TOKYO >> This is a compliant city. During rush hour, a horde of commuters exiting a subway platform will not dare step onto a staircase labeled “down.” Nobody jaywalks. People don’t litter. Train operators apologize when their trains are seconds late — or even early.
A manager at the gym where I work out asked me to wear rented shoes instead of a pair of sneakers I had worn outside; my son’s soccer teammates scolded a friend when he dropped a small piece of cracker on the sidewalk.
But one group occasionally breaks the rules: smokers.
Walking to the subway on my way to work, I regularly pass a group of puffers loitering in an alley, their wafting cigarettes quietly rebuking the signs marked “No Smoking.” Once in a while, patrolling officers shoo them away, but the smokers always return.
Every time I see them, I am struck by the brazen rule-breaking, given the strict codes that govern society here.
Not so long ago, smoking was as much a part of the culture as obedience. Before my family moved here last year when I took up the post of Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, this was a smokers’ town. In previous years when we visited, it was difficult to find nonsmoking restaurants or cafes.
But more recently, the rest of the world’s no-smoking culture has spread to Japan.
As more people have grown aware of the health hazards, the number of smokers in Japan has dropped sharply, according to data from the cigarette maker Japan Tobacco. And an increasing number of employers, restaurant owners and public facilities throughout the country have voluntarily banned cigarettes after a 2002 bill that encouraged a reduction in passive smoke.
I remember being astonished the first time we saw segregated smoking lounges at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
Now train platforms, department stores and many restaurants are smoke free, while office workers who have yet to kick the cigarette habit are consigned to small smoking rooms or outside shelters. The Ueno Zoo even announced that it was considering a smoking ban to protect visitors coming to see a newborn panda.
A more drastic step may be in store. Early next year, Tokyo’s metropolitan assembly will vote on whether to ban smoking indoors in most public places, including restaurants, hotels, offices, department stores, airports, universities and gyms. Outside, smokers would be restricted to specially designated shelters or zones.
Sure, some may still break the rules. But in Japan, a country where individuals are reluctant to stand out, many people say that if such a smoking ban is imposed, they will have no choice but to follow it.
“I will be in trouble,” said Yuta Ishimoto, 40, who has a pack-a-day habit.
On a recent afternoon, he sat sending emails from his laptop and taking drags from a cigarette in a Tsubaki Café, one of a few chains of coffee shops that allow customers to light up freely. But come the ban, he shrugged, he would follow the rules. “Shikataganai,” he said, which, roughly translated, means “It can’t be helped.”
Still, as strong as the impulse is to follow the rules, the culture of smoking is also ingrained. And smoking is big business.
A law banning indoor smoking is “a totalitarian idea,” said Motoki Takeda, the director of the general affairs department of the Japan Tobacco Federation, which represents 60,000 cigarette sellers nationwide. “It’s almost like bullying the smokers.”
The national health ministry has proposed a smoking ban similar to the one Tokyo is considering. But the idea is trickier on a national level.
The governing Liberal Democratic Party has long resisted anti-smoking policies, in part because the government owns one-third of Japan Tobacco, the cigarette-maker, and taxes on cigarettes generate about 2 trillion yen ($18 billion) a year — about 3 percent of total revenues.
Many Liberal Democratic lawmakers also come from rural constituencies where tobacco farmers or mom-and-pop restaurant owners hold sway over elections.
And then there is the culture of smoking.
Some lawmakers cling to an idea of Japanese culture in which people who spend their days projecting a reserved public face can unveil their genuine selves only after hours when they congregate at pubs — known in Japan as “izakaya” — to drink, eat and smoke. That combination, they say, uniquely allows restrained personalities to relax and open up.
“The izakaya is the kind of place where you can honestly talk about your true feelings or opinions,” said Akinori Eto, the chairman of the Liberal Democrats’ tobacco committee.
The health ministry recently proposed a compromise version of its smoking ban to expand an exemption so that restaurants as large as 150 square meters, or a little over 1,600 square feet, could allow smokers.
But Tokyo is likely to stick to a stricter proposal, in part to fulfill the city’s agreement with the International Olympic Committee, which requires a smoke-free environment for the 2020 Olympics, which will be held here. The governor, Yuriko Koike, is also a strong supporter of the ban and campaigned on it during the city’s election last year.
Determined smokers figure they will spend even more time cramming into outdoor smoking shelters and parks dotted around the city. Some have switched to e-cigarettes since the proposed ordinance would not cover them.
The food service industry, worried about the potential effect on business, is heavily lobbying for a more liberal exemption for restaurants and bars.
“We demand that each restaurant can make its own decision on its smoking policy,” said Hisao Fukuda, the managing director of the Japan Foodservice Association. “Smoking customers should have the right to choose restaurants that would cater to those customers with appropriately segregated smoking environments in place.”
Musashi, a Japanese robata-style barbecue restaurant tucked down an alley behind Shimbashi Station in central Tokyo, is the kind of place that would be affected by the city ban. On a recent evening, an ashtray was placed at every table setting.
Masahiro Shibatsuka, 67, an engineer who had met up with a childhood friend for drinks and a light meal of grilled squid, said the proposed Tokyo ordinance went too far.
“It is violating people’s rights,” he said, waving a Hi-Lite brand cigarette and nursing an alcoholic lemon sour.
Koki Okamoto, a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and head of the Neighborhood Second-Hand Smoke Victims Society, said restaurants could potentially gain customers as more people stop smoking and an increasing number of families with young children seek to go out to eat.
“If they change their mindset, it will be possible to increase their profits or sales,” said Okamoto, who wrote a separate Tokyo ordinance aimed at protecting children from secondhand smoke.
On the night my colleague and I visited Musashi, nonsmokers outnumbered smokers by 2-1. And on a visit to another cafe, when my colleague and I ordered coffee, the cashier asked whether we were OK with the fact that smoking was allowed on all three floors.
At Musashi, one of the smokers I spoke to, Eri Yamamoto, 25, said she would always find a way to feed her habit. But as she chain-smoked from a pack of Winstons and shared plates of grilled fish and pints of beer with two friends, she confessed, “I really want to quit.”