Taking Methamphetamine in Japan

Note: This is a story I researched while working as a reporter in Japan in 2009 but never published. It appears here for the first time.

IN A SMALL APARTMENT in Osaka’s northern suburbs, a group of 15 drug addicts sits and listens as one of them, a man who looks to be in his late-twenties, talks about his addiction. The group sessions are held three times a day and are run by DARC, a drug addiction rehabilitation center with 50 branches across Japan. I sit at the edge of the circle and listen as the man talks about not being able to hold down even temporary jobs, and the family and friends he has lost due to his problem.

“Between 80 and 90 percent of people who come here are methamphetamine users,’’ Meba Kurata tells me. She has been running the center since it was established in 1993. She goes on to tell me something I didn’t know: most Japanese meth addicts use the drug to enhance pleasure during sex.

Unlike in the west, where rockstars and Hollywood-types are almost expected to have at least tried drugs at some point, when Japanese celebrities are arrested for suspected illegal drug use, it’s pretty much the end of their career. One glaring example is the former pop idol Noriko Sakai who was huge in Asia during the 1990s, and whose career tanked after she and her professional surfer husband were arrested on suspicion of using meth, also known as ‘crystal’, ‘glass’ or ‘speed’ in the west. Sakai, now 43, who appeared in a 1993 anti-drugs campaign, was charged for possession of—wait for it—0.008 gram of the drug back in 2009.

“My weakness caused me to give in to illegal drugs and caused grief to many people,” she said at a press conference after posting bail. “I pledge to repent and atone for this crime for the rest of my life.”

Sakai’s arrest sparked a media frenzy at the time and even drew comments from a top government spokesman who said drug use was “widespread in the entertainment world”—the sort of statement that would draw blank stares if said by a U.S. politician about Hollywood.

Some non-drug takers, very early on a Sunday morning in Kyoto.

Funnily, Japan is no stranger to methamphetamine. The drug, derived from ephedrine, was discovered by Japanese chemist Nagayoshi Nagai in 1893. Variants were synthesised and were given to soldiers during the Second World War, including even being used as a stimulant by pilots in the German Luftwaffe.

The Japanese word for meth, kakuseizai, has a pretty literal meaning which can be translated as ‘stimulating agent’. But on the street it’s called shabu, which has a more interesting etymology, ranging from the ‘shabu-shabu’ sound the liquid form of the drug makes when shaken in a glass vial, to the Japan pronunciation of the English word ‘sharp’, used to describe the feeling users get when on a meth high.

I decided it would be a good idea to find out what the authorities themselves think of meth use in Japan, so I set up an interview with Tadashi Takahashi, Director of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s Investigative Intelligence and Strategy Division in Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. I meet him at the ministry’s office in downtown Osaka. He looks like a Japanese Tom Selleck, replete with a moustache and glasses. Takahashi shows me a video the cops have taken of street meth deals, and afterward tells me drug dealers can make bucketloads of cash—up to 30 million yen ($255,000 USD) a month—selling chemical stimulants. I ask him how come meth is so popular.

“Japanese have a soft spot for stimulants,’’ he says. “They like to work hard and be active. That’s probably why methamphetamines have been popular for so long,’’ he says.

The country is well known for its harsh penalties for drug use. Paul McCartney famously spent 10 nights in jail for marijuana possession in 1980, and in 2009 a 20-year-old Kyoto University law student was arrested for possession of around 0.8 gram of cannabis. The student had apparently wandered into a police station with some weed in one of his pockets.

Back at the addict centre, Kurata is critical of the Japanese government’s myopia. “The penalties are too harsh,’’ she says, and admits that she herself has been to prison for drug use. She says the two- to three-year sentences for possessing small amounts does little to help addicts and rather is a waste of taxpayer money.

“It costs three million yen ($25,400) to house a prisoner for a year,’’ she says. “Japan needs a care system outside of the prison system or it will end up like Ronald Regan’s drug war of the 1980s did—a complete failure.’’ ω

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