Startling Anti-Drug Manga In Japan Draws Intense Mockery

Startling Anti-Drug Manga In Japan Draws Intense Mockery

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Anti-drug manga
Why a new anti-drug manga from Wakayama Prefecture has earned across the board ridicule for its depiction of marijuana use.

In the final panels of a webcomic recently released on the Wakayama Prefecture homepage, our protagonist, middle school student Rin, lies in bed. Her eyes are blurry; ragged lines under them make her appear as though she hasn’t slept in days. She stares at the screen of her mobile phone, its ambient light making her face appear all the more pallid. In narration, she regrets that her actions – smoking marijuana – have destroyed her family. Yet still, we see that she’s scrolling through the darkweb, looking for more of the drug. Her illicit addiction is all that is left to her.

The short webcomic, simply titled “Manga for Edification Regarding Preventing Drug Abuse” (薬物乱用防止啓発まんが), is the product of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Division of the Wakayama Prefecture Health and Welfare Department’s Health Bureau. In many ways, it’s a standard work one could see in any government anti-drug campaign. Its messaging contains the usual refrains; watch out for peer pressure, you’ll think you can stop but you won’t, drugs can (and will) ruin your life. The message is enhanced by appealing art, with a yellow-greenish color palate well-suited to a story about unease and herbal drugs.

However, many aspects of the comic have distracted from what might have been a laudable attempt at convincing school-aged children to avoid drug use. Certain excesses, blatant mistruths about the actual effects of marijuana, and a dark portrayal of Japanese society have provoked criticism and mockery from Japanese web users. As countries around the world begin to legalize and decriminalize marijuana use for both recreational and medical purposes, some local commentators are wondering if this webcomic isn’t proof of just how behind the times Japan’s government remains on the subject.

Drug Law in Japan

Modern Japan is well-known for its strict anti-drug policies. Although alcohol and tobacco consumption are near-ubiquitous, other drug products (whether marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, or heroin) remain major societal taboos. Education related to these drugs focuses on complete abstinence and on the demonization of such products. Both possession and distribution carry heavy sentences.

Some local commentators are wondering if this webcomic isn't proof of just how behind the times Japan's government remains on the subject. Click To Tweet

It’s not just laws keeping people away from drugs, however. In many other industrialized countries, the use of illicit drugs by otherwise law-abiding citizens (especially those in “artistic” fields) is often considered unsurprising and perhaps even par for the course. Not so in Japan. The Japanese legal system strives to completely delegitimize the use of illegal drugs via harsh punishments, including those leveled at celebrities. If caught with possession of even small amounts of a given drug, punishments are meted out both via the legal system and by society itself.

Fame is no Excuse

Examples of punished celebrities abound. In March of 2019, entertainer and musician Pierre Taki was arrested for possession of cocaine. The reaction was swift and startling: Taki was replaced as the voice of Olaf in the Japanese version of Frozen and lost all of his other gigs to boot. Manhole covers of the man were even removed in the city of Fujieta.

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On November 16th, 2019, popular Japanese actress Sawajiri Erika was arrested following a police search of her Tokyo home which uncovered a small amount (0.09 grams – essentially a small single dose) of the party drug MDMA. Sawajiri was slated to star in the period drama Kirin ga Kuru; filming was already completed, yet she was edited out of the show. Another actress was brought in for costly reshoots. This is the degree to which producers feared association with drugs sinking their show.

Indeed, celebrities are not simply removed from upcoming projects, but also tend to have their previous work removed from store shelves. Such was the case of Aska, half of the popular 80s rock band Chage and Aska. Upon a police raid uncovering small amounts of stimulants in Aska’s apartment, the duo’s label leapt to reaction; they recalled their CDs and DVDs from stores, ceased production of said materials, and a Chage and Aska music video was removed from a scheduled DVD release of the collected works of famed director Miyazaki Hayao.

High Stats

Despite little change in governmental policy towards drugs like marijuana in Japan, there have been some shifts within society itself. Namely, marijuana, although still far from normalized, is seeing increasingly popular usage. Arrests for marijuana possession are way up among young adults. 2017 saw 3008 arrests on marijuana charges, up nearly 20% from the year previous. Arrests of those aged 20-29 rose nearly 50% from 2014. For those under 20, the rate of arrests was almost four times what it had been in the same year. The next year, overall arrests rose by yet another 500 cases – the highest yet recorded.

