Why Is There Still So Much Smoking In Anime?

by Justin Sevakis, Feb 24th 2016

Chris asks:

Nowadays it's very rare to see people smoking tobacco in Western media, wether it be on tv shows or films. When it does happen, it's usually seen in a very negative light, mostly due to people in this day and age being more knowledgeable of the adverse effects of tobacco smoking. My question is why are there still a number of anime (and manga) featuring tobacco smokers? It's hardly ever commented on as being a bad thing, and I find it odd that a country with such strict laws when it comes to recreational drugs as Japan doesn't feel that tobacco smoking is something that perhaps shouldn't be featured so prominently in their media. Is it meant to look cool, or is it simply a way of conveying a character's maturity? Or perhaps there are many people who still continue to smoke tobacco in Japan?

There's still smoking in anime because there's still nowhere near as much stigma about smoking in Japan as there is in the US. In 2007 there was a huge multi-million dollar lobbying campaign to rid American movies of smoking, demanding that cigarette use would slap a movie with an R rating. That part was a little ridiculous, but nonetheless, the campaign worked: smoking is now at least factored into MPAA ratings, and most major studios agreed that smoking should stay out of youth-targeted films. There has absolutely never been anything like that happening in Japan.

Japan has long had a crazy number of smokers compared to the US. The Japanese tobacco industry was run entirely by the government until 1985, which still controls 1/3 of of the industry. Up until quite recently, Japan was notorious for allowing smoking everywhere. People would think it was funny to blow smoke into babies' faces. People who wanted fresh air were basically just left to their own devices -- it was like America as seen in Mad Men.

Historically, smoking was mostly a guys' thing -- it was usually seen as a masculine, or un-ladylike thing to do. Smoking rates among women never rose very far above 10%, despite a brief surge in the 90s. But there was very little social stigma overall, and the government was largely hands-off about it, ignoring the addictive aspects of nicotine and considering it the personal choice of the smoker.

Smoking peaked in 1996 (at which point 37% of the country smoked), and has been on the decline ever since. These days about 30% of Japanese men and 10% of Japanese women smoke, according to a 2014 study, placing Japan at about 3% higher per-capita than the US but 8% below France. Cigarettes are still sold in vending machines, but purchasing a pack now requires an age verification ID card called a Taspo card.

Things have changed substantially in the last decade. While cigarettes are still ludicrously cheap (around ¥450 a pack), more and more areas now prohibit smoking in public. Contrary to laws in many American cities, smoking areas of bars and restaurants are one of the few places it IS still allowed. There has never been any mandatory large-scale smoking bans (although several prefectures have instituted them on a local level), and most chain restaurant owners have not instituted chain-wide bans (with the notable exception of Starbucks). However, outside streets, train platforms, and other public areas are now off-limits, after a few big news scandals about kids running into people holding lit cigarettes. Initially bans in neighborhoods like Shinjuku and Shibuya were for the stated purpose of controlling litter (which was probably a passive-aggressive way of trying not to appear too up in smokers' business) but now local governments like Kyoto Prefecture are openly stating that they're trying to completely eradicate second-hand smoke.

It's increasingly rare, even in the anime business, for people to be able to smoke at their desks -- separately ventilated designated smoking areas must be used in most offices. The days of Miyazaki and other animators with a giant overflowing ashtray on their desks, puffing away as they work, are pretty much gone. However, Japan still lags behind other first-world countries when it comes to more sweeping anti-smoking campaigns and enforcement. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is severely handicapped in what it can do, since the Ministry of Finance is still part-owner of the tobacco industry, reaping its rewards, and has a law on the books that requires the government to keep supporting its growth.

There is very little shame about smoking, and so in anime you see characters light up all the time, along with dramatic stomping of cigarette butts. While there is new pressure to cut down on smoking so that the country isn't embarrassed during the 2020 Olympics, there doesn't seem to be much pressure on the entertainment industry to curb its depictions of smoking. And until that happens, it will be a tool in a director's arsenal to build out a character. Directors don't let go of such dramatic tools easily.

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Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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