Monday, March 07, 2005

Nicotine and Empathy

Hey folks. I just got back in this morning, so I'm seriously jet-lagged. I'll try to post some content from my piecebook written while I was in Japan.

While at my teacher training program in Tokyo, I got to ask a bunch on people on both sides of the tobacco issue what they thought about it.

One of my closest friends, who is a rabid anti-smoker, pointed out, as others did on this list, that a non-smoking table can be meaningless since you are often seated next to a smoking table, sometimes even between the fan vacuum and the smoking section-->instant smoke screen. It's a major problem when you are told that you can receive a smoke-free meal, but it isn't delivered. I don't really care that the restaurants are violating the law--it's the logic behind the law that I'm sad that they are failing to comply with.

On the flipside, when evaluating a society's approach to a problem, I think you have to look at the process behind it, rather than the current status quo. Obviously, you need to look at the status quo to advocate change, but I find it ironic when people isolate policy differences between countries to vilify one society or another (racism and sexism are common examples of social problems which are terrible in both the U.S. and Japan, but one side often ridicules the other and supports themselves with specific examples).

What surprised me most about the situation in Japan was how much empathetic thought that many of the smokers I talked to showed on the smoking issue. Instead of talking about the legalistic compliance with smoking codes, they would talk about how they tried to adjust their habit to consider non-smokers through the use of outside "smoking areas" and portable ashtrays. This may reflect the effectiveness of new non-smoking initiatives containing the empathetic innovation of saying, "Think of how your smoking affects others".

The new campaign in Shibuya and elsewhere in Tokyo to try to steer smokers into designated smoking areas with big ashtrays through the use of humourous signs and artwork that say things like, "A man was waving at me; he was waving away my smoke" or "I moved to avoid her, but my smoke still hit her" or "I walk through crowds with a 700C flame in my hand" is particular impressive because it tries to address the exact problem that many of the people on the list have addressed--the lack of empathy around this issue. I'll try to post some photos and link to them later...

This is a far cry from the U.S. which is using the standard "War on Drugs" strategy of vilifying smokers (most of whom are working-class) as sub-humans, while still encouraging tobacco companies to push their product abroad.

Is the campaign working? That's relative. Are there still people who are smoking in the streets? Of course. But the smoking areas are full at any time of day, and so it's certainly doing something.

Does it actually result more empathetic behavior when there are no designated smoking areas in site? That remains to be seen, but it's certainly a lot more likely than in other strategies.

As much as aspects of society in Japan can frustrate me, this belief in the value of "omoiyari" or empathy always floors me with admiration. Can we all point to failings of it? Of course. But it's still nice to see a value placed in it as opposed to my home where empathy loses out to its weaker, more selfish alternatives, "honesty" and "self-independence".
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