How Japan Made Cigarette Butts Loveable

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2023-07-10Andrew Akers

When I first went to Japan in 2007, I was struck by all of the bizarre signs and mistranslated English that seems to plaster most walls, streetlamps, trash cans or any urban surface. Out of all of the colorful cartoon mascots and crazy outfits, my absolute favorite campaign was the smoking manners posters, which produced this work of art:

A signed that reads: "Inhaled. Burned. Thrown Away. If it were anything but a cigarette, it would surely be crying.

Yes, this odd green poster is lamenting the sorry life of a cigarette butt. It’s endearing, isn’t it? Normally cigarettes are lambasted as murderers or the hired agents of some tobacco fat cat who sees dollar signs instead of people. That is the narrative of Western antismoking marketing campaigns, though organizations like has adopted a hipper image in recent years.

Japan, however, takes a much more charming approach with its antismoking initiatives. For one, they aren’t really antismoking, but instead promote good “smoking manners,” akin to giving up a seat on the train to an elderly or pregnant person. This is not uncommon in a culture that places such a high value on etiquette and public harmony, whether real or imaginary. So in some ways, these signs and America antismoking campaigns can’t really be compared, and I have no idea which one is more effective. But I’m mostly interested in the different narrative approaches.

This sign injects emotion into the smoking debate much more skillfully than Western initiatives, which focus heavily on fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Here lies the rub: smoking, like most daily habits, is often performed without thought, and it is difficult to consistently equate littering to harming other people. I am a former smoker, and quite simply, I rarely thought of the consequences of it.

This is problem marketing attempts to solve. Mascots like Smokey the Bear and other anti-littering campaigns aims to bridge the gap between a thoughtless action and the negative effects of it. These smoking manner signs do a great job of it for a few simple reasons:

Contrast. They are printed on generic government signs in simple green and white. This form is usually reserved for communicating street names, directions, and other simple public information. Using it to convey a humorous yet emotional message is jarring. I’ve seen numerous people, foreigners especially, stop and chuckle at it. Some even take a picture.

Composition. “Inhaled. Burned. Thrown away. If it were anything but a cigarette, it would surely be crying.” The text is almost poetic, and not just because it is written in passive voice. Readers see the pictures first, which signify the course of a relationship – with a cigarette instead of partner. The text begins with short, choppy statements, which draw the eyes. Only after reading everything else on the sign does it make clear what it is talking about. This kind of mystery and delayed communication lays the groundwork for an emotional connection before the reader figures out it is an anti-smoking ad.

Emotion. I’ve never seen an advertisement that portrayed a cigarette butt as an entity worthy of respect. This one makes them loveable, complete with hearts and a deep embrace, then chastises the people who heartlessly throw them away. Instead of portraying you or the people around you as the victim, it makes you the victimizer. How could you be so mean to those poor cigarettes? Of course, this portrayal is also humorous. In the span of 16 words, the sign covered the ground between sympathy and humor.

I don’t know how successful these advertisements are, but Japan is a ludicrously clean country. Either way, it has been 16 years since I last visited, and I still think about these quirky signs.

Here are a few more I've managed to collect from the Internet. This is courtesy of George Lloyd from JapanToday.

A sign that reads: The only things that should be stuck in the snow are ski gear and your own face.A sign that reads: Where does the smoke go? Only the person producing it is unconcerned.A sign that reads: I threw my cigarette butt into the drain. That is to say, I hid it in the drain.A sign that reads: Smoke is billowing from a stand ashtray. It it were my home, I wouldn't be so calm.A sign that reads: The fire disappears beneath his show. Unfortunately, the butt still remains.