cocaine dealer tokyo
Over the course of a year, drug dealer Jason White shed light on his life running “the largest cocaine distribution ring in operation in central Tokyo.” Illustration: Jordan Lee
Drugs

Candyland: The Secret Life of a Tokyo Coke Baron

As the Yakuza lose influence, foreign criminals are seizing the reins of the Japanese drug market. One of them spent a year telling us how he does it.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU

The Romanian drug lords of Tokyo want Jason White’s head. He gets it; he poached their customers.

White is, by his own admission, a “scum sucking” criminal; a North American expat and international fugitive selling bulk quantities of cocaine in the world’s most populated city. But he’s also a businessman—and right now business is booming.

“Every fucking finance guy, lawyer guy, banker—the foreign dudes with money here—all they want is Japanese pussy and coke,” says White, who VICE agreed to refer to under that pseudonym. He is speaking down the line of an encrypted phone call from a café in central Tokyo.

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“Our thing here is famous as fuck right now,” he says. “But there could potentially be some troubles coming up, because a huge influx of clientele that I gained is a lot of the [Romanians’] clientele. They’re not too happy with what I got going on.”

What White’s got going on, as he told me via email in November 2020, is “the largest cocaine distribution ring in operation in central Tokyo.” Despite its strict narcotics laws, zero-tolerance government policy, and a reputation for being a drug dead zone, Japan’s trade in illicit substances is thriving. And as the influence of the infamous Yakuza fades, it’s foreign players like White who appear to be seizing the reins. 

A few weeks after receiving that first email, I got on a call with White to hear a bit more about what it was that he was offering to dish up: a rare look through the peephole of Japan's highly secretive drug trade—a galaxy of cocaine, methamphetamines, and ecstasy pills that lines the pockets of the local gangs and keeps the foreign bankers ticking.

“Japan likes to push that it is a low crime country, but I’d like to guarantee to the world that such a claim is far from true,” he explains. “There is a lot of crime in Japan. Much of it doesn’t go reported nor prosecuted, but be aware: there is as much or more crime here than anywhere else I’ve been.”

“My claim is not a theory, but first-hand,” he adds. “I am committing hardcore crime in this country every day.”

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White makes a lot of other claims, many of which VICE could not independently verify. He speaks with brutal candour and a gallows humour, but he’s predictably leery when asked questions that could compromise his anonymity. There are lines that he refuses to cross. Yet while the innermost details of his personal life remain off-limits, there is good reason to believe that the portrait he paints of Tokyo’s criminal underworld, as seen through his eyes, is credible.

During a year’s worth of back and forth correspondence, pockmarked with sporadic periods of silence, White walked me through his story, rattling off obscure and precise details about his life, and sent dozens of photos not fit for publication: crack rocks and dildos and naked women presenting for the camera, one of them doubled over with a price list for “molly” and “coke” written in black marker on her arse.

Other photos showed the inside of drug dens and fat wads of thousand-yen notes. Eventually, following months of correspondence and questions about details he didn’t want in print, he offered to meet in Tokyo, so that I could “see how it is” with my own eyes.

That meeting never took place. Almost a year after we first spoke, White disappeared for good.

White would regularly send photos of his drug operation as he spoke with a VICE reporter over the course of a year. Photo: Jason White

White would regularly send photos of his drug operation as he spoke with a VICE reporter over the course of a year. Photo: Jason White

PART 1: Red and White

Three ounces. That’s all it took for White to translocate his drug dealing operation more than 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, from North America to the streets of Japan. Three ounces of cocaine, stuffed into a fistful of Kinder Surprise egg capsules and supposited like a heavy dose of hemorrhoid medication. He is not Tse Chi Lop, he tells me; not Asia’s El Chapo, or some international mafioso moving mass shipments of contraband across global borders. His is, and always has been, a street level operation. 

White started peddling drugs as a teen—“raking in 600 bucks a week; banging chicks, making small cash, but thinking that's the shit.” After leaving school he was taken under the wing of a friend’s brother, a “well-connected shot caller,” put on payroll as a dealer for a local drug crew, and by his mid-20s had struck out to join ranks with another, notoriously violent syndicate.

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By this point, White was making $15,000 to $20,000 a month selling drugs: coke, meth, ketamine, weed. But the purple patch was short-lived. Before long, the syndicate’s rapacious, voracious business methods caught up with them.

