In a highly stressed out country like Japan, it’s a no brainer why smoking rates here are pretty high. The majority of my friends here in Japan smoke, and most restaurants always have that overhang of stale cigarettes in the air.
Despite the number of smokers decreasing, smoking is still very common in Japan. You can expect to find people smoking openly in restaurants and bars. You can even purchase cigarettes from vending machines. Laws have been passed to prevent people from smoking in public spaces such as sidewalks, streets, parks, and government buildings.
Of course if you’re a smoker and plan on coming to Japan, there is etiquette and laws to follow. It wouldn’t be Japan otherwise! Read on to learn more about Japan’s smoking history and etiquette tips.
Smoke Stained Woodblocks
Since the 1500s, Japan has had a great deal of history and cultural developments that tie into smoking. When tobacco was first introduced to Japan by European traders, a pipe known as ‘Kiseru’ was born, and often used as a piece to flaunt one’s wealth. Typically weapons would be used as a sign of wealth, but commoners were banned from owning them, so the kiseru pipe sufficed.
With the kiseru pipe being the symbol of one’s financial status, it also ended up becoming a symbol of one’s manhood too, which could have contributed to the idea of young men smoking to appear more macho than childish. Speaking of macho. The kabukimono samurai, or street gangsters of the Edo period, often kept a kiseru hanging from their belt. Some kabukimono even had kiseru made long enough to be used as a blunt weapon. After the samurai class was abolished in the late 1800s, many sword makers became kiseru crafters.
The Rise of Modern Smoking
Through the 20th century, smoking would follow the same route in Japan as it did in the west. Smoking would be done almost everywhere, hitting its peak in 1977. As one of the world’s largest tobacco markets, many companies rushed to get into the market under Japan’s government-run monopoly until the 1980s when the monopoly ended. Laws discouraging pregnant women, mandatory health warnings on labels, and minimum age requirements were all passed to deter smoking and promote health.
Moving into the 21st Century, Japan introduced Taspo. A card referred to as ‘smoker’s passport’ that verifies the holder’s age. These cards would be used in tandem with cigarette vending machines throughout Japan. A decade later, smoking in public places would be prohibited, stopping people from smoking in the streets, sidewalks, and parks. Today you can find designated smoking boxes all around cities, a place to go if you want secondhand smoke.
In the run-up to the 2020 Olympics, Japan has been making big moves to curb smoking to make things more ‘tourist friendly’. Recently restaurants, with the exception of smaller ones, must now prohibit or have seperate rooms for smoking. Our local Mos Burger just recently renovated to reflect this, and we expect to see more of these changes from other restaurants before April as the law goes into effect then.
If you smoke and are coming to Japan to visit or even stay long term, you’ll definitely want to learn and read up about the various laws and etiquettes behind smoking in Japan so you don’t find yourself paying fines for breaking the law. When I first came to Japan, I was taken aback by how both strict and lenient the laws are. You’ll almost never find people smoking openly outside, but when you step into a restaurant or bar, you’ll most certainly see the majority of customers lighting up.
But why is this? You should already know as I mentioned it before in this article. But if you just skimmed through, then let me rephrase that smoking publicly in Japan is absolutely prohibited! This ban extends to sidewalks, streets, buses, trains, train stations, station platforms, and basically anywhere else that is outside designated smoking areas. That’s right, Japan has set aside areas for smoking. You can spot these areas easily by their giant glass enclosures labeled “Smoking Area”, and are usually placed around train stations. Some restaurant chains, hotels, and other buildings will also have small smoking rooms you can utilize.
This should be common sense considering what was said above, but you shouldn’t smoke while walking either or drop your cigarette butts on the ground. It’s recommended to carry a portable ashtray with you as normal ashtrays can only be found in smoking areas. If you are wanting to be a little more discreet while smoking in Japan, I can recommend an iQOS smoking device that heats up the cigarette rather than burning it, creating way less smoke.
If you vape, you may be surprised to learn that vaping pens with nicotine stored inside are highly restricted and near illegal. I don’t think you’ll be able to enter the country without it being confiscated or at least the nicotine alone. If you are using a vape without nicotine however, you should be fine.
Now, typically restaurants are the safe haven for smokers. Most small restaurants allow it, and it’s not uncommon to have dinner with a group of friends who are blowing smoke all over you and your food. However, Japan’s attitude toward smoking is drastically changing with new anti-smoking laws being passed. If you absolutely need to smoke, be sure to check for no smoking signs, or even ask if it’s okay to smoke. If you’re too afraid to ask, just observe your surroundings. If you don’t see anyone smoking, then more than likely that place doesn’t allow it.
Need to buy a pack of cigarettes? Now I don’t condone smoking, but for the sake of being helpful to you as a reader, I’ll tell you exactly where and how to buy a pack, as well as some places to go for enthusiasts. Japan offers a couple of specialty stores that offers exclusive varieties of tobacco and cigars you can only get in Japan. Although cigars aren’t popular in Japan, the small community ensures that these specialty stores stay in business.
The most convenient way to get a pack of cigarettes is at a kiosk or convenience stores like 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart. If you’re a picky smoker, be sure to look up Japan’s popular selection of cigarettes as your preferred one might not be so popular or even sold here. When at the counter, you should notice that each cigarette pack is labeled with a number, so just tell the clerk the number associated with the pack you want to buy. Keep in mind that the legal age for smoking in Japan is 20 years old, and the clerk is obligated to ask for your I.D. if you look underage. If this is the case, listen for the Japanese phrase “Nenrei kakunin yoroshideshou ka?” and show them your passport.
The second and most introverted way to get a pack of cigarettes, is from the many vending machines throughout Japan. Fortunately there are limits to these vending machines, otherwise you’d see kids buying a pack from them without the need of an I.D. Not to say they’d just commit fraud by taking their dad’s Taspo card. Just kidding, I don’t think that ever happens here. But yeah, as mentioned before, you’ll need to get a Taspo card to have access to these vending machines. Taspo cards are only available to legal residents, so you might be out of luck with this option as a tourist.
Hobbyist? Well Japan is the place for you. Throughout cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, you can find unique smoking shops. Usually these shops take on a vintage or retro appearance. I’ve seen pipe shops, cigar shops, and even shops selling rolling papers and wraps. Some shops specialize in selling products you can only find in their shop, while others sell premium cigars including Cohibas. While on the subject of cigar smoking, Japan is also known for having smoke lounges and bars.
Stress Free Smoking
There you have it. A complete guide on where to buy and smoke in Japan. With this knowledge in mind, you should be able to light up stress free without the worry of being arrested or fined. Most of what was stated above is very common sense based. To summarize, don’t smoke outside of designated smoking areas.
If you follow the last sentence, you shouldn’t have any issues at all during your stay here.