The Smokatorium

Japanese attitudes towards smoking are a bit different than here in America. I was taught that it is considered rude to smoke out in public in Japan, since you are polluting other peoples’ space, but it is polite to smoke indoors, even if there are non-smokers present, as long as it is in an enclosed area where the smoke can’t escape out into the public. Even after living in Japan for a while, I still wonder if my Japanese teachers (who were nonsmokers) were just making this up, or whether such attitudes really exist, I still can’t tell.

I remember a funny story from a few years ago, the
Prime Minister (Nakasone, I think) was a chain smoker, one of his idiosyncracies was the elaborate antique lacquerware smoking set he kept on his desk. An anti-smoking group accused the Prime Minister of setting a bad example for children, he responded that he would henceforth set an example by smoking as much possible.

People in Japan feel free to smoke anywhere at all, and non-smoking zones are pretty rare. There has been considerable government resistance to establishing any sort of anti-smoking rules or anti-smoking publicity. This is largely because the Japanese Government owns 65% of Japan Tobacco and part of every tobacco purchase goes directly into the Japanese Treasury. Some people
even speculate that the Government encourages smoking because it reduces the average lifespan, killing off elderly people who would otherwise be drawing a pension, saving the taxpayers a fortune.

But those attitudes are changing. Before I left on my trip to Japan, I heard that Chiyoda-ku passed a law completely prohibiting smoking in public, and on the public sidewalks in particular. The rationale was that Chiyoda-ku has extremely crowded sidewalks in areas like Akihabara, and smoking caused a danger to others,
lit cigarettes could injure people or burn holes in their clothing. Of course that’s merely a propaganda point to give everyone a good reason to cooperate. I was skeptical that such an anti-smoking campaign could be successful.

But one day I got off the train in Akihabara, I was just about to light up, and then I noticed signs painted on the ground at every street corner, declaring that a No Smoking order was in effect everywhere in Chiyoda-ku. Nobody was smoking outside the train station, which is a pretty unusual thing. I stopped at a Police koban and asked if it was true, that smoking was completely prohibited everywhere in Chiyoda-ku. The policeman said you can not smoke on the street, but there are a couple of places where smoking was still allowed indoors. And he directed me to a place where smoking was permitted, I call it "the Smokatorium."

After you walk through the double-door airlock entrance, the first thing you notice about the Smokatorium is the overpowering density of cigarette smoke, and that every single person is smoking.
Everyone is drinking coffee and smoking, talking on the phone and smoking, reading a book and smoking, but everyone is actively smoking, and they leave immediately when they’ve finished smoking. The premise of the Smokatorium is that it’s a room with vending machines, you’re encouraged to buy a can of soda or coffee to help defray the expense of providing a smoking lounge. The smoke is so intense that you couldn’t possibly stay there longer than it takes to smoke a cigarette, and then you leave. Each table has a huge air vent built into the tabletop, you flick your ashes into the air intake, and it sucks the smoke out of the air too. The air currents are quite strong inside the room, but the wind was full of stale smoke. I thought it would be less smoky to stand close to the air intake, but quite the contrary, all the room’s smoke was rushing right past me into the vent. After smoking a cigarette, staying inside the Smokatorium for just a minute or two, I felt quite ill like I’d been suffocating for lack of oxygen, my clothes reeked of smoke, I wanted to take a bath and change my clothes. Perhaps this was the whole point of the Smokatorium, negative reinforcement.

And the negative reinforcement is right up in your face. Covering the walls of the Smokatorium are anti-smoking posters, I saw one and immediately burst into laughter at the silly infographic-style images. I’ve posted a couple of those graphics in this story, and you can inspect the entire poster by clicking on the image below.

The reason I call this place the Smokatorium is because it reminds me of the old Judge Dredd comic strip. In the future world of MegaCity, tobacco possession is totally illegal outside the Smokatorium. If you want to smoke, you must go to the Smokatorium, where you are issued a bubble helmet, it’s like a space suit helmet but it has a little hole in the faceplate where you can insert a cigarette. You exhale into the interior of the helmet and the smoke is blown out a vent into the room. The room is so thick with smoke that you can barely see, so everyone gets fresh air from their helmet’s oxygen tank, and nobody has to breathe secondhand smoke. In a comic strip I remember, someone is arrested and charged with possession of tobacco outside the Smokatorium, so Judge Dredd sentences him to an extremely stiff penalty, one minute inside the Smokatorium without a helmet.

Ever since I smoked a cigarette at the Akihabara Smokatorium, every time I smoke, I have the sensation that my nostrils and lungs are burning. So I decided to quit smoking completely. I’m wearing a nicotine patch right now, this is my 3rd day of no smoking. If I ever feel like I want a smoke, and I need to motivate myself to stay clean, I’ll just think about the couple of minutes I spent inside the Smokatorium without a helmet.

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Eicher