“A death happened, and a bunch of really fucked up shit happened after that death,” White says, carefully measuring his words. “When I say death, I mean like, the M word death. That's the worst thing in the world that can happen, because that's when the feds start to care.”

This is how White ended up on a flight to Japan, on some unspecified date in the mid-2010s that he doesn't wish to divulge, with enough cocaine to kill 10 adults nestled behind his prostate. He’d raked his wardrobe into a suitcase, stuffed $9,300 cash into a Gucci duffle bag, and flown the coop before the police could pin him with a crime so egregious he still refuses to talk about it. In a few more hours he’d be back on solid ground and walking, close-legged and tightarsed, out into the Tokyo sunshine.

“[Smuggling those drugs] was honestly the easiest thing ever,” he recalls. “I was like ‘mission accomplished,’ and that was that. I went and shat it out in a love motel.”

It didn’t take White long to find his feet, put down roots, and start selling coke again. The first thing he did was get himself a place in the centre of Tokyo. Then he joined a fighting gym, started frequenting the local expat bars, and began working as a security guard at a British pub. 

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His stash was gone within a matter of weeks—but in that time he’d not just got a cash boost, but also forged the connections he needed to get his foot in the door of Tokyo’s seedy underbelly: through his job, through his gym and, most pivotally, through a hostess in a bar.

“I was bartending at this pub, and this girl is like ‘You're a bad guy, aren't you?’—taking the piss,” White recalls. “Then she's like, ‘You really got to meet my people because I know what kind of guy you are.’”

She happened to be an authority on White’s kind of guys. In time, she would come to introduce White to one of Tokyo’s most prolific drug bosses.

“You gotta meet Red,” she would tell him. “He's a British dude.”

Edward James Montague Reid is an Oxford graduate with a triple degree in maths, physics, and chemistry, and a master’s in Japanese oriental studies. Until recently, he was also one of the single biggest drug dealers in Tokyo. Now he’s serving a 12-year sentence for the possession and trafficking of illicit substances, after being arrested by Japanese police in July 2017.

White describes Red as “the furthest thing from a gangster”: a “geeky ass English boy” who liked to party hard—on coke, ecstasy, ice, and a psychedelic stimulant called 2C-I—and who ultimately got sucked into the vortex of Tokyo’s criminal underworld. 

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“Red was my boss, he was my dude: the most fucked up cat in the world,” White says, warmly. “I started working for him, and that’s how I learned everything over here.”

At his peak, authorities believe Red was selling gear to between 40 and 50 customers in Tokyo’s Roppongi clubbing district, accepting payments in the form of Bitcoin to cover his tracks. It wasn't enough. Tokyo Metropolitan Police raided his fortified inner city apartment and seized 239 grams of cocaine, 92 grams of methamphetamine, 467 grams of marijuana, and 750 MDMA pills. In the words of local newspaper the Tokyo Reporter, “the residence contained what can be best described as what might appear at an illegal drug fair.” It had a collective street value of about 20 million yen, or a little over $182,000.

“Japan likes to push that it is a low crime country, but I’d like to guarantee to the world that such a claim is far from true… I am committing hardcore crime in this country every day.”

White says he immediately went to ground after the sting, convinced that the police would identify him from the security footage at Red’s main base. For reasons unknown they never came knocking, and when he finally emerged from hiding six months later, he, the apprentice, took up the mantle and absorbed the majority of Red’s clientele: a well-heeled milieu of mainly foreign lawyers, bankers, and IT executives.

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Now he claims to rule the roost. And he’s making a killing.

“It's a very unique game here in Tokyo; nothing like I’ve ever seen before,” he says. “Two-and-a-half times the profit margins with 1 percent the threat of daylight shootings against opps like back home.”

“We are laughing. This is Candyland.”

White said he inherited the clientele of Edward James Montague, a British drug dealer arrested by Tokyo police in 2017. Photo: Jason White

White said he inherited the clientele of Edward James Montague, a British drug dealer arrested by Tokyo police in 2017. Photo: Jason White

PART 2: Rich Bankers, Soft Cops

Japan’s zero tolerance drug policy has fomented a lucrative and high stakes market for illicit substances, where dealers prepared to run the gauntlet are compensated by customers willing to pay a markup price. Supply is low, demand is high, and as long as you don’t get pinched dealing, then, in White’s words, it’s “cake.”