In an article aptly-titled “Cannabis Fever!” in the June 5th, 2018 issue of Spa! magazine, interviews with marijuana users spoke to normalization. With more Japanese celebrities being caught with the drug, it was said to be taking on a more hip image. Indeed, some celebrities have even broached the taboo of discussing legalization itself. Despite these perceptible shifts, in 2017 it was estimated that only 1.4% of the Japanese populace used marijuana. Comparatively, the US government has reported that in 2019, 35.7% of 12th graders alone admitted to having used the substance at least once in the year prior. Meanwhile, a 2019 study of Japanese junior high school students found that only 0.3% had ever tried any illicit drug.

In the Funny Papers

“Someone shared Wakayama Prefecture cannabis manga with me, but it’s so dumb that I’ve been laughing at it since morning.”

The increase of marijuana usage among Japanese youth is certainly a good enough reason for new public health campaigns. Wakayama Prefecture, sadly, seems to have dropped the ball with their new anti-drug comic.

The first mark against it is that its writers seem totally unaware of the actual effects or appeal of cannabis. Within the short story, protagonist Rin is peer-pressured into using marijuana by two classmates. Online commentators have latched onto the extremely on-the-nose names of these two; friend one is Yoko, whose name (葉子) literally means “leaf child” – “leaf” being the first half of a common word for marijuana, “happa.” Rin’s other friend is Maki (麻貴), the first kanji character of whose name is also half of the word for narcotic (麻薬、mayaku) and that for cannabis (大麻, taima).

“That the friends’ names are Maki-chan and Yoko-chan is just LOL”

Yoko and Maki tempt Rin into trying marijuana because it “feels so good” (standard stuff, that) but also because “it also helps you concentrate on your studies.” (This is essentially the opposite of the “zone out” effect marijuana is stereotyped as having.) Rin convinces herself that trying it once will be alright, since “I hear it isn’t all that addictive.” Alas, she immediately turns into a hard-core addict. She spends all day in her now-dirty room, trying to find ways to get her fix. Her mother notices her wan, pale face, and questions why her daughter has had so little appetite of late. (Marijuana is famously a drug that makes you want to eat more, rather than less.)

“There’s no way they could concentrate on their studies lol
what a bunch of disinformation”

Rin a Little Trouble

The students are shocked, with one asking, "could that be… cannabis?" Click To Tweet

As months go by, Rin continues to tell herself that she isn’t addicted. Unlike her friends, she can stop at any time!. Meanwhile, she’s now toking up at school. She shares a joint with friends before a test. One says “I decided to put in even more [weed] than usual. Let’s use this to ace the next test.” Her other friend responds, “all three of us are sure to get full marks.” (Marijuana is very much not a study drug.)

“‘Justice’ is a scary thing. Just how long is this country’s government going to invest tax money into this sort of idiotic propaganda? Are there any middle and high school students who can still be fooled by this sort of thing? At the very least do the bare minimum of info gathering and scientific research before you draw this. You’re mixing up stimulants and marijuana.”

Alas, Maki “overdoses” during the said test. (Overdosing on marijuana is essentially impossible, but it could have just caused her to fall asleep.) The teacher, worried, decides to take Maki to the school nurse. He tasks another student with packing Maki’s things into her school bag. Incredulously, the student finds a baggie stuffed with weed, lifting it up for all to see. The students are shocked, with one asking, “could that be… cannabis?”

The classroom is in an uproar. “Maki’s a junkie!” Rin hides her face as the police arrive. The other children yell out, “no way! It’s a cop car! She’s a criminal!” Rin goes home, terrified that Maki will rat her out. She stares at a large baggie of weed on her bedroom table; rather than flushing it, she begins smoking an oversized joint. When the police bust into her room moments later, her crime is bare for all to see.

Rin’s father lashes out, hitting his daughter across the face. Her mother and sister are in hysterics. As the police cuff Rin and begin to take her away, her mother screams out in anguish.

Then the real trauma begins.

