Monday, February 07, 2011

Cigarettes and unexpected poetry

Japan is a smoker's paradise. The kind of place where you can light up in bars, restaurants and coffee shops. The kind of place where -- paradoxically -- it's against the law to smoke on the street but perfectly acceptable to puff away inside a McDonald's.

And should you doubt how pervasive smoking really is, let me quote from the 2011 Tokyo Marathon race guide, which asks participants to "refrain from smoking while running." Because, apparently, even marathon runners are chain smokers in Japan.

Everyone talks about how Japan's lax smoking laws are changing but I don't see it. It may be true that you can no longer smoke on most trains but some long-distance trains still have smoking cars. Last year, a new guideline (not a law, just a guideline) was put in place that "strongly recommends" employers to prohibit smoking in the workplace. But, as far as I know, the teachers at the junior high school where I used to work are still smoking in the staff kitchen. And while many restaurants have smoking and non-smoking sections, the dividing line between the two is usually invisible. It makes no sense. (But, then again, neither does Hello Kitty-branded booze. So I guess it's all relative.)

It's rare to see anti-smoking messages in Japan. Instead, anti-bad-smoking-manners messages are much more common. The biggest promoter of good smoking manners is Japan Tobacco, which created a series of ads to improve the image of smoking without (not surprisingly) actually discouraging smoking itself. You can find the ads in public smoking areas all over the country. They are plastered on ashtrays in train stations and outside convenience stores. There are more than 70 different ads in total.

The ads are interesting because they are so much more than just a plea for good manners -- they are a reflection of the Japanese psyche. In Japan, one must always behave honourably, even when smoking. To be rude or selfish is to commit social suicide. The ads hit where it hurts. But they do so in a way that is clever and unintentionally poetic.

I'm kind of obsessed with these ads. Each one contains an element of surprise and delivers an emotional punch. And they manage to do so with only a few well-chosen words and simple illustrations. It's not advertising. It's art.

I started taking pictures of the ads almost two years ago. Whenever I stumble across a new one, I take a picture of it. These are a few of my favourites.

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