Drugs

How Stigma Created Japan’s Hidden Drug Problem

There's extreme social shame around doing drugs, and yet the underground drug scene is thriving in Tokyo.
12 May 2020, 2:00pm
japan drug problem
Image: Cathryn Virginia

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

In February, Japanese actress Erika Sawajiri was convicted of possessing a small amount of MDMA powder and liquid LSD. She was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence, in which she had to abide by strict rules or risk going to prison.

But Tokyo is not L.A., and Sawajiri’s true punishment was meted out in public. Before any evidence had been shown to a judge in court, Sawajiri had been effectively scrubbed from the public domain. She lost her job, was forced to declare she would never work again as an actress, and was publicly shamed across the media. On her Wikipedia page she’s described as a “former actress.” She just turned 34.

Japan is certainly not one of the world’s most punitive nations on drug crime. Its maximum sentence for cannabis possession of five years, for instance, is the same as in the U.K. Yet, at a time when the celebrity drug exposé is now largely a thing of the past in the West as recreational drug use has become normalized, Japan still treats superstars caught with drugs like pariahs. When another actress, Saya Takagi, was arrested for cannabis possession in 2016, her hard-earned career was erased almost overnight. Re-runs of the TV series she appeared in were taken off air, DVDs featuring her shows were recalled, and the popular TV theme song she helped write was ditched for another one.

In Japan, public shaming and stigma of those suspected of taking drugs has developed into a useful tool for the authorities to remind citizens of the country’s strict moral code on drug use: If you get high you are not just letting yourself down, you are also letting society down. To some anti-drugs campaigners in the West who oppose drug law reform, Japan is held up as a shining example of how strictly enforced drug laws and a zero-tolerance attitude towards drug users leads to minimal levels of use, addiction and associated crimes. Yet things are not quite what they seem.

It is true that the data shows drug use in Japan to be far lower than in most parts of the world. The most recent government figures show that in 2017, 1.3 million adults—in a country with a population of 126 million people—admitted they had tried illegal drugs at least once in their life, most commonly cannabis and inhalants, such as paint thinner and glue. This is a vastly smaller proportion than in the West, where a half of Americans and a third of British people admit to having ever used illegal drugs. There is a similar difference with teenagers, with only 0.5 percent of Japanese 15 to 18 year olds admitting to ever taking drugs in 2018, compared to between a third and a half of their American equivalents.

But these numbers likely downplay the reality, according to David Brewster, a criminologist at the Criminology Research Centre of Ryukoku University in Kyoto. Drug prevalence data is gathered via anonymized self-reporting surveys sent to government officials or filled in by children in classrooms, and even though the surveys are anonymous, in a country with strict anti-drug attitudes and where officials are required to inform on drug users, these figures are likely to significantly under-estimate the country’s actual levels of drug use.

Mika gets high at least twice a week, on a mixture of weed, LSD, MDMA and cocaine.

Japan is far from being a drug-free nation, especially when you drill down into certain subcultures. Research carried out by academics among 300 rave-goers in Tokyo found that almost one in 10 said they had taken MDMA, compared to 0.2 per cent of the general public. Of course, people at raves are more likely to use MDMA than most people, but the research also shows that people are more comfortable answering honestly when it is not government officials doing the asking.

Behind the showy trials and the official statistics, what is really going on in the country’s drug scene? Is it as strictly policed as the authorities and the media are making it out to be? And what is the real reason the Japanese are way more ambivalent about taking illegal drugs than those in the West?

Image: Tanja Houwerzijl

Mika / Image: Tanja Houwerzijl

Before the coronavirus outbreak and Japan’s state of emergency, which closed all clubs and bars in Tokyo on April 8, I went out clubbing in Tokyo with Mika*, a DJ who knows every corner of the dance music scene in her native city. She told me Tokyo’s drug scene is a lot bigger than the government would like to admit. “I have a lot of friends who like to get high on coke, LSD, weed, you name it. Everyone is a little secretive about it, so people don’t know much about it, even Japanese people.”

As we walked through the evening rain in the city’s Shibuya district towards a club, Mika told me Japan’s nightlife is quiet compared to other big Asian cities, such as Seoul or Shanghai. Instead people drink alcohol, usually over dinner, and catch the last train home. Most people were walking in the opposite direction from us, towards the metro station and home. Some of them were really drunk.

