a button on the shop’s touchscreen register to pinky promise you’re of legal age.
At vending machines, it’s another story entirely. You can only get cigarettes out of the street-level cigarette vending machines if you hold a Taspo card. This is an age-verified card which must be used in lieu of the discretion of sales staff. The process of getting hold of one requires being ID’d and filling out a form at a licensed tobacco retailer, so short-term visitors are as well just going to a convenience store instead.
The monopolistic Japanese Tobacco corporation has actually invested quite a bit of money in promoting smoking etiquette, hoping to curb many of the problems caused by second-hand smoke by appealing to people’s sense of common decency rather than suffering the economic hit of incurring strict government regulation.
For that reason, you’ll find designated smoking areas along many major avenues in Japan, with glass partitions and clear signage — kind of like the smoking areas at nightclubs in Europe, minus the vomit. They’re also commonly found at train stations and shopping centers, so just follow the signs at any major destination to find one; even parks and stores will often have a designated smoking area. You’ll usually find that they have ashtrays inside, although many Japanese smokers also carry portable ashtrays in their jacket pockets.
Despite the evil reputation that Big Tobacco has, the Japanese arm does right by their customers as far as protecting their comfort and civil liberties goes. If only they were as concerned about their health…
Smoking in Bars and Restaurants
Japanese bars and clubs used to be as smoky as Western ones were in the 80s, until recent guidelines came into place. In April 2020, a new ordinance was issued banning indoor smoking in anywhere besides designated hotel rooms, private residences, cigar bars, and some older bars and restaurants.
Despite this new legislation, the actual effects on the ground are limited. As mentioned before, the tobacco lobby is very powerful in Japan, so regulations around smoking are often loosely enforced, based more on interpersonal etiquette than top-down directives. Generally, if a bar or restaurant has been running as a smoker-friendly establishment for years, it still does now.
I mean, if you visited before this law came into effect, you would certainly have been spoiled for choice as far as restaurant smoking sections were concerned. However, nowadays your options are somewhat more limited. A lot of local bars and cafes still allow it, and it’s almost a given that nightclubs do as well. Basically, the law falls well short of the blanket bans imposed in other countries, so nobody is going to scowl at you if you ask for an ashtray in a bar, or call the police if you light up in your club booth.
Smoking When Traveling
All public transport is a total no-go as far as smoking is concerned. Even translation platforms are off-limits, so you’ll have to seek out designated smoking areas (only available at the bigger stations). Once you’re on the train or bus, you’ll also have to hold back your urges until your journey is over.
Depending on where you’re traveling, this could be for quite a while — even most of the cross-country Shinkansen trains don’t allow smoking. If this is a total deal-breaker for you, then consider booking a seat on the Tokaido or Sanyo Shinkansen, both of which are equipped with well-ventilated smoking rooms on board.
As a general rule when on public transport, or anywhere else in Japan, don’t assume you’re permitted to light a cigarette unless there’s a sign explicitly saying so. The authorities are usually heavy on the signage, so following these pictorial guides can help you avoid any awkward multi-lingual conversations with police or service staff.
Smoking Tech and Vaping
If you’ve made the wise switch from cigarettes to vaporizers, then you should be aware that Japanese culture places basically the same expectations on these devices as cigarettes. That being said, vaping on the street is not actually illegal, it might just incur some dirty looks from locals. Also, be aware that individual restaurants and bars have their own policies on vaping. You’re not likely to come across many issues if your device creates a little cloud, but if you’re firing out sheer-white plumes like Smaug the Terrible, expect a stern talking to.
For a distinctly Japanese alternative to plain smoking, you could try out the iQOS. This device was developed by Philip Morris — the largest tobacco company in the world — as a gambit to combat the declining popularity of smoking worldwide, but it’s largely yet to catch on outside of Japan. Basically, you place your tobacco capsule (or actual cigarette for some devices) into the machine, and it will heat up the tobacco enough to create smoke, but not enough that it combusts and releases the full range of toxins.
I mean, it might be a genius feat of marketing that the purveyors of toxic death sticks can ask us for more money in order to not release the full deadly potential of their product, but capitalism is a strange and beautiful beast.
Despite the generally smoker-friendly culture in Japan, you should still be careful. Wherever you visit in the country, familiarize yourself with local rules and regulations, because failing to do so could result in a ¥1000 to 5000 yen fine for something as small as dropping a cigarette end on the street, depending on the jurisdiction. When going out to eat or drink, as long as you confirm the situation with the staff at each individual place you go to — using a simple “smoking OK?” and accompanying gesture — you should be good to go.