The Last of the Smokers

Tsutsui Yasutaka, translated by Andrew Rankin

[S]itting on the roof the National Diet Building, under attack by tear-gas fired from the 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’s probably just a matter of time before I too fall to the ground.

It is just about 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, and spent so much time at home on my work that I had little opportunity to see or hear for myself how the world was changing. In any case, I hated the unbearable dullness of journalists’ prose, and hardly ever bothered to read the newspapers. I lived in one of the main provincial towns, but editors usually visited me at my home, and since 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, as articles by critics supporting and refuting it appeared in the magazines and elsewhere. I knew also that the tone of the debate between the two sides had become hysterical, that there had been a sudden upsurge of support for the movement, whereupon all articles hostile to the movement 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. Neither my wife or my son ever said anything about my smoking. They probably knew 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 company or other then things would have been different, as apparently 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 met them in the reception room one of them, a woman in her late twenties, handed me her business card, at the top of which was printed in large type:


It seems that by that time it was not unusual for a woman to indicate her dislike of smoking on her namecard, but I didn’t know that. Consequently I was extremely annoyed. It was unlikely that someone working as a magazine editor had not heard about the heavy smoking of a writer as popular 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, is 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 glared with rage. The young man stood up hurriedly and I could hear 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 a medical condition which would 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 rage, she dashed off articles to every sort of magazine strongly criticizing me personally, as well as smokers in general. The point is that smokers are obstinate, bigoted, arrogant, self-righteous, intolerant people, blinded by vanity and selfishness. Having to work alongside smokers causes extreme 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 should not be read. The point is that all smokers are stupid. Therefore all 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 some sort of reply, the editor of a magazine called True Rumours in which I had a regular column telephoned me. He urged me not to give in to pressure from the newly powerful Smoke-Haters but to fight back, and I immediately wrote an article, and submitted it to the magazine. My main points went something like this:

“Discrimination against smokers is fierce, because the naivete of 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, but this is 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 is 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?” While some of the letter-writers were a little more tactful, 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 the television, and from the 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:


This really annoyed me. So now they were treating us like dogs! I thought “To hell with the lot of them!” 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 was 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.

Then 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 though 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 cracks in the glass. The floor of the carriage was littered with rubbish. Seven or eight passengers sat gloomily 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 ashtray on the seat had not been cleaned and was 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 rapidly worsening. The countries of Europe and America had already succeeded in banning 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 intelligence usually prevents humans from behaving too stupidly. I am opposed to this theory. I am not sure what sort of stupidity level counts as extreme, but a glance at history reveals many cases in the past when human stupidity has led to executions and mass murders.

Discrimination against smokers soon grew to the level of a witch-hunt, but 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, brandishing their notions of justice and goodness, anti-smoking hysteria soon escalated to 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 about 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 breadknives.

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 were labelled as smokers and executed. It would appear that those who discriminate sink on a sub-conscious level from guilt into paranoia.

Then the National Tobacco Company was set on fire, and once the company was eventually forced into bankruptcy the Black Age for smokers truly arrived. Each night, parties of Anti-Smoking League members roamed the streets wearing pointed white masks and carrying torches above their heads, setting fire to the few tobacco stores that remained. I was still making the most of my privileges as a popular author, and getting my editors to buy cigarettes for me, and so I continued smoking without much interruption.
“Never mind about my fee. Pay me in cigarettes, or else I’m not writing a thing.” These poor editors had to scurry around the whole country in order to supply me with cigarettes that were still sold secretly at some country stores, or smuggled into the country and sold on the black market.

There were others like me. The idiots in the press continued to run special features on famous people who were still smoking. Each report listed the names of one hundred people who like me had publicly announced their intention to continue smoking.
“Which of these stubborn people will become the last of the smokers?”

Although I was hiding out at my home, now even I was in constant danger. Stones were hurled through the windows, and arsonists set fire to the wall and hedges around my house. Graffiti in various colours was sprayed on the wall and no matter how many times I repainted it, the slogans reappeared.