Mika described herself as not typically Japanese, because she likes to party all night. She told me she gets high at least twice a week, on a mixture of weed, LSD, MDMA and cocaine. On the way to the club, we picked up her friend Yumi*, then stood in front of the entrance of a building while Yumi held an umbrella and Mika lit up a pre-rolled joint.

As they shivered from the icy wind and rain, I mentioned that it was not the most relaxed circumstances to take drugs. “Yes, and police patrol the streets here in Shibuya so it’s not easy,” said Mika. Does she ever take drugs at home? “Yes, at home it’s OK, but outside you need to be more careful.”

We entered the club and we weren’t searched by security guards, so they didn’t find the weed and LSD Mika was carrying in her purse. I asked the venue manager if he thought people take drugs in his club, and he said, “no way.” He told me he was “anti-drugs” and none of his staff took drugs either.

Mika sent me a photo of them smoking another joint in there, then a photo of them dropping some acid.

But his customers were a different matter, because some of them seemed pretty high. I got chatting to one guy. We talked as jungle and dubstep blasted out of the speakers. He told me he smoked weed, but admitted that even though he was speaking to me, that “talking about it is hard, I don’t think people will admit they’re high, but I can guarantee you that half of the people here are on something.”

A university student with dreads told me people get paranoid when they are high, so “you need to be secretive.” He would take drugs, he explained, if it wasn’t for the risk of getting caught. “I just don’t want to carry it with me. You see, people like me”, he said, pointing at his dreads, “get stopped and searched by the police all the time. It’s this hair or drugs.”

Mika and Yumi had been in the bathroom for for about 15 minutes. Mika sent me a photo of them smoking another joint in there, then a photo of them dropping some acid. A guy who saw them leaving the bathroom together looking high burst into laughter, and told me “shouganai!” (it can’t be helped). The girls stood next to the DJ booth all night, their eyes often closed, hugging each other and dancing. People didn't pay attention to them, because their behavior didn’t stand out, because a lot of people on the dance floor looked like they were high. We ended up staying at the club until the first train home at 6am.

Later that week, I spoke to Hiko*, a professional in his 20s, about the risks of being caught with drugs in Tokyo. “Yes, you need to be careful. I try to dress smart so I don’t attract police attention,” he told me as he smoked weed on his porch. But Hiko seemed more upset by the price of weed than the possibility of getting arrested. "It’s an expensive hobby, 5,000 ($47) yen for one gram of weed.”

A week later, Mika took me out again, this time to a more secretive location in Tokyo. The party wasn’t promoted by the venue, you needed to show an online flyer and know somebody on the guest list to gain access.

Inside the small club, a man in his late 20s, who wore a surgical mask because he had a cold, said he lived two hours outside Tokyo but came here every weekend to get “fucked up”. When I asked him if he was high, he told me he gets stoned on weed most days. He used to take cocaine, which he said he loved, but it was “way too expensive,” costing him $180 pounds a gram, so he quit.

DJ Tanja Houwerzijl

A DJ at one of the clubs the author went to (the DJ may not have taken drugs). / Image: Tanja Houwerzijl

A friend of Mika’s I spoke to at the bar—the two had only met a few weeks previously—told me she was surprised that Mika was a regular drug user. She rarely took drugs and recalled getting stoned once on a trip to the U.S. “Most of my friends don’t go to this kind of club, but I really like the music and the people,” she said. Mika told me most of her family and people outside of her clubbing scene don’t know she takes drugs either. “It’s not something you talk about proudly here in Japan,” she said.

Drug use brings with it large doses of stigma all over the world. But in Japan it appears this stigma is particularly powerful, particularly around the use of methamphetamine. This is rooted in the country’s traumatic experience with the drug during and after World War II.

“During the war, meth use was encouraged by the Japanese state to enhance the productivity of factory workers and to instill national duty to fight in battles,” Brewster said. Following defeat, the use of the drug spiralled into an epidemic. The act of choosing to use illegal drugs was deemed to be innately selfish, socially and morally polluting.

Because using drugs has such a big stigma attached to it, it is harder for people to admit they have a problem and to get help.

