My call for a boycott of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, has far greater consequences than the celebration of the successes of advantaged youth. My concern is in the interest of public health, safety, and comfort.
Japan has failed miserably. To date, Japan’s smoking laws and regulations have done little in the way of public health. For a nation so often touting and pushing an agenda of personal health and fitness, it is quite ironic that it cannot - or more likely, doesn’t want to - get a hold of its inadequate and archaic smoking culture. Much of this writing will be anecdotal, but I assure you it is not without merit.
The World Health Organization had given the Land of the Rising Sun a big red “F” on its smoking laws when compared to every other developed nation. Yet, Japan refuses to accept the fact that smoking is at best a public nuisance, and more accurately a public health hazard. Part of this has to do with the fact that Japanese people just don’t like change. And the process of change is not as simple as many other modern cultures, especially in the West. It requires endless deliberation and discussion among countless people, over and over again. (this applies to nearly everything; last year I had to change my address by a single digit, my apartment number, and it took three visits and just as many days for the process to go through all the proper [ahem, redundant] channels)
But more likely, this lack of change of its smoking laws stems from the fact that the government has monstrous monetary ties to the tobacco industry. Indeed it gets a remarkable windfall from taxation, and as well the tobacco industry, like many industries in the U.S., is sleeping all cozy with to the politicians, legs and arms tangled up like spaghetti. “But it’s Japanese culture.” That argument doesn’t work for me at all. Cultures are not static and they certainly all have room for improvement. Consider American culture 200, 100, or even 50 years ago. Should it have stayed as is? I think not. No, Japan should be embarrassed. Culture my ass.
Recently a proposal by the Ministry of Health to ban smoking in all indoor public spaces was vehemently opposed and shot down by Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, citing that the law unfairly infringes on the rights of smokers. Huh, what? Really? First of all, exposing the public to dangerous toxins through secondhand smoke is not a RIGHT of anyone. One could twist and stretch the definition and suggest it’s a privilege instead. Even so, it’s a pretty damn unfair privilege. What about my RIGHT to live a healthy lifestyle? My RIGHT to breathe clean air while eating my dinner or walking down the street without the worry of some selfish, weak, indulgant asshole exposing me to his bad habit? Whether or not the position of the party is about smokers’ rights or their own yen-filled pockets, it’s a bogus opposition and I call bullshit. An article published in Japan Times quotes a high-ranking politician from the Liberal Democratic Party: “As a cigarette lover, I feel like this is not a good idea — how would I live if smoking is banned everywhere?” Um, really dude? How would you live? Maybe you should just get on with NOT living then? Favor to all those sensible.
There is not a single day - not one - that passes where I am not exposed to someone’s tobacco smoke. On my ride to work every morning, and on my ride home every evening, I have to deal with the mountain winds carrying foul, harmful fumes directly across my path from someone on the sidewalk. Seconds after leaving the house I have to pass the stone workers and road crews puffing away while on the job. (it’s okay, apparently) Moreover, nearly every business accommodates smokers with ashtrays just outside the door (and many inside, as well) where grungy laborers and cocky, overworked cookie-cutter salarymen puff away on their crap sticks as fiercely as they waste away their days and nights in an office. All the while, the bicycles of local junior and high school students - 12, 14, 16 years old - are parked right next to said ashtrays. There is no barrier, no proper separation to protect the community’s youth; just more appeasing of smokers puffing away on their stupid sticks. I’ve witnessed a man walking out of a smoking room at the mall (yes, that exists: most restaurants allow smoking anywhere, or at best have a designated smoking area that is either not separated from the rest of the room or uses a stupid technology called an “air curtain” which is supposed to suck the bad air out before it goes anywhere else. They don’t work, I promise you) with his young daughter who was likely not old enough to be one of my elementary students. I’ve watched a man at an indoor skateboard park smoking a cigarette with his two-year-old child on his lap, engulfed in a cloud of filth. I pass countless vehicles on the roadways with drivers puffing away while little heads of young children bop about in the passenger seat. For the life of me, I refuse to believe that these people are that stupid and ignorant to not be aware of the health hazards of secondhand smoke. I cannot believe that. These are smart people. They build robots and reliable compact cars. So if they’re aware it’s bad – which they undoubtedly are – then that means they're simply just assholes. And that’s far worse. Talking about rights again, what about the rights of those little kids that have to tolerate this shit with their little undeveloped lungs? Again, I call bullshit.
It doesn’t matter also that now there are, while few and far between, designated non-smoking areas and sidewalks, (mostly in Tokyo and a few other major cities) as these laws are not enforced and in fact just completely ignored. Or again, the smoking areas are just sitting right next to the rest of the public space where hundreds of pedestrians pass every minute, with no real barrier between clean and dirty air. The city of Yokohama, about 20 minutes south of Tokyo, was the first in Japan to pass “sweeping” nonsmoking laws in its public spaces. In the few years since the law went into effect, there had been over 2000 infractions of the law. Yet not one offender had been prosecuted, not one fine issued, not one infraction enforced in any way. NOT ONE. By this logic, why would anybody bother to change his or her behavior? It's laughable, in a sad sort of way.
Lately, I’ve had my fill. I’m done with it. Years ago in the States, I used to get out of my car at traffic lights when someone dropped a cigarette butt out of the window and onto the street, and I’d pick it up and flick it into the cabin of the car, stating with totally fake kindness, “you dropped this.” Nowadays that behavior might get me shot in the U.S. of A(rmed maniacs). But here in Japan, I have taken to confronting the offenders of these laws. Just today, I yelled at the neighbor across from me for the second time, who sits on his step every day and smokes while it blows directly into my apartment through the windows. Today he pretended to ignore me until I got exceptionally nasty. My space, my right to be comfortable and healthy, period. I have put aside all Japanese-style politeness - no “oh, gee golly, uh, excuse me...” - and I now approach smokers with a direct, blunt, in-your-face demand (the angry Gaijin) to put it out or move the fuck away. On many occasions, I am looked at with an expression of, “I’m breaking the law, what’s the big deal?” or, “Huh? What? What am I doing wrong?” I can only explain this with the likelihood that, as is the Japanese way, nobody speaks up about anything. Nobody is willing to say, “Hey, you can’t really do that here.” And as a result, nobody thinks it’s any big deal. Or, maybe they do know they’re breaking the rules, but they know better that nobody will say or do anything, so they continue with their selfish and rude defiance. But not me. The BUTT stops here. I’m dousing the fire. Extinguishing the flame. As soon as I see them, or get a whiff of polluted molecules in my airspace, I’m on my feet and in their face. So as long as Japan refuses to acknowledge that it’s living in 1975 or refuses to curb its behavior to catch up with the developed world, I will continue this guerrilla approach to make aware that I’m not having it, and neither should the rest of the world. Lots of people will be planning to attend the 2020 Games in Japan. A hell of a lot of them will be - should be - flabbergasted that one of the world’s leading economies can’t get a grip on one of the simplest tasks for the health of its people and the tourists this country desperately needs to maintain to keep its shrinking nation from going to ghost town. So there it is. I want the world to hold off on its plans to attend the 2020 Young, Beautiful and Sponsored contest. I want Japan to realize it's beyond time for a major policy and attitude change. And unless Japan can muster some russet potato-sized balls, I suggest you invest your tourism dollars elsewhere.