The abusive letters and crank-calls increased, and most of them now contained direct threats. Unable to live with me any longer, my wife took my son and moved to her parents’ home.

Each day the newspapers ran columns asking “Who will be the last of the smokers?” They even had experts trying to predict the result, as the list of names printed gradually became shorter and shorter. The pressure on smokers escalated as quickly as the complaints against discrimination decreased. One day, I tried calling the Association for the Protection of Human Rights. The man I spoke to was utterly lost for an answer, and made no effort to be polite.

“Why are you complaining? What we have been trying to do is protect the anti-smokers.”

“But the smokers are the minority now.”

“Smokers were always the minority. Our organisation defends the interests of the majority.”

“Oh, really? So you always side with the majority, then?”

“Of course we do. Don’t be so stupid.”

There was nothing for it but to protect myself. No bill had yet been passed outlawing smoking, but in protest at this, the lynching of smokers grew hopelessly frenzied. I strung up barbed wire around my house, ran an electric current through it at night, and armed myself with a re-powered pistol and a Japanese sword. That day, Kusakabe, a painter who lived in a town nearby, called me. He had once enjoyed smoking a pipe, but as he was no longer able to get hold of any tobacco he was making do with ordinary rolled cigarettes. He had become a frequent subject of media reports now that he was one of the twenty or so smokers who remained.

“Things are really terrible, aren’t they?” he said. “I have heard that there is going to be an attack some time soon. The press and the TV people are going to stir up the Anti-Smoking League and get them to set fire to our houses, then film the whole event for the news.”

“Jesus!” I said. “If they get my house first, can I escape to your place?”

“All right, and I’ll do the same. If they come here first I’ll drive over to your house. Then we could drive to Tokyo. I have a safe house there, and friends who can help us. Since we’re going to be together to the end, let’s smoke ourselves to a magnificent death in the capital.”

“Agreed. We’ll die in glory so that textbooks in the future will say ‘Even in death, they did not let their cigarettes slip from their lips’.”

We laughed together. But it was hardly a laughing matter. One evening just two months later, Kusakabe drove to my house. His clothes were covered in burn marks. He parked his car in the garage, a refurbished storehouse which was part of the main building.

“They got me,” he said. “and they’re coming here next. We’d better get out of here quickly.”

“Just a moment” I said, closing the garage door. “I’ll load up all the cigarettes I have.”

“Thanks. I brought a few myself.”

As we were loading the cigarettes into the trunk of the car, there was a sudden commotion around the house, and the glass window on the veranda shattered.

“Here they come.” I switched to warrior mode. “Shall we take a few out as we go?”

“Yes, let’s do that. I’m ready for them!”

From the dining room facing the garden we could see a man caught on the barbed wire over the fence at the back. He was crackling away, his body split open. I heated up the pot of oil I had prepared beforehand, handed my pistol to Kusakabe, and picked up my sword. There was a noise in the toilet. When I burst in, a man had smashed the window and was trying to climb in. He must have jumped across from the roof of the neighbouring house. I slashed off both his arms at the elbow.


Without a sound he disappeared onto the other side.
About a dozen people had cut through the barbed wire and burst into the garden. They began trying to wrench open all the windows and shutters and so after consulting with Kusakabe, I carried the pot upstairs, and from the balcony I threw the boiling oil out over the whole garden. The howling of those who were burned was Kusakabe’s sign to start shooting. They wailed and shrieked in terror….

Clearly they had not expected us to be so prepared for them. Carrying away their injured, for the moment they withdrew. But the doorway had been set alight, and smoke was starting to fill the house.

“Such warm consideration for a smoke-loving home,” said Kusakabe, in a fit of coughing. “But I’d rather not burn to death. Let’s get out of here.”

