Japan and Controlled Substances: A Short History

Japan and Controlled Substances: A Short History

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Drugs
花咲かずなり / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Learn about Japan's history with controlled substances - from the use of marijuana in the Jomon era to the Japanese chemist who created crystal meth.

When it comes to drug policies, Japan is known for being one of the strictest countries on the planet. For people from the West, this can be rather distressing. Not only do street drugs such as marijuana carry heavy jail time, but even prescription drugs–especially those that are stimulant-based–come under heavy scrutiny.  As a matter of fact, it’s highly recommended that those with prescriptions from their homeland carry at least a 60-day supply and a doctor’s note. Despite this, even crucial medications such as Adderall are prohibited in Japan.

Nevertheless, Japan and certain controlled substances have a historical relationship.  Though largely erased in recent years through the incessant “Dame. Zettai” anti-drug campaign, the popularity and even former legality of these drugs are undeniable

In this essay, I’ll focus on psilocybin aka “magic mushrooms”, methamphetamine aka “crystal meth” and marijuana.  The key points will be their history of cultivation and/or production in Japan, their popularity, why they were eventually banned, and the criminal penalties they currently carry.

Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybin–a psychoactive fungus also known as “magic mushrooms”– is speculated to have been present in Japan since the Jomon Period (14,000–300 BCE).  Similar to hunter-gatherer groups worldwide, psilocybin was used in shamanic rituals during the solstices.  In Japan alone, there are 30 native species of psilocybin.

Historically speaking, magic mushrooms have been referred to as “dancing mushrooms”.  A notable account can be found in The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales, a compilation of Japanese folktales from the 9th to 13th centuries.  In the tale “How a Group of Nuns Went into the Mountains, Ate Some Mushrooms and Danced”, woodcutters encounter some inebriated nuns, and the later group shares their story of how they came to pass. 

Apparently, they went to pick some flowers for the Buddha, but they grew hungry.  After coming across some mushrooms in the grass, they ate them to keep from starving.  Suddenly, they felt an unexpected urge to dance, and so they did. 

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Intrigued, the woodcutters ask for the mushrooms. They end up dancing together with the nuns, while clearly high. After their dance party, they soon parted ways. Because of this legend, magic mushrooms were traditionally known as odoritake, or “dancing mushroom”.  

A folktale by itself might not be considered credible. But the archaeological existence of psilocybin paraphernalia combined with the mycological evidence of psilocybin itself shows that it was definitely part of Japanese society well before modern times.  Moreover, due to some loopholes, magic mushrooms were available well into the 21st century.

Why Was It Banned?

The chemical psilocybin itself was illegal. But because magic mushrooms were never included in the drug law, they were openly sold in Japan until 2002.  Through a legal loophole that allowed for vegetables of all kinds to be imported, customers were able to purchase them at head shops–even in major districts like Tokyo’s Shibuya.

Yet these magic mushrooms came from Hawaii and Europe, rather than Japan itself.  This might be because it’s easier to feign ignorance with foreign strains than native ones. In other words, “If you know it’s a magic mushroom and eat it, that’s illegal. If you don’t know what it is and eat it, that’s fine.” This “hear no evil, speak no evil” mentality remained persistent even during related drug busts.  The one time a mushroom-related arrest was made, it was because the accused was selling medicine without a license, rather than the fact he possessed USD $190,438 worth (adjusted for 2020 inflation)  of magic mushroom powder.

Magic mushrooms were officially banned in 2002, in response to reported overdoses within the previous five years. Most notably, magic mushroom overdoses rose from one to 38 in 2000. While it may seem like a paltry number in a national population of 126 million, the exponential growth of overdoses can be greatly alarming.

As of June 6, 2002, possession of magic mushroom carries a penalty of up to seven years’ imprisonment.

Crystal Meth

Picture: NOV / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Methamphetamine was originally developed by Dr. Nagai Nagayoshi (1844-1929), an organic chemist and Japan’s first pharmaceutical doctor.  His interest in the compound was sparked after studying at Germany’s Humboldt University of Berlin, under the tutelage of Dr. August Wilhelm von Hofmann.  At the time, von Hofmann’s lab experiments had led to the development of amphetamine, originally touted as a treatment for asthma.

Upon Dr. Nagai’s return to Japan, he mainly focused on the chemical properties of traditional Japanese herbs. In 1887, he isolated ephedrine from the plant Ephedra sinica, then used it to synthesize amphetamine in 1893.  Unfortunately, even after both achievements, Dr. Nagai never found a practical use for either compound, so his discoveries fell by the wayside.

Despite this lapse in experimentation, the story of methamphetamine did not stop there. In 1919, Dr. Ogata Akira re-examined Nagai’s findings, and developed a simpler recipe. 