But he didn’t run there for the money. Japan, a famously insular nation, has also become a relatively secure hideaway for a cohort of international outlaws, due in no small part to the fact that it holds bilateral extradition agreements with just two other countries—the U.S. and South Korea—and rarely extradites international criminals, even for serious offences. Tokyo is a bolthole, and White, who is neither a U.S. nor South Korean citizen, can hide in plain sight in the East Asian megacity with little fear of being arraigned for his crimes back in the West.

As far as potential run-ins with the local police go, the riskiest date in White’s calendar is “reload day,” once every couple of months, when he has to replenish the crew’s supplies by procuring a bulk batch of wholesale drugs from global importers. He refuses to get into the details about who or where these importers are, revealing only that he orders the top-ups in advance—usually about a kilo of cocaine and as many pills as are available—before arranging to meet them in a specific rendezvous location.

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Even these transactions are improbably blasé, though. They take place not in the backseats of cars or shady side-alleys, but in pubs, restaurants, cafés, the occasional Starbucks. When White and the wholesaler meet at the designated drop site, the exchange is casual. They’ll smoke, drink coffee, swap the briefcases under the table, and part ways. 

The most White does in the way of precautionary measures is to make sure he wears a button-up to “try and look like a nice boy.”

“The cops don't understand the scene well—they think if you do gear, you’re a black man with ripped jeans and dreadlocks walking around in a stupor,” he explains. “They have some stereotypical idea of what the game is and they don't know how it really works.”

White paints Tokyo police as paper tigers: toothless, gormless disciplinarians who are too far out of the loop on drug crime to even enforce the iron-fisted laws they’re meant to represent. Part of this, he suggests, is either an inability or an unwillingness for local, traditionally-minded detectives to innovate and reconcile themselves with anything “new” or “foreign.”

White deals in ecstasy, meth, and cocaine, but it’s the latter where he makes most of his money. Using a small team of dealers and delivery drivers he moves more than a kilo of coke each month and rakes in about $400,000 gross profit. For context, the same amount of gear in the U.S. typically fetches $120,000.

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He runs things from a rotating cycle of cell phones, shifts our correspondence to a new encrypted messaging account every few weeks, and is supremely selective about who is and isn’t allowed into his small inner circle of clientele—vetting customers with the kind of ruthless VIP admission criteria you’d expect from The Carnegie Club.

“The cops don't understand the scene well—they think if you do gear, you’re a black man with ripped jeans and dreadlocks walking around in a stupor.”

White refuses to sell to tourists or fly-in-fly-out workers, instead consolidating his base of long-contract corporates who are familiar with the city and carry less risk of getting arrested. One of his customers is a hedge fund boss who buys bulk, 500,000-yen ($4,500) shipments of gear at a time. White schedules a dropoff, the hedge fund boss pays, and the deal is done. 

“That’s generally how it is here,” says White. “You don't have guys calling you for small amounts throughout the night. It's mature, professional guys that also handle their drug use in a mature, professional way.”

Back home he catered to a sprawling market of ravers, students, “crackheads” and “riff raff.” In Japan, his client base is smaller but stronger, made up of well-to-do expats who mostly buy bulk quantities at a time. “The biggest way to get pinched,” he points out, “is via sloppy clientele.” And in terms of professionalism and purchasing power, 20 clients in Tokyo is worth 200 back home.

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“There are power players behind logistics and pipeline that definitely handle much more gear than we do,” he says. “But in terms of a street level operation with steady input? I feel as though we’re the most active. What I do is run a team that pushes a lot of gear at ridiculous profit margins.”

“I took a marketing class in Uni when I was a kid,” he adds. “It worked.”

White deals in ecstasy, meth and cocaine. Photo: Jason White

White deals in ecstasy, meth and cocaine. Photo: Jason White

PART 3: Gangs of Tokyo

There are just 10 people in White’s Tokyo crew—a motley rabble of students, café workers, and Uber Eats delivery drivers—but between them he claims they account for a sizable portion of the cocaine that gets distributed throughout the centre of the city. That said, he’s far from the only player in the game.

