Photo/IllutrationYukiko Yoshinari stands behind the counter May 24 at Sentaku-sen, a nonsmoking bar she runs in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. (Shinnosuke Ito)

  • Photo/Illustraion

After bar owner Yukiko Yoshinari put up a “no-smoking” sign more than 30 year ago, she was called a “fascist,” irate customers disappeared, and she was often reduced to tears by the insults.

Yet her bar has survived and remained smoke-free over the decades in an unlikely place: the Shinjuku Golden Gai drinking quarter in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district.

Although the smoking ban at Sentaku-sen (Laundry boat) remains somewhat of an anomaly in the area, a sense of change is in the normally smoky air. Some of her harshest critics back then are now asking Yoshinari about how to make their own establishments smoke-free.

“I never expected a time like this would come,” the 68-year-old bar proprietor said ahead of the May 31 World No Tobacco Day.

About 280 establishments, most of them small pubs and bars, throng Golden Gai, a cluster of watering holes with a quaint atmosphere reminiscent of the Showa Era (1926-1989).

Many customers are still seen puffing out clouds of smoke in the drinking places that line the narrow streets.

Yoshinari opened Sentaku-sen in 1976, and smoking was permitted.

“Most of our customers were smokers,” Yoshinari said. “Smoke filled the bar’s cramped interior of only 13 square meters.”

Twelve years into her business in 1987, however, Yoshinari suffered from a cough and chest pain.

A number of her fellow barkeepers had died from diseases such as laryngeal cancer, whose risk is increased by smoking.

“The notion of ‘passive smoking’ did not exist back then, but I thought I could also end up dead if I was in the middle of smoke every day,” she said, recalling the time.

In January that year, Yoshinari felt like her chest had collapsed when she caught a cold. That prompted her to put up on the entrance door a handwritten notice saying, “We have gone smoke-free.”

Regular customers were enraged by the abrupt smoking ban. Some vowed never to return.

One regular even took a bottle kept at the bar, held it upside down and dumped out the contents in front of her.

A fellow barkeeper also scolded her, saying a smoking ban was out of the question in the service industry.

“People called me names and told me, ‘Does longevity mean so much to you?’ and ‘You no-smoking fascist!’” Yoshinari said. “I fled many times to the restroom to weep.”

At that time in the late 1980s, Japan was at the height of asset-inflated economic growth. Her bar had always been full, but the no-smoking policy took a heavy toll. The number of customers fell to less than half the previous levels.

“I thought so many times about repealing the smoking ban, weighing that option against my own health,” Yoshinari said.

Some of the smokers who had said they would never return to her bar, however, began to come back.

“I have never experienced drinking without smoking, so it’s interesting,” one customer said.

Business gradually recovered, and customers started bringing along their acquaintances.

“I thought the smoke-free policy couldn’t be helped because I had seen how (Yoshinari) was suffering,” said a 65-year-old man who has been a regular visitor to her bar since it opened. “Actually, I also didn’t like inhaling the smoke of others.”

Keiichi Hayashi, 68, said he was taken aback by the no-smoking decision because no other bar was smoke-free at the time.

“But I did like the bar’s atmosphere and the company of its regulars, so if I could or couldn’t smoke here didn’t really matter to me.”

The Cabinet in March approved a bill to amend the Health Promotion Law to strengthen measures against passive smoking. The amendment would ban indoor smoking at restaurants and bars, in principle and under penalty. The Tokyo metropolitan government is also weighing an ordinance to protect people from second-hand smoke.

Smoking is still permitted at most of Golden Gai’s drinking places.

But Yoshinari says the owners of other bars in the neighborhood have recently sought her advice on introducing their own smoking bans.

Overseas guidebooks are increasingly featuring Golden Gai, which has led to more non-Japanese visitors drinking in the area.

Many foreign customers take delight on learning that Sentaku-sen is smoke-free, Yoshinari said.

Among the 300 or so people who came from across Japan to attend the 40th anniversary party of her bar in 2016 was one customer who quarreled with Yoshinari when she first put up the smoke-free sign.

“No health, no business,” the bar owner said. “I hope to keep going like this.”