JIN-338 -- Who Will Guard us from the Guardians of Health?

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News

Issue No. 338
Wednesday September 21, 2005 TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT: Who Will Guard us from the Guardians of Health?
1. The tobacco pandemic
2. Pearls of wisdom from an "elite"


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+++ VIEWPOINT: Who Will Guard us from the Guardians of Health?
1. The tobacco pandemic

I sometimes go to Wendy's on the Isezakicho Mall in Yokohama for
a fried chicken sandwich and, if in a health-conscious mode, salad
and orange juice rather than fries and coke. Not gourmet fare, but
cheap and filling. The place is somewhat of a hangout for plebeian
types haunting the mall. This hoi polloi linger over coffee and cigarettes
until a pall of smoke hangs in the air.

So I was surprised one Saturday to notice a sign saying "NO SMOKING
ON SATURDAYS AND SUNDAYS." I presumed this was to attract
families. Progress, I thought. A month or two later the sign was gone,
and the piles of aluminum ashtrays were back. Wendy's had chosen
the bottom line over clean air. So much for progress.

The percentage of Japanese men who smoke remains high, and the rate
for Japanese women would seem to be creeping upward. You don't
need to resort to statistics. Just look around you on the street. At almost
anytime of day there is bound to be at least one person puffing in your
field of vision. There are even moments when it's hard to find someone
who's not.

The causes of this tobacco pandemic are numerous. One is the lack of
a vigorous program of anti-smoking education at all levels of society.
Even those who presumably should know better do not. A case in point
is Yoshinori Hiroi (44).

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2. Pearls of wisdom from an "elite"

Hiroi graduated from the University of Tokyo, Japan's Harvard, and
entered the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry. He is what
the Japanese call an "elite." Below are excerpts from a recent
"Nikkei Shimbun" interview with this Todai grad and guardian of
societal health.

"I smoke, but I'm not suggesting others should. Yet I'm not comfortable
with the idea that smoking is absolutely bad. The global trend is toward
kicking the habit, and Japan is said to lag behind the US in anti-smoking
regulations. But people smoking cigarettes are a fixture of the cafe
scene in France and Britain.

"Disease results from the complex interaction of many factors including
stress, work, and lifestyle. America strictly regulates tobacco usage;
yet Americans have shorter life-spans than Japanese. The level of health
in the US is low for a advanced nation, and the obesity rate is high. It is
odd to single out smoking as the sole thing bad for health."

Smoke and mirrors from the ministry man.

"Americans reduce everything to one-on-one cause-and-effect
relationships and divide things into good and bad. I feel the assertion
smoking is bad results from this simplistic American way of thinking.
Of course, smokers should not inconvenience non-smokers. But it is not
necessary to enforce regulations so strict they are tantamount to
prohibiting tobacco."

The smoking man seems under siege.

Here the interviewer points out that during the last ten years smoking
has come under intense criticism in Japan and that most Japanese
smokers used to give almost no consideration to non-smokers.
This elicits agreement and a theory from Hiroi.

"I acknowledge that. But looking back, I would say that this was less
a question of manners than a problem of the fabric of Japanese society.
Japan was an agricultural village society formed from concentric groups
revolving around the self or the family. You showed consideration toward
others in the group but gave little heed to those outside the group.
The high economic growth of the postwar era engendered a great
migration from farming villages to cities. The company substituted for
the village, but people had not acquired an urban etiquette for dealing
with other sorts of people. On the other hand, American-style
rationalism has suffused Japanese society on a superficial level.

"However, in this age of nearly zero economic growth people can no
longer center their lives on company and family and treat others as

So what does Hiroi recommend?

"The village-society-like theory of excluding heretics and Americans'
making tobacco the bad guy are both wrong.

"Individuals should accept responsibility for the ill effects of tobacco and
not inflict them on others. If you act within those limits, others should
mind their own business.

"In broad terms, this a problem of the relationship between the individual
and the community. Even if you over-elevate the individual as in America,
or overemphasize the community as in Japan, there will be friction.
I think what's needed is a common-sense balance between
the independent individual and community as seen in European
countries and individualism in the good sense of the word."

Which presumably means more al fresco cafes wreathed in tobacco
smoke. Who will guard us from the guardians of health?

--Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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