Miriam Kingsberg, a specialist in Japanese history at the University of Colorado, wrote in 2013 that this wave of meth addiction “came to symbolize a collective identity of defeat, despair and dependence..to truly regain self-sovereignty, Japan had to be drug-free.” Japan’s postwar meth epidemic, and two subsequent waves of meth addiction linked to economic downturns in the 1970s and 1990s, led to tough sentences for first-time meth offenders and the creation of specialized drug enforcement officers.

“While Japanese society has changed immeasurably, a strong social aversion against taking illegal drugs persists,” Brewster said. The use of drugs as an individual moral failing was extended to cannabis in the 1970s as the Japanese authorities clamped down on ‘corrupting’ counter culture messages coming from the West. In 1987, the Drug Abuse Prevention Centre (DAPC) was established to spread the anti-drugs message. Its Dame, Zettai (‘No, definitely not’) mirrored Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign.

Since then, Japanese children have been deluged with posters, digital media, brochures and even PR cars which transmit messages from loudspeakers, with messages about cannabis leading to destruction and meth users being inhuman. When Canada legalised weed in 2018, the Japanese government warned its citizens that if they smoked weed over there they could be punished when they got back home.

“Social stigma, cultural tendencies to obeying and accepting authority as a young person, and significant pressures to study hard and progress to university,” are significant factors in keeping drug use among Japan’s young people low, according to Brewster. “The time and lives of young people is quite tightly regulated, simply having the time to 'mess around' and be a young person is a luxury most do not have.”

Yet Japan’s zero-tolerance attitude to drugs comes at a cost. Because using drugs has such a big stigma attached to it, it is harder for people to admit they have a problem and to get help. And the less people seek help, the less treatment the government has to provide and the smaller the number of registered addicted users there are. This stigma is also reflected in Japan’s almost non-existent drug death statistics, where overdoses are politely labelled under ‘heart failure’ and where autopsies are carried out in only a small proportion of suspicious or suicide deaths.

This stigma has also created something of a climate of fear about who in a community may or may not be taking drugs.

According to Goro Koto, a social worker in Tokyo who is also involved in drug harm reduction for a charity called Apari, civil servants and doctors are required to inform the police when they find someone using or possessing drugs. In some cases friends and family members have reported loved ones with drug problems. Some medical practitioners will report an illegal drug user to law enforcement authorities if evidence is found of illegal drug use during the course of medical treatment. Intelligence is gathered not just by individuals but by community groups, such as Japan’s network of Volunteer Organizations for Crime Prevention Patrol.

80 percent of drug arrests in Japan are for methamphetamine, even though cannabis is a drug that is three times more prevalent.

Since Japan’s coronavirus lockdown in early April, Mika told me she has still been able to get hold of weed and MDMA, through her boyfriend and other people she knows. She has not been to any clubs or parties during lockdown, but she has had some small “house parties” at her home. Instead of going out she is “producing music, running and practicing yoga."

Meth still haunts Japan. But its biggest drug problem is with legal drugs. It’s no surprise that if people are persuaded so forcefully against taking illegal drugs they will, whether for fun or to deal with pain, flock to lawful ways of getting out of it.

The country has an over-the-counter and prescription drug problem. Koto said young people are increasingly using medicines such as cough suppressants and cold remedies, as well as butane gas, in order to get high. When legal mephedrone hit Japan’s drug scene in the first half of the 2010s, it became highly popular among young people, before the overt sale of the drug was stamped out by new drug laws in 2014.

Official data shows 64 percent of the population uses prescription drugs such as analgesics, tranquillizers and sleeping medication, compared to 25 percent in England. In Japan’s psychiatric wards, sleeping pills and tranquillizers such as benzodiazepines are the second most problematic drugs after meth among patients dealing with addiction.

Public drunkenness is common among 9-to-5ers. Photographer Pawel Jaszczuk published a whole book, High Fashion, consisting of photographs of drunk, sleeping businessmen in Tokyo, a city where the potent national tipple, sake, is available 24/7 from vending machines.

Japan is as tolerant of alcohol intoxication as it is intolerant of illicit intoxication. One of the downsides of this is that alcoholism is not being dealt with. One study found that of over one million Japanese people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, only 80,000 were undergoing treatment.