White divides the drug clans of Tokyo into a small handful of ethnogeographic tribes: the Africans, the Colombians, the Iranians, the Romanians, the Russians, the Turkish, and the Vietnamese. Chief among his competitors are the Africans, who run the Roppongi district and sell cheap gear to undiscerning tourists, and the Iranians, a slightly more discerning outfit who sell some of the best gear going.

He loses no sleep over the former: the Africans’ drug runners and bosses are always knocking each other out over petty squabbles and small-fry territorial disputes. A business that caters primarily to the day-tripper market is also no skin off his nose. The latter, however, is another story.

“Some of the Iranians are pretty psycho,” White says. “Not shoot-you-on-the-street type psycho, but if I was gonna worry about getting stabbed somewhere, it would be from some Iranian cats.” 

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Then there’s the infamous Romanian crew, the ones who want White’s blood.

“They look like how you imagine an Eastern European mafia guy from a movie would look,” White says. “They’re actually not to be fucked with. They're spooky cats.”

And yet in Tokyo, he adds, even the hottest feuds rarely boil over into serious acts of violence.

“Nobody's rushing into this cafe and shooting my girl—I say that with confidence right now,” he says.

Of least concern to White, it seems, is Japan’s most infamous criminal syndicate: what police call Bōryokudan, or “violent groups,” but the rest of the world simply calls the Yakuza.

It’s a name that has garnered a fearsome reputation, associated as it is with full-body tattoos, finger-shortening rituals, and gang violence. In White’s eyes, though, this is all just fable.

“The Yakuza are the least dangerous motherfuckers I've encountered during my time here,” he tells me. “An old school fairytale.”

The so-called Japanese mafia are on the brink of extinction, as new laws prohibiting members from accessing bank accounts, office space, and respectable business channels have depleted their formal ranks from a height of 180,000 in the ‘60s to less than 30,000 today. Their diminishment has largely been the result of the 1992 Anti-Bōryokudan Act: a campaign that saw police systematically targeting Yakuza, and which continues to yield results today. In their 2020 annual report, Japan’s National Police Agency boasted that they arrested 14,281 Yakuza members in 26,761 cases throughout 2019.

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The group’s hard-fisted grip over Tokyo’s underworld has loosened. And muscling in to fill the gap are foreign criminals like White, the Iranians, and the Romanians—outsider groups known as “Hangure,” which roughly translates to “half delinquent” or “half in the grey zone.”

In a 2017 interview with Nippon Japan, Shibata Daisuke, a former boss of hangure group Kantō Rengō, noted that the Yakuza lifestyle “just didn’t seem appealing or cool” to young people anymore. 

“As toughened legislation sent Yakuza power into decline, the younger generation saw the world differently,” he explained. “For people like me, who were born and raised in Tokyo and started out in Shibuya or Roppongi, the Yakuza lifestyle was not impressive.”

White echoes the sentiment.

“No one wants to be a Yakuza,” he says. “Japanese teens these days want to be YouTubers; being Yakuza is far from a cool or lucrative job opp amongst the masses.” 

“What the police have done in Japan is they've made it very difficult to be a gangster, and they've created this new system for hangure to flourish. The big drug gangs here that I know of, and the big gear being moved, it’s not by Yakuza—it’s by foreigners.”

This much is supported by the data. According to a recent white paper published by the Japanese Ministry of Justice, foreigners being charged for drug-related offences in Japan saw an uptick of about 30 percent between 2013 and 2019. Of those who were charged in 2019 for infractions of Japan’s Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Law—which covers the smuggling, supply, possession and use of drugs like cocaine and ecstasy, among others—more than a quarter were foreigners, while just over 10 percent were Yakuza members or affiliates.

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And that’s only the ones who were caught. 

“If you look at seizures of drugs as one indicator, it’s not like the activity has disappeared—in some cases it’s increased,” David Brewster, a researcher working with the Criminology Research Centre of Ryukoku University in Kyoto, told VICE World News. “So that leaves the question: What is going on, and who is doing all of this?”

Brewster admitted that it’s hard to know for sure. If anything, he suggested, Japanese police’s single minded campaign against the Yakuza may have simply created a vacuum for certain other black marketeers to fill. 

