Examining the history of drugs in Japan
First in a two-part series
TOKYO — Japan has a reputation as a drug-free country but the reality is a little more complicated. For hundreds of years, cannabis plants were used in Shinto religious practices — hemp to make clothes and ropes, leaves to exorcise evil spirits. In the Meiji Era hemp was used to treat asthma. At the turn of the 20th century, the Japanese military used marijuana. But then the Americans arrived to occupy Japan and their opposition to weed was so great that it was outlawed it as a harmful drug and the stigma has remained.
Methamphetamines were also created in Japan, in 1893 by Nagayoshi Nagai, a noted chemist and pharmacologist, first synthesized from ephedrine to create methamphetamine. In 1919, Akira Ogata, a chemist on the faculty of the University of Tokyo, became the first person to synthesize methamphetamine in a crystallized form. (Amphetamines had previously been introduced in Germany.)
It was called hiropon (philopon — meaning “love of work”) and was supplied to soldiers and factory workers during the war by the Japanese government as a “work force pill,” to enable them to work long hours. It was also given to kamikaze pilots to help them endure the ordeal of long flights and diving into American aircraft carriers.
After the war it became available over the counter when supplies stored for military use were made available to the Japanese public at pharmacies in Japan. The crystalline powder was soluble in water and ideal for injection. It became something of an epidemic with more than a million addicts.
However, hiropon left many users with severe headaches and caused blackouts.
In 1951, the Japanese Ministry of Health prohibited meth in Japan, but this only caused even more production of the drug.
Around this time, the newly formed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea introduced heroin into Japan using yakuza gangs. Their purpose was two-fold: to raise money for the Japan Communist Party and to addict as many American GI’s as possible so they would be unable to fight in the coming war on the Korean Peninsula.
Their product was called “Red Lion” and it was 99.9% pure. DPRK fishing boats dropped the heroin offshore in aluminum cannisters to be picked up by their underworld distributors who repackaged the drugs for sale on the street. The heroin was everywhere. You could walk down the main drag in Motomachi, Yokohama, or the Matsuda-Gumi market in Shimbashi and there were gangsters offering heroin packets everywhere.
There were also heroin dens outside the U.S. military bases throughout the 1950’s, particularly in Tachikawa outside Tokyo where there was a major U.S. Air Force Base. The drugs were supplied by bar girls who got them from Chinese and North Korean agents who had infiltrated the area. There was also a large population of Chinese and Koreans residing in Tachikawa City that was said to be sympathetic to the Communist cause and was reportedly engaged in espionage and sabotage. According to one report in the Nippon Times (Nov. 5, 1953), by the end of the Korean War in July 1953, there were dozens of heroin dens — 1,500 in Tokyo alone, mostly in Shinjuku and Asakusa, and hundreds of single users.
The options were the pipe, the cigarette, and the needle. You were supposed to lick the cigarette and dip it in a bowl of heroin powder, then light up.
GI’s serving in South Korea added to the mix. They would develop the habit there, usually getting their heroin from bar girls and bring their drugs back to Japan. Some of them were even dealing, selling it to the yakuza.
However, heroin did not really take among the Japanese. Heroin was a lethargy drug and Japanese, in those days, needed to work 24-7 just to survive in a city that was slowly digging its way out of the ashes and rebuilding. The DPRK eventually switched to manufacturing methamphetamines, which was a drug more suitable to the night laborer, or the cab driver or the bar hostess or the organized crime hoodlum who had to stay awake until all hours.
The methamphetamines made in North Korea labs proved superior to hiropon. They were distributed by the yakuza gangs, many of whom had ethnic Korean members with relatives in North Korea. NK meth dominated the underworld market for the next several decades. Some yakuza members had relatives in South Korea where they built meth manufacturing plants, shipping product back to Japan by sea. Others, with relatives in Taiwan, did the same.
By the 1964 Olympics, there were a more than a million meta-amphetamine users in Japan. In fact, the vast majority of illegal drug use was with meta-amphetamines. Sleeping pills also became popular among young people during this era, as did inhalant (glue-sniffing) use. (Since 1975, about 40,000 people have been arrested each year for inhalant-related offenses.)
Drug seizures, and arrests, have increased over the years. In 1985, for example, nearly 300 kg of stimulants was seized, a record high.
But, by 2022 officials’ seizures increased by ten-fold in size topping 3 tons. Authorities seized 3,318 kg across 1,046 cases, compared with 1,493 kg over 871 cases in 2018. Seizures of stimulants doubled between 2018 and 2019 and were estimated to be worth ¥154.2 billion.
Illegal drugs, with marijuana, fentanyl and cocaine added to the list, have increasingly come from groups in China and Mexico, as well as Thailand and Malaysia, which have replaced North Korea as the prime supplier of drugs like crystal methamphetamine and fentanyl in Japan.
One could buy them in certain Roppongi night clubs, and restaurants among other places in Tokyo. DEA agents at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo have their hands full. As one agent put it, “The amount of drugs coming through presents a significant challenge for Japanese law enforcement.”
Said underworld expert Hiroki Allen, “Cocaine has long become the drug of choice for young and rich people in Tokyo. It is glamorous while meth (shabu) is seen as a working man's thing. The young and the rich refers to those under 40 who can afford expensive sports cars.”
Police data also revealed that the amount of cocaine seized in 2019 more than quadrupled from a year earlier to 638 kg, Drugs were coming in by air and by sea. In a not unusual case, in 2017, a 25-year old Canadian tourist was apprehended at Narita Airport with a suitcase full of cocaine. He had been paid $100,000 by drug smugglers to carry it in from Toronto. He is now serving a 14-year sentence in a prison in Yokohama.
In November 2019, police discovered an astonishing 400 kg of cocaine in a shipping container in Kobe, at the time an all-time record for Japan. It was said to be worth more than $75 million on the street. But that was surpassed in April 2020 when customs authorities in Yokohama seized 700 kg of cocaine with a street value of about $130 million.
A Finance Ministry official declared that Japan had now become “a major market” in the world of illegal drugs, noting that street prices for stimulants were higher than those overseas.
Yakuza gangs were, not surprisingly, active participants in the illicit international drug trade. Although, the new anti-organized-crime laws restricting underworld access to bank accounts, office space, and respectable business channels, had served to deplete the formal ranks of the yakuza by more than 75%, financial fraud cases and money-laundering crimes involving underworld figures had spiked. It went without saying that the traditional underworld sources of income, gambling and prostitution, did not suffer declines either, with Hangure, or so-called quasi-gangsters from motorcycle gangs with names like Kanto Rengo, now doing most of the grunt work.
The USE of MDMA, or Ecstasy, has surged in recent years, thanks to online sales using shorthand terms like “X” and other code words, and drug arrests increased accordingly.
Popular award-winning actress Erika Sawajiri, 34, was arrested on Nov. 16, 2019, after police found the synthetic drug MDMA at her Tokyo home. It was the most high profile of a number of celebrity drug arrests in recent years. Sawajiri was given a suspended sentence of 18 months, a typical sentence for a first offender. She was also brutally shamed by the media and virtually blacklisted from any more work in the entertainment industry.
Sawajiri’s film and TV career essentially ended after her arrest and conviction. Her starring role in a major NHK drama, the height of prestige in the Japanese television world, was irrevocably canceled.
(Sawajiri, who has a French-Algerian mother and a Japanese father, was known for her idiosyncratic personality. She had earlier achieved notoriety when a premarital contract with her ex-husband was revealed detailing a limit on sex of five times per month. Anything more and the husband would have to pay her the equivalent of $4,000 per session.)