Week 4: たばこ (Smoking)


One of the major public health risks in Japan that has been treated differently, culturally speaking, than in the US is smoking. Until 1985, the Japanese government owned the largest tobacco company in the country, Japan Tobacco, and they still own two-thirds of it. Lawsuits calling for tighter regulation and even health warnings have been scrapped. How could a country known for being so healthy embrace a decidedly unhealthy habit? This article from This Japanese Life offers some insights on the matter.
As it turns out, there’s an interesting paradox when it comes to smoking in the Japanese population: they smoke more, but have lower rates of lung cancer (although smoking is the major cause of it by a large margin). There are several reasons as to why: Although the Japanese smoke more cigarettes, they usually do not finish them, leaving quite a bit behind. They start later, with about 60% starting after the age of 20 (the age of majority, and the age required to purchase cigarettes). And, perhaps most surprisingly, they drink lots of tea, which has been shown to be an excellent cancer preventative. Finally, Japan’s view of smoking as a moral choice rather than a disgusting habit, even now, is certainly an interesting one. And the smoker’s paradox is quite unlike anything in other powers of its size.

This week’s vocabulary:

肺 (はい): the lungs
Are you traveling to Beijing? Please check the air pollution levels. I’ve heard the air there can be bad for your lungs.

肝臓 (かんぞう): the liver
The liver is the largest of the internal organs.

胃 (い): the stomach
I ate a lot recently, and my stomach hurts. Do you have any antacid with you?

脳 (のう): the brain
I think doing math is a good idea. It’s important for your brain!

腎臓 (じんぞう): the kidneys
A: 腎臓が気になります。
B: もっと水を飲めばいいでしょう。
A: I’m concerned about my kidneys.
B: Then drinking more water would be a good idea.

Japanese attitudes towards smoking not as a health problem, but as a social/moral problem, would never fly in the US, Canada, or even other countries within Asia. Compared to stern warnings on packages and commercials that show, say, graphic images of diseased lungs, Japan gets a relative slap on the wrist. And the fact that their rate of lung cancer is low compared to other countries, which also shocked me. And yet, the rate of smokers keeps falling every year, which may suggest a shifting trend towards the other end of the scale. Then again, maybe this shouldn’t be all that surprising because of the very healthy Japanese lifestyle, but every country has their unhealthy habits. Next week, I think I’m going to take a look at how the Japanese look at another lifestyle-oriented disease common in Westernized societies: obesity.

Other sources on the subject:


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