Ever since Portuguese traders brought tobacco to Asia in the early 16th century, Japan has smoked with gusto. But after a series of tough anti-smoking laws enacted in the mid-1990s, tobacco use plummeted. At the same time, lawsuits alleging secondhand exposure shot up.
The strangest charge from this period of litigious health consciousness was aimed at the Prime Minister himself. On March 7, 1997, a Japanese anti-smoking group filed suit against their chain-smoking head of state, Ryutaro Hashimoto, for making public remarks that encouraged citizens to light up. “Taxes on cigarettes are big revenue sources for the central and local governments,” the two-pack-a-day premier had said during a trip to Singapore the previous January. “I will smoke as much as possible.” The lawsuit demanded 500,000 yen in damages sustained from Hashimoto’s comments, as well as a court-enforced order that he quit smoking. The case was thrown out the following year.