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Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006

WEEK 3

MOBILE ASHTRAY MUSEUM

Decorum drives 'disingenuous' bid to free streets of discarded butts


Staff writer

Tokyo is home to some of the world's more bizarre museums, including ones devoted to such odd subjects as washing machines, curry, kites and parasites. The latest addition to this outre melange is the Mobile Ashtray Museum.

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A woman with a portable ashtray strung round her neck in a Japan Tobacco "Smoking Clean" TV advert. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JTI

While many of these wacky establishments are little more than disused workshops turned over to showcasing a private collection or a manufacturer's products from the past, MAM, as it trendily calls itself, seems to be little more than a campaign by Japan Tobacco (JT), the world's third-largest cigarette-maker, to push portable ashtrays and, by extension, a landscape unblemished by discarded cigarette butts.

Japan, a land hardly renowned for its championing of individual freedoms, is still something of a smokers' paradise compared to other industrialized nations, where tobacco is rapidly becoming a dirty word. Yet, though there are "smoking points" on the platforms of train stations, and it is still OK to puff away in most taxis, restaurants, bars and cafes, that is surely all set to change -- but not anytime soon if JT can help it.

In Tokyo, since Chiyoda Ward imposed on-the-spot 2,000 yen fines for sparking up outside designated smoking areas in 2002, other wards -- including Itabashi, Shinagawa, Suginami and Ota -- have followed suit.

Osaka City, too, has similar legislation set to come into effect next year. There, interestingly enough, civic authorities cite their principal motivation as being the cost of cleaning up cigarette butts, which has averaged 10 million yen per year over the last decade.

While anti-smoking drives elsewhere in the world are conducted, almost without exception, on the grounds of public health, here in Japan, where 30 million people (almost 30 percent of the adult population) are smokers, it is public decorum that is pushed as the primary concern.

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A man with a portable ashtray dangling from his briefcase in a TV advert from Japan Tobacco's current "Smoking Clean" campaign

Judging from appearances, this agenda is being driven by JT -- which is half-owned by the Ministry of Finance. The company has launched high-profile campaigns with the slogans "Smoking Clean" and "Smoker's Style," focusing on "promoting a society in which smokers and nonsmokers can coexist harmoniously."

In addition to periodic promotional drives in which JT staffers and teams of volunteers (mostly recruited from local tobacco retailers) don logo-emblazoned uniforms and go round picking up discarded cigarette butts and handing out branded packets of tissues, a series of TV and print ads has also reminded smokers to watch their manners and avoid lighting up in crowded places. All this, of course, spreads the implicit message that it's OK to smoke -- so long as you don't litter and so disturb that public decorum.

The latest of these campaigns, launched in April 2006, focuses on keitai haizara (portable ashtrays), which are touted as a way to stop streets being littered with unsightly butts. The same month also saw the opening of MAM on the ground floor of Japan Tobacco's gargantuan HQ building in Toranomon, near the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

News photo
News photo
Some portable ashtrays (top) on sale at Japan Tobacco's Mobile Ashtray Museum. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

The moniker "museum" for this place is, however, rather disingenuous: MAM is, in fact, an emporium selling a selection of more than 300 portable ashtrays along with lighters, cigarette cases and the full range of JT-made cigarettes. The slick-looking space features shelves, counters and walls all finished in shiny white acrylic, and with its white, fake-marble flooring, it resembles nothing so much as a cosmetics shop, rather than a purveyor of smokers' paraphernalia.

According to Toshimasa Kurita, head of the Social Environment Creation Division, the company's research shows that 69 percent of smokers possess a portable ashtray, with 27 percent using one on a daily basis. MAM and the Smoker's Style campaign have set a target of upping that daily-usage figure to at least 30 percent by the end of 2007.

Suzuki said that this year's market in Japan for portable ashtrays is estimated at 260 million yen on sales of 7.4 million units. While that marks a decrease from 2005's sales of more than 7.5 million units, the average price of ashtrays is rising (up 5 percent from 2004, to 372 yen per unit in 2005), meaning that more expensive ones are increasingly being favored by the nicotine-dependent.

That shift lies at the core of JT's portable-ashtray campaign.

"Basically, we want to make the portable ashtray into a more attractive product," Suzuki said, in an interview at JT's HQ. "We want it to be something that people want to carry with them, so we got together all these companies who were making stylish portable ashtrays and put them all together in one place. With the museum and the TV ad campaign, we're hoping to spark off a trend."

Trendiness definitely seems to be what this project is about. A mini-MAM just opened last week in youthful Shibuya lifestyle-store Loft, and other in-store shops are scheduled for coming months. The smoking-related products on sale at these all-white outlets include offerings from girly fashion brand Garcia Marquez, snowboard-maker Burton, street-fashion labels Bounty Hunter and Freshjive, French design studio Keol, Tokyo interior emporiums Idee and Cibone -- as well as leather-clad ashtrays from Italian brand Orobianco.

Despite the museums, the campaigns, the glitz and the glam -- including a plastic number featuring a caricature of dead rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard from the Wu-Tang Clan and a natty black velvet pouch studded with pink Swarovski crystals -- only the least sentient or most nicotine-addicted being would fail to be aware that at the end of the day the whole exercise is about marketing a product that is known to have a hugely damaging impact on human health.

* In February 2004, Japan signed the World Health Organization's International Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Signatories agree to restrict cigarette advertising, raise taxes on tobacco and implement smoke-free policies.



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