Cabby fights for a clean ride in smoker-friendly Japan
The number of smoke-free cabs has surged since a 2005 ruling in a case brought by Koichi Yasui.
In a country once dubbed a smoker's paradise, Koichi Yasui's decades of tireless efforts to promote smoke-free taxis haven't always been easy.Skip to next paragraph
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Twenty years ago, his was the first government-approved smoke-free cab to troll Tokyo's streets. But rather than follow suit, his cab-driver colleagues got angry – as did customers and officials from the government and the industry association.
"Some people were yelling at me to be ashamed of this action and get lost," he recalls. "Others crushed my car garage and broke my apartment's door lock. I was so fearful I would put a wooden sword next to the pillow and go to bed."
But times are changing.
In the past three years, the number of smoke-free taxis has skyrocketed from just 2 percent of taxis – 5,364 – to 150,192. The rate has risen to 60 percent of all cabs, according to the Japan Federation of Taxicab Associations and the Association of Self-employed Cab Drivers.
"Cab drivers are working hard at the cost of their health due to passive inhalation of cigarette smoke. Smoking in a taxi also causes health damage to passengers," says the cabby, who himself has struggled with health problems. "A total ban on smoking in taxis must be legalized."
Yasui, who wears a conservative suit, starched shirt, and tie, says he keeps his roomy car tidy every day in keeping with his motto of clean air. He has also made it a rule, he notes, to take a bath before work since he became a self-employed cabby in 1975.
The surge of smoke-free cabs, he says, was largely the result of the 2005 ruling of the Tokyo District Court in a lawsuit brought by Yasui, two other cab drivers, and 23 passengers who demanded compensation from the government for its failure to actively curb smoking in taxis. The court ruled that "a total ban on smoking in taxis is desirable" but rejected compensation.
"That was, in effect, our victory," says Bungaku Watanabe, one of the plaintiffs and director of the Tokyo-based Tobacco Problems Information Center.
Mr. Yasui had waited for that kind of lawsuit for 15 years. At first, he had trouble finding a lawyer, as they saw no prospect of winning at a time when very few smoke-free taxis were on the streets and tobacco vending machines were everywhere. And Japan's tobacco industry was a government-run monopoly until 1985, with the government still owning 50 percent of the shares of Japan Tobacco, the world's third-largest cigarette maker.