stories

The Last of the Smokers - Chapter 1 (all)

As I sit on the roof of the National Diet Building, under attack by tear-gas fired from Defence Force helicopters circling above, I am smoking my last cigarettes. One of my comrades, a painter called Kusakabe, has just fallen tumbling down to the ground below, making me the last remaining smoker in the whole world. My image, lit up against the night-time sky by searchlights on the ground, is probably being broadcast nation-wide by the TV cameras on those helicopters buzzing around me. I have three packs of cigarettes left, and my death will not be complete until I have smoked the lot. After smoking two or three at the same time, my head is spinning and my vision is beginning to blur. It is probably just a matter of time before I too fall to the ground.

It is roughly fifteen years since the no-smoking movement got under way, and only six or seven years since the pressure on smokers started to become really intense. Naturally I never dreamed that in such a short space of time I would become the last smoker on earth. The circumstances which have brought this about may already have been in place. I was a fairly well known writer, spending so much time at home on my work that I had little opportunity to see or hear for myself how the world was changing. What was more, I hardly ever bothered to read the newspapers since I can't stand the unremitting dullness of journalists' prose. I lived out in one of the provincial towns but my editors usually came to my house when they needed to see me, and as I had little involvement with the literary world there was no need for me to travel to Tokyo. Of course, I knew about the Smoke-Haters Movement, because critical articles supporting and refuting it were appearing in magazines and elsewhere. I also knew that the tone of the debate between the two sides had become hysterical and that there had been an abrupt surge of support for the movement, whereupon all hostile articles had suddenly disappeared.

As long as I remained at home I could go about my business unaffected by any of this. A heavy smoker since my teens, I continued to smoke almost constantly - no one ever warned me or complained. My wife and son said nothing about my smoking. They probably understood that the consumption of huge quantities of cigarettes was an essential condition for the large production of work needed to maintain my income as a popular writer. If I had been working for some sort of company then things would have been different, as it had soon become impossible for employees who smoked to earn promotion.

One day, two editors of a magazine for young people visited my house to commission a story from me. When I greeted them in the reception room, one of the two, a woman in her late twenties, handed me her business card at the top of which was printed in large type:

I DO NOT LIKE CIGARETTE SMOKE

Apparently, by that time it was common practise for people to indicate their dislike of smoking on their namecards, but I didn't know that and consequently I was very annoyed. It was unlikely that someone working as a magazine editor had not heard about the heavy smoking habit of a writer as well-known as I was. But even if she didn't know, handing over a card like that to someone who may well be a smoker - and even if he wasn't - especially when you have come to commission work from him, was extremely rude.

I stood up immediately and said, "I see. Well, I'm very sorry."
They both stared at me in surprise. "I'm afraid I'm a chain-smoker. I couldn't possibly discuss work without smoking. I'm sorry you had to come all this way."

The woman's eyes flashed with rage. The young man hastily rose to his feet. I heard him spluttering apologies to me as I left the room.
The two of them finally made their exit, muttering to one another as they went.

They had travelled four hours from Tokyo and I began to wonder if I hadn't overreacted. I suppose I could have gone without a cigarette for an hour or so, but why should I have to make such an effort? It's not as though they were suffering from some medical condition which might cause them to drop dead the moment I lit up. On the other hand, if they had tried to put up with my smoking in order to discuss work, that clearly would have been irritating for them and might even have led to an ugly quarrel. The thought of all this seemed to justify my behaviour.

Unfortunately for me, this woman was one of the leaders of the Anti-Smoking movement. Brimming with indignation, she dashed off articles to a host of magazines strongly criticising me personally, as well as smokers in general. The point is that smokers are obstinate, bigoted, arrogant, self-righteous, intolerant people who are blinded by vanity and selfishness. Having to work alongside smokers causes terrible distress leading to failure. Smoking should therefore be banned from all workplaces.
This writer's novels could turn you into a smoker, and therefore they sh ould not be read. The point is that all smokers are stupid. Therefore al l smokers are crazy.

Faced with this sort of criticism, I could hardly be expected to remain silent. This was insulting not only to me but to all smokers. Just as I was considering writing a reply I received a phone call from the editor of a magazine called 'True Rumours' for which I contributed a regular column. He urged me not to give in to pressure from the newly powerful smoke-haters but to fight back. Straight away I dashed off an article and submitted it to the magazine. My main points went something like this:

"Discrimination against smokers is fierce, because the naivetof the anti-smokers has spread to extremists. Sympathy for those who assert their hatred of smoking is overwhelming precisely because these people do not smoke. Smoking cures stomatitis, because tobacco has the effect of soothing the bitterness of the nerves. Admittedly non-smokers often look fit and healthy. This is because so many of them play sports. They smile for no reason. They never think deeply about things, and you only have to chat with them for a while to see how boring they are. Their conversation is superficial, shallow, rambling and incoherent, and apt suddenly to shift direction for no apparent reason. They are incapable of entertaining two distinct ideas. Their reasoning is not inductive but deductive, so instead of being easy to understand, they tend to jump without warning to facile conclusions. They prattle on about sport whether you are interested or not, but when the conversation turns to philosophy or literature they just fall asleep."