The Threat of Social “Bashing”

The news media report on the scandal of the three high-school potheads. Students begin to disseminate a doxxing list, complete with Rin’s name, address, phone number, and family member’s names. As Rin’s father walks home from work, people whisper and stare. He finds his door covered in paper carrying aggressive messages; “criminal family,” “just move already or we’ll bash you,” and “currently cultivating cannabis.” He rips off the offending papers and enters his home, only to find his wife lying of the floor, her wrists slit in an apparent suicide attempt.

“This means Wakayama Prefecture is ok with this sort of extrajudicial punishment spreading, right? While it is true that cannabis is illegal, isn’t it a bit wrong for tax money to go into the prefecture approving of this sort of expression?”

Rin is back at home now, but nothing is the same. Her mother is alive but hospitalized for “mental instability.” Rin’s sister has dropped out of school because of bullying and refuses to speak. The family is forced to go to family court and is placed on probation. Rin reflects on how it’s all her fault; “if I’d just said no, none of this would have happened.” But, she acknowledges to herself, it’s already too late for that. And so we return to where we began – a dead-eyed Rin in her darkened room, attempting to buy more weed.

Not Exactly the Intended Effect

Public-service manga are a dime a dozen. Still, something about this webcomic made it especially open to ridicule.

The first point of contention is, of course, just how much the comic gets wrong about the drug it’s portraying. It conflates the effects of amphetamines and heroin with weed. It also portrays the drug as physically addicting in a way it’s generally not believed to be. The idea that the comic is trying to inform while simultaneously getting so much wrong has brought on much derision.

Worse, however, is the social threat blatantly implied by this comic. Not only will weed disrupt your life and get you arrested, it’ll also devastate your entire family beyond repair. The comic portrays what is often called social “bashing” or “lynching” in Japan (a word choice that has uncomfortable connotations for US Americans). Families of criminals are labeled “perpetrator families” (加害者家族), and, like Rin’s family, are subjected to mass doxxing and social ostracization.

“Wakayama Prefecture’s “Manga for Edification Regarding Preventing Drug Abuse” basically shows the hurt caused by marijuana to be societal prejudice in the form of bullying, outing, papers stuck onto the houses, and vigilante justice, and furthermore places the blame for all this on the [drug] user – isn’t this wrong? And to have the final show that there’s no hope for rehabilitation is just horrible…”

Admittedly, this is far from the first Japanese state-produced comic to use the threat of social punishment to curb perceived bad behavior. I personally remember reading a comic laid on desks office-wide in Japan on drunk-driving. I too portrayed not just the dangers of drinking itself but also had the offending teacher getting fired and divorced. It also showed his son being bullied and ostracized at school.

Dark Justice

"Rather than saying 'marijuana is terrifying,' this manga says 'Japanese society is terrifying.'" Click To Tweet

However, social perceptions have changed somewhat in the age of COVID-19. News in Japan has been rife with stories of similar “bashing” being aimed at the families of those infected with the disease. Rocks are thrown through windows; threatening notes are scrawled on doors. People have been forced to move.

“What the heck is this.
Rather than saying ‘marijuana is terrifying,’ this manga says ‘Japanese society is terrifying.'”

Ironically, the very same Wakayama Prefectural department which released this webcomic also uploaded a condemnation of the online targeting of those infected with COVID. The department asserted that “no matter the case, human rights abuses such as discrimination, bullying, and slander cannot be allowed.”

In a strange (but perhaps predictable) turn, the anti-drug manga has even received Rin fan art.

There is also one final point that has brought about the ire of some commentators: the implication that there is no rehabilitation for marijuana users. Rin, a middle schooler, has irreparably destroyed her life and her family because she smoked some weed. More than that, she is simply unable to quit, despite all the destruction it has wrought. The message is stark: smoke weed, and everything you love and care about is forfeit, forever. In our modern world, the message rings a bit too dark – and a bit too unjust.

Sources

Kingsberg, M. (2014). Moral nation: modern Japan and narcotics in global history. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Buzzapp! (2020年9月11日.) 「和歌山県の「薬物乱用防止啓発まんが」、大麻と覚せい剤を混同しバッシングを容認するなど、いろいろ酷い内容に。Livedoor News.

Siripala, T. (June 11, 2019.) Japan’s Police Struggle to Curb a Sharp Increase in Cannabis Use. The Diplomat.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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