After combining ephedrine, iodine and red phosphorus, Dr. Ogata discovered a crystallized version of methamphetamine, better known as “crystal meth”. Share on X

As previously mentioned, the original uses of stimulants for medical treatment, ranged from asthma to even depression.  However, the surge in popularity began during World War II, when military personnel not only needed to stay awake in battle, but also needed motivation to carry out deadly tasks. Pill forms of crystal meth were developed in both Germany and Japan–two of the former Axis Power nations. The Japanese name of the pill was “Philopon”, meaning “love of work”.

While soldiers affiliated with both the Axis and Allied Powers (US, UK, Russia, France) used crystal meth in high doses, the most notable Japanese example is the kamikaze pilots, who were given meth in particularly high doses in order to carry out their suicide missions.

Why Was it Banned

Despite this relatively early ban, meth is the most popular street drug in contemporary Japan. Drug dealers rake in as much as 30 million yen a month selling it. Share on X

Even after World War II ended in 1945, a surplus of crystal meth was made available to the general public and was often prescribed as diet and/or depression medication.  Re-branded as “Hiropon”, the main demographic was impoverished citizens who were still recovering from the war. Horrifyingly–and unsurprisingly–it turned into a major epidemic.  As a result, Japan introduced the Stimulant Control Law in 1951, which banned the use of meth in all of its forms. Possession carries a penalty of up to ten years.

Despite this relatively early ban, meth is the most popular street drug in contemporary Japan. Drug dealers rake in as much as 30 million yen a month selling it. According to Takahashi Tadashi, Director of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s Investigative Intelligence and Strategy Division in Osaka:

Japanese have a soft spot for stimulants. They like to work hard and be active. That’s probably why [methamphetamine has] been popular for so long.

Marijuana

Marijuana leaf on Japanese flag
Picture: Lukasz Stefanski / Shutterstock

Similar to magic mushrooms, marijuana, also known as cannabis, has very strong ancestral ties to Japanese society, starting once again from the Jomon Period. During that prehistoric time, people used cannabis fibers to make clothing and fishing bowls.  The specific strain used for these purposes was Cannabis sativa.  

On top of this, cannabis was part of many Shinto rituals–priests used it to give blessings and exorcise spirits.  Laymen left modest offerings of cannabis on roadside shrines, and burned bundles of it during Obon to welcome back the dead.  Historians believe that commoners were more likely to smoke cannabis, since the wealthy held a monopoly on rice and its alcohol byproduct, sake.

Up to the 20th century, cannabis-based remedies were sold to the public.  Many were familiar with the medical benefits of cannabis, and consumed it to treat insomnia and chronic pain.  Nevertheless–and similar to crystal meth–World War II greatly influenced the politics surrounding cannabis.

Why Was It Banned?

At the beginning of WWII, cannabis was farmed heavily for rope and fabric and aided the military efforts.  However, after Japan surrendered in 1945, it fell under US occupation. With their takeover, the US brought their culture, military presence and yes, their anti-drug policies.  Coming off of their “Reefer Madness” hysteria, and the banning of cannabis in Washington State, US authorities sought to install the same restrictions in Japan.

While one could speculate that their influence was preventative, we discussed earlier how meth, the undeniably more harmful drug was legally available until 1951. Therefore it can be assumed that the motivations behind the eventual banning of cannabis were more political than altruistic.  Another theory was that synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon were now on the rise, and that cannabis-based fabrics were a huge threat to US production of the former.

Takayasu Junichi, curator of the Taima Hakubutsukan (The Cannabis Museum), believes the 1948 Cannabis Control Act was created to dampen Japan’s military:

In the same way that U.S. authorities discouraged kendo and judo, the 1948 Cannabis Control Act was a way to undermine militarism in Japan.  The wartime cannabis industry had been so dominated by the military that the Cannabis Control Act was designed to strip away its power.

The new law stated that while licensed farmers can still grow cannabis, they must grow low-THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound) strains.  Illicit growers face up to ten years in prison, while possession brings a sentence of anywhere from five to seven years.

Summary

While there is no denying that many controlled substances or drugs carry adverse side effects, it’s important to not stigmatize them or their usage as part of an inherently evil subculture.  Such stigma feeds back into Japan’s shame culture, and makes people afraid to even discuss drugs, let alone use them. This is most evident in the reactionary response to drug scandals in Japan, where vitriol trumps empathy.

For Japan’s Busted Drug Users, Shame Trumps Treatment

As I mentioned in the introduction, the issue with the “Dame, Zettai” motto is that it conflates all controlled substances as something unknown and scary, without any historical and societal context.  While this authoritarian approach may have been permissible in the past, it’s not as helpful now, especially with the advent of the Internet. There is much more information available about controlled substances--both helpful and unhelpful.  However, if we are able to examine drugs in Japan in a more historical and less sensational context, it could help make treatment--and even decriminalization--a less taboo topic.

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Thalia Harris

Thalia-Marie Harris is a North Jersey/New York native, currently residing in Tokyo, where she works as an ESL teacher and freelance writer. Her previous pieces have appeared in Metropolis Tokyo and pacificREVIEW.

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