As soon as this article appeared there was a storm of protest in the press. Naturally the anti-smokers had little new to say in their arguments. In fact some of the readers who wrote in had simply rewritten my article replacing "anti-smoker" with "smoker." Their ignorant and illiterate counter-arguments made them just the right sort of cretins to represent the anti-smoking lobby, and the editors at "True Rumours" were happy to publish their lively contributions. From this time I began to receive threatening telephone calls and hate-mail. The callers tended to rely on simple abuse: "Why are you in such a hurry to die, asshole?" A few of of the letters were rather more tactful, but most were equally abusive and from time to time I would be sent a lump of black tar with instructions to "Eat this and die." Once cigarette advertising had been completely banned from television, newspapers and magazines, that awful Japanese trait of blindly following the crowd came to the fore and discrimination against smokers became rampant. Although I did my writing at home, from time to time I would take a walk around the neighbourhood when I went out to buy books. On one occasion I came across the following sign in a nearby park:

NO DOGS OR SMOKERS

This really annoyed me. So now they were treating us like dogs. "To hel l with the lot of them!" I thought. There was no way I was going to give in to that sort of oppression.

Once a month I had ten cartons of American 'More' cigarettes delivered to my house by the customer service section of one of the major department stores. At three thousand yen per carton, that meant that I wa s smoking my way through thirty thousand yen's worth a month, roughly seventy cigarettes every day. Then imports of foreign cigarettes were banned. Just before the ban, I bought about two hundred cartons, but once they were finished I had no choice but to switch to a Japanese brand.

One day I had to travel to Tokyo to put in an appearance at a literary party hosted by a publishing firm to whom I had been indebted for many years. I told my wife to buy me a ticket for the Bullet Train.

"Tickets in Smoking are an extra twenty percent," she said as she handed me the ticket she had bought. "And there's only one carriage you can smoke in. When I asked the man at the ticket counter for a seat in Smoking he looked at me as if I was some sort of animal."

On the day of my trip I boarded the carriage marked "Smoking." It was unbelievable: the seats were in tatters and the windows were covered with dirt, with little round bits of paper pasted over the numerous c racks in the glass. The floor of the carriage was littered with rubbish. Seven or eight passengers sat solemnly in their seats. On the ceiling a spider was spinning its web to the gloomy accompaniment of Grieg's piano concerto which filtered from speakers inside the carriage. The ashtrays on the seats had not been cleaned and were full of dog-ends. A sign posted on the door read: "Passage to other carriages is forbidden." The toilet for smokers at the back of the carriage had no flush, and a previous user had kindly left behind a great fat turd. There was no water supply for the sink, just a porcelain cup chained to a scoop-pump. I was furious. I decided to give the party a miss and at the next station I jumped off and took a taxi home. I had realized what I would have had to put up with at the party and at the hotel.

In the towns, tobacco stores had been ostracized from their neighbourhoods. The stores near our house had gone out of business one by one and I was having to travel some distance to buy my cigarettes. Finally only one shop remained.

"You're not going to close down too, are you?" I asked the old man who ran the shop. "If you do, then bring all the cigarettes you have in stock to my house."

That night the old man brought his complete stock to my house. It seemed he had been waiting for an opportunity to close down and had jumped at my offer.

Discrimination against smokers was worsening rapidly. The countries of Europe and America had already managed to ban smoking entirely. Of course, Japan being a backward country, cigarettes were still on sale and people were still smoking. People said that Japan ought to be ashamed of such a situation. Consequently, smokers were treated like scum and people who lit up in public were often beaten up.

There is a theory that natural human intelligence prevents us from behaving excessively stupidly. I am opposed to this theory. I can't be sure what level of stupidity could be classed as excessive, but you do n't have to look that deeply into history to find plenty of cases when human stupidity has resulted in executions and mass murders. Discrimination against smokers soon grew to the level of a witch-hunt; since the anti-smokers did not believe that they were acting irrationally, the whole situation was out of control. People are never more cruel than when they are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, be it religion, goodness, justice or whatever. On the basis of this new religion which held that discrimination against smokers was healthy, people brandished their notions of justice and goodness, and the anti-smoking hysteria produced its first murder. A man known as the heaviest smoker in his town, who had refused to quit no matter how much people tried to persuade him, was butchered to death on the street in broad daylight by two police officers and a hysterical group of eighteen housewives who were out shopping. It was said that when he died, nicotine and tar spewed out of the holes in his body left by the bullets and bread knives.

When Tokyo was hit by a major earthquake causing fires in densely populated urban areas, wild rumours circulated blaming the damage on smokers. Roadblocks were set up and all refugees with gravelly voices wer e executed as smokers. It would appear that those who discriminate sink on a sub-conscious level from guilt into paranoia.