“I just don’t think we know enough about the overall situation of drugs in Japan,” he said. “I assume that the Bōryokudan are still heavily involved in drug market activities. But if you crack down on some groups then other groups are going to come in. So one possibility is an increase in foreign criminal organisations.”

“The Yakuza are the least dangerous motherfuckers I've encountered… No one wants to be a Yakuza. Japanese teens these days want to be YouTubers.”

This also squares with White’s own claims: that the new main proprietors of the Tokyo drug trade are all gaikokujin, or foreigners, whose foreignness has become their greatest criminal asset. As he points out, “The cops just don't have the insight into that world.”

“They don't know how we talk, they don't know how we move,” he says. “Japan should have let the Yakuza stay in power. There wouldn't be so many [foreigners] doing [stupid] shit if the Yakuza ran shit like they allegedly did back in the day.”

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While the group has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, however, there are enduring stories of Bōryokudan enforcers exerting their influence from the shadows.

“Red had Yakuza connections, and what he told me about how the actual murder game works here is that shit does happen,” White says. “It’s not on the news; it’s not shootings in the club or drive-by’s or kids getting stabbed. When it happens, somebody’s just gone.”

He’s heard stories of at least one Yakuza clan, the Sumiyoshi Kai, chopping off the arms and legs of their enemies and sinking them to the bottom of Tokyo Bay—some of them in barrels, some of them just torsos and heads anchored to the sea floor.

But these are just rumours.

“I often had the feeling that info was more like a story to make people afraid,” White says. “Mind you, I have heard there are hella murders that just get clocked up as ‘disappearances.’ But again it’s just stories I've heard.”

White said speaking to VICE was something he hoped "could be good for my soul.” Photo: Jason White

White said speaking to VICE was something he hoped "could be good for my soul.” Photo: Jason White

PART 4: Disappearance

Stories, rumours, or otherwise, there’s little White can do to escape whatever other predators happen to be roaming Tokyo’s concrete jungle. He’s hedged his bets on Japan—where else in the world could he go?

“I haven't been home in over four years, and I've been advised by my lawyer that I would definitely be denied entry trying to cross into another country right now because the warrants will show up,” he says. “It's like I'm in exile, but I’m in exile in a dope ass place. I fuck bitches and buy Louis Vuitton all day—it's the most luxurious jail in the world—but nonetheless, I’m in exile.”

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White is trapped, maybe permanently, in a Faustian limbo, where the price of his power and riches has been alienation, immobility, and exile. Short of changing his identity, fabricating a passport, and smuggling himself over the international border, there is no way he can escape Japan without his history catching up with him.

It’s not sympathy he’s looking for, though. The way White sees it, you reap what you sow.

“I can’t complain,” he says. “I always say: a regular person getting cancer is tough. A young kid getting smashed by a drunk driver is tough. But scum-sucking street life choosing to live by the sword? One shouldn’t complain of the repercussions, right?”

It’s a rare moment of self-deprecation from White, and it hints at an answer to the question that’s been hovering over our entire correspondence: Why make contact and take the time out of his life to tell me all these things? What’s in it for him?

Absolution, apparently.

“I've done some pretty atrocious things,” he explains. “Perhaps doing something like this, shedding some light on the devil, could be good for my soul.” 

“I'm not religious,” he adds. “I just think that sounds nice.”

Still, White shows little interest in changing course. Without a shot at redemption, an escape hatch, or a viable exit strategy, it seems like he’ll just keep doing what he’s always done. Provided he doesn’t get pinned by the police, stabbed by the Iranians, beheaded by the Romanians, or mutilated by the Sumiyoshi Kai, he’ll continue living the high life in so-called Candyland. At least, for as long as such a life can last.

In late 2021, White dropped off my radar for what must have been the fifth or sixth time. After weeks of radio silence, I sent an email to one of the burner addresses that we’d previously used to communicate, asking if he was still there. On Christmas Eve, my phone lit up with a notification.

“Yes bro—am here. Alive and well.”

I responded, asking for the best way to reach him. The story was coming to a close, I explained, but there were certain details I wanted to clear up. Repeated emails were met with nothing for two weeks—until, finally, another message dropped into my inbox. It was my own email, bouncing back.

“Address not found,” it read. “The email account that you tried to reach does not exist.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

This story has been updated to remove all potentially identifying details of those mentioned in the piece.