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Understanding Smoking

POSTCARD FROM JAPAN

By Jeffrey N. Gell

A few weeks ago, I sat down for sushi with one of my co-workers. Before I could attempt to order, my co-worker, Mr. Ishii, lit up a cigarette and ordered a round of beers. Normally, this would not be shocking. After all, nearly every day I have gone out for dinner and drinks after work, and more often than not, my hosts have been chain smokers. The odd thing about this night is that dinner came after an hour of sweating at my company's health club.

I asked Ishii-san how someone so interested in fitness and training (he prides himself on swimming 2,000 meters a day) can also smoke two packs a day. He began by denying my assertions that he has any interest in fitness (I am still not sure whether this is the truth or a case of typically Japanese understatement) and instead said he swims because he enjoys it and smokes because he likes the taste of cigarettes. He added that he drinks because everyone around him drinks.

I could sympathize with his opinion of drinking, but his reasons for swimming and smoking (he said he would smoke while swimming if the pool's water didn't extinguish his cigarettes) made little sense. I responded by asking him how he could smoke given all of the links between smoking and cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

With a very straight face, he answered, "I know I will die of cancer."

Apparently, his mother has undergone treatments for seven different types of cancer, and his father has recently been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

I asked him whether his family history gives him even more of an incentive to pay attention to his health and stop smoking. This question, however, puzzled my Japanese host. He answered that since he was going to die of cancer anyway, why should he deny himself any of life's pleasures?

Our beers came, but I decided I was really in the mood for something else. I asked for a Diet Coke. I received a blank stare. My bad. They call it Coca Cola Light out here. I tried again in broken Japanese, "Coca Cola Light Onegai-shimasu." This time, the response was only laughter--not only from the bartender/chef but also from Ishii-san and the dozen or so other people in the restaurant.

"I just don't get all of you Americans and your diet things," Ishii-san said while he was laughing. I told him that I like food so much that I would rather eat my calories than drink them, the same rationalization my parents used on me when I was a fat fourth-grader to convince me to switch to that chemical-laden elixir. Only a blank stare and a cloud of smoke even Marge Schott would envy greeted this explanation.

Ishii-san told me how the Coca-Cola marketing crew brought Coca Cola Light to Japan about 10 years ago. At first, it was everywhere.

Places that previously served only green tea began serving Diet Coke's twin sibling. Unfortunately, nobody bought it.

"What about frozen yogurt," I asked. "Sure, we have frozen yogurt in Japan," he answered. "But why would you want to eat it? It's only for school children."

Apparently, the Japanese believe in the curative powers of the yogurt culture, but yogurt's sour taste turns some children off.

Consequently, the Japanese marketing powers decided to add some fat and sugar to yogurt, freeze it, and, voila. Apparently, after the failure of Coca Cola Light, the marketing gurus were not going to make another blunder by introducing America's favorite sugar-free, fat-free dessert. (I later learned that TCBY allegedly exists in Osaka, but the store was closed when I attempted to visit it at 9:00 last Sunday night).

Impatient with my line of questioning, Ishii-san finally asked, "Don't you Americans realize when you die, you die? You can't prevent it."

I don't know about this one. I may not be able to prevent when I die, but I think I can prevent how I die. Maybe it's the fact that my grandmother--who smoked about a pack a day--withered away and died of cancer that is spooking me. Or maybe it was those lectures last spring in my Core course on human physiology when Dr. Brain passed around lungs destroyed by cancer for everyone in the class to hold and touch.

I know they teach the same things in Japan, yet still, Ishii-san, and so many others like him, continue to smoke away, even as they try to swim faster and faster. Maybe it all goes back to the characteristic Japanese modesty. Although the Japanese strive for excellence, perfection in Japanese society is taboo.

Perhaps the passion of many Japanese for flying in the face of death is simply an attempt to prevent themselves from being too perfect.

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