“The garage door is very flimsy,” I said, as we climbed into the car, sensing that there were people on the street outside. “Just drive straight through it.”
Kusakabe’s car was a Mercedes Benz, as tough as a tank. My son had been using my car as his own, and had driven it with my wife when they moved to her parents’ house.

The Mercedes set off, crashed through the garage door and flew onto the street. Without slowing down we turned and headed for the main road. We had run over several of the cameramen and reporters gathering like garbage in front of the house, but we weren’t too bothered about that.

“Well, that was pretty exciting!” Kusakabe laughed as we drove away. When I think about it now, we did very well to get to Tokyo while avoiding all the roadblocks on the highroad. After all, the fires at our houses would certainly have been broadcast on TV and radio, and both the A.S.L. and the police were after us. We drove all night and arrived at Tokyo in the morning.
Kusakabe’s secret safe house was in the basement of a magnificent apartment in Roppongi. About twenty people from all over the country whose houses had also been burned to the ground were gathered there. It was a luxury club of which Kusakabe had been a founding investor, and the owner was also one of those present. Here we pledged our solidarity and resistance to the enemy. We worshipped the god of tobacco and prayed for victory in out struggle. Of course the god of tobacco has no physical form, so we worshipped by smoking huge numbers of cigarettes, with the Lucky Strike red circle as the symbol on our flag.

A description of how our struggle developed over the following week would be far too tedious to relate in detail here. Briefly, it would be fair to say that we fought relatively well. Our enemies were not only the Anti-Smoking League and the police and Self Defence Forces, who had by now become nothing more than agents of the A.S.L., but also the World Health Organization and the Red Cross who were supported by the common sense of the whole world — these were the fiends we were fighting against. In the face of this, the only support we could hope for would be from gangsters running secret tobacco sales. Asking for help from those sorts of characters would have been against the noble spirit of smokers.

Our comrades fell one by one until there were only the two of us left. Finally, after being chased to the top of the National Diet Building, we sat smoking all the cigarettes that we had left, when Kusakabe asked “You and I experienced all the horrors of the War, but as the world grew more and more affluent, laws and restrictions expanded, discrimination increased, and somehow we lost our freedom. Why did this happen? Does it mean that humans actually enjoy this sort of thing?”

“I suppose it does,” I answered. “It seems that the only way to stop them is to wage war.”

At that moment, Kusakabe was hit in the head by a canister of tear gas fired from one of the helicopters above, and fell silently to his death. The swarming crowd on the ground below, many of them drinking sake as though they were at a flower-viewing afternoon, gave a loud cry, then jeered in unison:

“Only one left! Only one left!”

A very long two hours later I was still clinging to the top of the Diet, which was quite a feat by my standards. I didn’t mind using up all my strength, since I knew that I was going to die whatever happened.

Suddenly it seemed that the ground below had become completely silent. The helicopters had vanished. Someone was speaking through a microphone, and I could faintly hear the words:
“… would be the result. By then it will be too late for regrets. This would be a great loss. He is now a valuable artefact of the Smoking Age. He should be designated as a precious natural asset and a National Human Treasure. He must be preserved. We implore you. We repeat: This is the Society for the Protection of Smokers……”

I shuddered. No way was I going to be protected. That would only be a new sort of abuse. Everyone knows that whenever people start trying to protect animals the species immediately becomes extinct. They are exhibited to have their photographs taken, they are given injections, put in isolation, their bodies are messed about with and their sperm collected. In the end, they just wither away and die. As if that weren’t enough, they are then stuffed and put on display. I wasn’t going to die like that. Quickly, I decided to jump.

But it was already too late. A safety net had been secured on the ground below. From the distant sky, two helicopters with a net spread between them, slowly descended and moved towards me.

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Tsutsui Yasutaka

Author's Bio

Tsutsui Yasutaka retired from writing in 1994, following criticism of one of his stories by the Japan Association of Epileptics.
Copyright held by the author