The number of people arrested for drug offenses in Japan—14,755 in 2018—is also low compared to the U.S. and Britain. But Brewster said this low number is not so much an indicator of actual offending, but of the very hidden nature of drug use in Japan, and of police priorities. He said police drug squads in Japan focus on organized crime and methamphetamine, which is why 80 percent of drug arrests in Japan are for methamphetamine, even though cannabis is a drug that is three times more prevalent.

Seizures of trafficked drugs by Japan’s border forces, which are often destined for distribution by the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, are far smaller than in they are in the West. However, official statistics show the amount of drugs seized, chiefly meth, has been increasing to record numbers over the last four years. A 2018 survey of 246 psychiatric units in 2018 found that of patients who had come into the unit with drug problems, more than half said methamphetamine was their main drug of addiction. This was mirrored in a survey carried out last year of 695 patients in 46 drug rehabs. Again, meth was the most frequent drug of dependence, with 43 percent being treated for meth addiction compared to 24 percent for alcohol.

Unsurprisingly, Japan’s rehab industry is secretive. It is overseen by NGOs, but quietly subsidized by a government that is not overly keen to be seen to be spending public money on drug addicts. The largest of these NGOs is DARC (Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center), which runs 60 clinics, treating 1,200 people across Japan.

When I went to visit one of these, located in a run-of-the-mill Tokyo neighborhood near Nishi Nippori train station, I had trouble finding it. Nothing around the building indicated it was a rehab clinic. There were no signs. The entrance was situated around the back, because managers don’t want word to spread that they're running a rehab clinic. “If we attract too much attention, locals might get upset and start to campaign against us being here,” one staff member told me when we walked in.

This is one of the other downsides to the entrenched stigmatizing of drug use and drug addiction in Japanese culture. While the establishment of rehabs and drug treatment clinics often cause opposition from residents in the U.S. and Europe, in Japan this opposition is particularly vociferous. For example, when DARC wanted to build a new rehab in Kyoto two years ago, having purchased land, it was met by a 14,000 signature petition. Anti-rehab campaigners claimed drug-addicted people were all dangerous criminals and that any residents not objecting to the rehab should be ostracized. In the end, construction was halted. An alternative site too has been met with significant opposition from local residents.

“I was depressed,” he said, “and got into ephedrine.”

As a result of the public’s fear of people who are trying to get off drugs, DARC not only has to work in dilapidated, cramped venues that are often harder to find than the local Yakuza offices (which in some areas are part of the anti-rehab campaigns) but DARC staff and patients are also anxious about being harassed by locals.

Everything in this clinic by Nishi Nippori station, the furniture, gadgets and the decor, is old, including the identification cards of former residents glued to the wall. Yuzuru Mazaki, a former addicted drug user, runs this place. He said most people in here are for addictions to methamphetamine or prescription drugs. It provides rehabilitation for up to 10 residents at a time, plus day care and evening group meetings for former drug users. Under coronavirus lockdown, residential rehabs remain open, although they have had to cut back on community engagement.

Mazaki used to be addicted to ephedrine, a stimulant medication used to treat asthma, also used to make meth. Mazaki told me he had an unhappy childhood. His father was an alcoholic, and he didn’t get much affection from his mother either. He was somewhat of a loner, and isolated himself from society completely, a phenomenon called hikikomori. “I was depressed,” he said, “and got into ephedrine.”

As we waited for a therapeutic talk session to start, Hayato, in his 50s, told me that until a year ago he was addicted to meth. He had a good job for a renowned Japanese car-maker. He managed to hide his addiction from his social circle, including his wife and children.

He laughed when thinking back of the days when he still used it. “I didn’t sleep at the time. I worked long days, partied, used meth, and went to the office. No one noticed anything.” That continued until he got arrested for using company funds for his drug addiction. His wife had little option but to leave him.

Hayato had no moral beef with his own drug use. “I didn’t sleep much, but I don’t think it was hurting me. I didn’t see a reason to stop other than the fact that it’s illegal in Japan. If meth was legal I would get back to it tomorrow, and I think the same goes for everybody in this clinic”, he said, as Mazaki looked on with disapproval. “I enjoyed it.”

Later, Hayato told me he was resigned to not seeing his family until he is off drugs. “I don’t want to see them now, not like this,” he said. “I want to be completely clean, have a job, so that they can be proud of me and not ashamed of me.”