Photo/IllutrationSmokers puff on a train between Oiso and Hiratsuka stations in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1978. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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The term “ken-en-ken,” literally meaning “the right to dislike smoking,” was coined when Fumisato Watanabe helped to found a campaign group for non-smokers’ rights 40 years ago.

In those years, smoking was allowed on all streets, in shops and in public facilities. The ken-en-ken campaign spearheaded the anti-passive smoking movement in Japan.

Since then, the price of cigarettes has kept rising over the decades, and the tobacco tax went up again on Oct. 1. The law was also revised in July, and most public spaces, including restaurants, are intended to be smoke-free before the end of 2019.

But Watanabe, 81, said the pressure group’s journey is “still halfway through.”

In 1978, the smoking rate among adult males was 74.7 percent. The only smoke-free train offered by Japan National Railway, today’s Japan Railways group, was a single car in each of the Kodama Shinkansen trains.

Watanabe, who has represented the campaign group since the 1980s, said 40 years ago that cigarette fumes were “out of control,” and ashtrays were a staple of hospital waiting rooms, railway station platforms and workplaces.

The phrase “ken-en-ken” was thought up by Midori Nakata, a copywriter and one of the founding members of the group. It was defined as “the right of non-smokers to breathe clean air,” and “the right to say cigarette smoke is unpleasant.”

Watanabe was once a heavy smoker who would puff through 60 cigarettes a day. He was working for an anti-pollution organization when he realized that “smoking is an immediate environmental problem.” He quit the habit and joined the anti-smoking campaign.

At first, their campaign received harsh criticism. One described their cause as having a “sick sense of justice” and said that they should “stop interfering with people’s personal tastes.”

In April 1980, members of the campaign group filed a lawsuit against the state, the national railway and state monopoly of tobacco, today's Japan Tobacco Inc., at the Tokyo District Court, demanding compensation and installation of more smoke-free cars.

The court eventually rejected the plaintiffs’ claim in 1987, but over the seven-year trial period, public transport operators moved to designate more carriages and vehicles as smoke-free.

In 1981, Takeshi Hirayama, chief researcher of the National Cancer Center of the time, published a world-first paper on the statistical relationship between passive smoking and lung cancer.

In 1984, Watanabe coined the term “bun-en” (to segregate smoking) after studying smoking regulations in the United States and promoted the idea to Japanese society. The word is widely used today to describe eating outlets that have separate smoking sections or rooms.

He founded the monthly “Kin-en Journal” (Smoke-free journal) in 1989. At first, low sales meant the title was always in the red, but Watanabe used his personal savings to continue publishing it.

“My wife was opposed (to continuing publication), but I had a conviction that society would shift toward becoming smoke-free,” said Watanabe.

The journal is still going and it published its 300th volume in May 2018.

In the 2000s, the smoking rate among adult males dropped below 50 percent. In the most recent survey released in September 2018, the rate was 29.4 percent.

In 2003, the health promotion law, which urged that efforts be made for the prevention of passive smoking, went into effect, and in July 2018, the law was revised to implement strict smoke-free policies for public facilities.

Schools, hospitals and public offices will be completely smoke-free inside buildings from around the summer of 2019, and other facilities will be smoke-free, in principle, but allowed to set up indoor smoking rooms.

Watanabe said struggling against smoking for 40 years was “too long,” but added that he is more determined than ever “to continue appealing tenaciously” for a future without smoking.