Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Japan: can local action do the trick?
  1. William S Richardson School of Law
  2. The University of Hawai'i at Manoa, USA
  3. levin{at}

    Statistics from

    Request Permissions

    If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

    In a number of areas of law and policy in Japan today, the cutting edge has been shifting from the national government to local governments. Historically, local governments have been disabled by the constitutionally stronger central government, but in recent years, power seems to be shifting as the central government's inertia during the 1990s decade long recession has weakened its footing.

    This trend is evident in tobacco policy where local tobacco control efforts are actively underway. While the 2000 failure of a national tobacco consumption reduction plan (“Healthy Japan 21” or HJ21) illustrated the central government's limited engagement in tobacco control policy, since the early 1990s, local governments have stepped forward to establish increased non-smoking areas in public spaces and controls on cigarette butt littering. Now, two new contentious issues are emerging: controls on outdoor vending machines, and aggressive local public health promotion campaigns.

    With regards to non-smoking areas, local governments throughout Japan have been active in defining non-smoking areas in city halls, public transport, parks, and other public spaces. The seating areas of major league baseball stadiums in Yokohama and Kobe were designated non-smoking in 2000. In April 2001, Miyagi Prefecture joined a long list of prefectures with improved restrictions in government offices by switching from having just two hours per day of “no smoking time” to a full time smoking prohibition, albeit with a limited number of designated smoking areas.

    Cigarette butt littering ordinances emerged in Japan through the 1990s. The first was enacted in rural Kitano Village of Fukuoka Prefecture in October 1992. The following November, Wakayama City became the first major population centre with such a rule. By November 1997, 130 cities, towns, and villages had enacted cigarette butt littering ordinances. Only three years later, a November 2000 article in theJapan Times reported that nearly one thousand municipalities had jumped on the bandwagon.

    Littering ordinances are politically easy to accomplish but have accomplished relatively limited results. Although most ordinances include the potential for fines in their enforcement mechanisms, no one knows of any fine ever having been imposed. Osaka City conducted a survey in 1993 that showed 60% of walking smokers to be throwing their cigarette butts away and that tobacco butts made up 90% of road litter. A similar survey in 1998 showed the number of butt-throwing walking smokers had not decreased at all despite a cigarette butt littering ordinance and significant public educational campaigns.

    New battles are now being drawn with regard to controls on outdoor vending machines and local governments' public health promotion campaigns. In December 2000, Mayor Takayoshi Hirasawa of rural Fukaura Village in Aomori Prefecture announced plans to submit to his village council Japan's first prohibition on outdoor vending machines. At stake in the March 2001 proposal were only 32 of Japan's 625 900 cigarette vending machines. Nevertheless, the controversy attracted national media attention and the full weight of tobacco industry lobbying pressure. As with the first cigarette butt ordinance, both sides recognised that rural villages can serve as the harbingers of more widespread changes. The village council passed the non-punitive restrictions by a sweeping 13 to 3 vote.

    A number of local governments have begun to implement HJ21 policies with aggressive anti-smoking campaigns. These too have attracted strong industry opposition, which in at least some cases has derailed well intentioned plans. But a few governments have resurrected the HJ21 methodology of evidence based programmes with numerical targets. Most notable is Itami City in Hyogo Prefecture's ambitious goal to eliminate all adult smoking in the city of 190 000 by 2010. Others, such as Machida City's Public Health Centre, have refused to tone down messages explaining the hazards of smoking, rejecting the demands of tobacco industry representatives to include references to purported benefits of smoking, such as “boosting concentration and promoting communication”. Meanwhile, perhaps bowing to pressure from the Ministry of Finance, the national Ministry of Health Welfare and Labour remains relatively quiet, providing little apparent support for these local public health initiatives.