As many of you may know, I hail from San Francisco, California. Living out there, I kind of forgot that smoking was a thing that humans actually do. It’s prohibited virtually anywhere a living creature might be inhaling oxygen, which I believe leaves about a 50 km stretch out in the Mojave Desert that is actually OK for smoking. I seriously can’t remember the last time I saw someone light up. Even if you did, in San Francisco of all places there’d be no less than 10 hippies who’d rain down on you and beat you with incense and Feng Shui sticks or something while bemoaning how second-hand smoke is dangerous. …That is, unless you were lighting up weed, in which case there’d be no less than 20 hippies joining you.
Anyway, coming to Japan was kind of an eye opener for me, because this is one chain-smoking country. You see it everywhere – men walking down the street, people waiting for others, idling in the car, restaurants even have smoking and non-smoking sections, something I hadn’t seen for a long time (remember: California). I’m really kind of indifferent to it, I mean do whatever you want with your life, I don’t care. I just kind of hate seeing things like fathers puffing away in the mini-van with 3 kids in the back, or mothers lighting up at the dinner table with their infant child sitting next to them. …Kids don’t have a choice.
The smoking phenomenon, of course, trickles down to the nations junior high school kids. I got my first taste of this my first day on the job actually. Before I’d come, for whatever reason I had this image of squeaky-clean, upright model Japanese students. Everyone wearing their uniforms perfectly and frantically taking notes to pass those standardized tests they were supposedly so much better at than us American kids, and trying not to fail the entrance exams so they wouldn’t ruin their lives at the tender age of 15. The JET Orientations didn’t do much to destroy this image either, only telling us things like “your students may be shy.” (In retrospect…I want to find all the people who said that to me, and beat them with something large and pulpy.) Upon meeting my predecessor, I asked him if I’d ever encounter any bad students, and what to do about them. He took about a second to think about it, and then said “Well, at one of the schools the kids can be quite bad…sometimes I catch them smoking under the train station. I usually just pull out a cig of my own and join them.”
Upstanding fellow, he was.
The school he mentioned was, of course, the Ghetto School, and again in retrospect, if I knew then what I knew now…..you know, the beating with something large and pulpy for the Gross Understatement of All Time. But yeah, Ghetto School boys smoke cigs. We see them do it. Once, I was going to a Ghetto School drinking party, and as I happened to run into Ms. Forehead along the way, we went to the train station together. Inside of the station, we found probably the worst sannensei boy, puffing away on a cig. Ms. Forehead went over to him, pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, threw it on the ground, and stepped on it to put it out. The boy responded by pulling out another sig, lighting up, and then blowing a nice puff of smoke in Ms. Forehead’s face. Ms. Forehead had to sulk away in retreat, since the train station wasn’t exactly school grounds and she had no power here. …Although even it if was school grounds she wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway. She admitted later that when she got the face full of smoke, she wanted to give the boy one of her pattented head-butts, which would have really set him straight, but didn’t because if she had, the PTA would have rushed her shit down faster than grease lightning.
We see them doing it in school too. Once I was minding my own business in the teachers room when I noticed two of the older teachers (one of whom I refer to as Ultimate Nag) had cornered one of the bad sannensei boys. They were a bit out of ear range, so I couldn’t tell what the conversation was about, but just from body language I knew they were lecturing the boy, who was denying something. After maybe ten minutes, the boy finally produced a pack of cigarettes from his blazer pocket. In almost that exact moment, Ultimate Nag reared back and slapped the ever-loving-shit out of that kid. I’m not sure, but she might have slapped the Japanese right outta him, it was that fierce. I don’t think I saw her hand actually move, just after-images or something. In all my life, I have only seen two other space and time warping smacks that exceed this one. One was Jack Bauer’s legendary teleport punch in Season 3 of 24, and the other was Ms. Americanized whacking the kid who asked if she was still a virgin.
And if you’re wondering why Ultimate Nag didn’t fear the PTA like Ms. Forehead did, it’s because Ultimate Nag is a Japanese Obachan and they simply feel no fear nor pain of death. This is why you can’t make a movie or anything featuring a little old Japanese lady in mortal danger, because it just doesn’t work. You could have the monster from Aliens breathing it’s hot, musty breath into the Japanese obasan’s face, and then it would open its ferocious-toothed mouth and the little Alien head would emerge and also breathe it’s hot, slimy breath on the obasan, and she’d just slap the shit outta both of them. And then she’d take the alien’s seat on the train, cause that’s how they roll.
Eventually, the teachers at the Ghetto School just kind of gave up on the sannensei in general. Their final solution was to just clear out one of the classrooms and let them use that as their personal space. At any point during the day you could find several sannensei boys in the open classroom smoking, fighting, reading manga, listening to rap music, and all sorts of things you’d never imagine would take place within a school. I’d love to tell you more, but I kind of considered that room to be lost ground, and made it a point to kind of steer clear of it.
How do 15-year old boys obtain cigarettes, you might ask? Why, from vending machines, of course! This is the country where you can buy anything from vending machines, from dinner to schoolgirl panties. And the beautiful thing about vending machines is, they don’t discriminate. One day, I went to the local convienence store and found some of the bad sannensei boys there. As I bought my stuff, the cashier asked me if those boys were students of mine. I told her that yes, unfortunately they were. She told me that they often come in and try to buy cigarettes. Obviously, they’re just junior high kids, so she refuses them. They then just walk outside and buy cigarettes from the vending machine outside.
The schools do at least make an effort to steer kids in the non-smoking direction. Every now and then I see them playing “The Dangers of Smoking” videos for kids in the health classes. Sometimes, the video plays back in the teachers room, and it’s funny because the male teachers always take great offense to it. “Shut that shit off!” one teacher said once, and before the video could get to the part where they show a blackened human diaphram, the video was unceremoniously shut down. I kind of wonder how effective the school’s anti-smoking campaigns are, when the majority of the male teachers (and some of the female ones too) rush to the break area immediately after one class in order to puff down on a cig before the next. One of my male English teachers used to keep his cigs in his shirt pocket, which was always clearly visible right there in class.
Once I went into the break room at the School of Peace to make some tea, and I ran into the mathmatics teacher who was enjoying a cigarette. He casually asked if I smoked and I told him that I didn’t. He said that the number of smokers in Japan is going down (I don’t see it…) and the number of places where a person can smoke are also decreasing. He said this with such sadness in his voice too, as if instead of smoking trends he was talking about how his favorite puppy had been brutally murdered and casually mixed into a can of Pork ‘N Beans. In the spirit of continuing small talk, I said that it seemed that Japan was gradually heading towards a non-smoking society. He gave me a look as if not only was I the one who’d killed the puppy, but I’d eaten the puppy Pork ‘n Beans as well, said “Hmm, maybe that’s true”, and then simply never spoke to me again.
And no, I don’t think Japan is heading towards a non-smoking society. The Japanese would just as soon tear off their own limbs than give up smoking.