Japan, Land Of The Rising Meth Japan's up and down relationship with one of the world's most dangerous drugs

    We all know that Japan's drug laws are pretty darn strict. But, did you know that crystal meth was originally invented in Japan? Possibly because of this, Japan has had a pretty up and down history with the drug, most of which is pretty interesting. So let's take a look at the story of meth in Japan. Pro tip: meth-related stories rarely have happy endings.

    The Invention Of Crystal Meth

    two fingers holding crystal meth in japan

    Known as shabu シャブ in Japanese (Ah ha! I knew that shabushabu1 place down the street from my place is run by yakuza), plain old methamphetamine was first synthesized from ephedrine by Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893. This is neat and all, but it's no crystal meth. To do this, we have to wait until 1919 when Akira Ogata, Japanese pharmacologist, performs reduction on ephedrine. By doing this, he's able to create crystal meth. Isn't it pretty looking?

    Because nobody really knew it was bad for you (hey, it keeps you skinny, makes you alert, and is totally awesome, right?), it began to gain popularity, though I would say it wasn't until WWII that the stuff was really able to take off.

    Crystal Meth In WWII

    a kamikaze pilot on crystal meth crashing into a battleship

    Under the brand name Philopon/Hiropon ヒロポン, anyone who needed to stave off hunger and stay awake took this form of methamphetamine. Of course, during the war this was everyone. Factory workers could work long hours without eating (more bombs!). Soldiers that needed a pick-me-up took it (more marching!). Even kamikaze pilots were given this drug so they could fly long hours and not feel so bad about crashing into something at the end of their trip (aw, kind of sad!). If you've ever wondered why someone would ever go through with a kamikaze mission, this may be one of your answers.

    That being said, let's be fair here. It wasn't just the Japanese giving drugs to their soldiers. Benzedrine, a similar compound that releases adrenaline, was used by Americans. The Nazis also used meth because they could bring their portable labs to the front. Even Hitler supposedly took a shot of meth every day to keep him feeling chipper (and also to stave off the Parkinson's).

    So, it's not uncommon for drugs to go rampant (even government sanctioned drugs) during war time. That being said, Japan made a ton of Philopon during the war. So much that it had a huge surplus of it after it was all over. So, what do you do with the stuff? Answer: You sell it for super cheap.

    a sign advertising meth in japan known as philopon

    Following the war, Japan had three big problems:

    1. There was a lot of meth leftover not only in Japan, but everywhere else in the world as well (and it's bad manners not to clean your plate, you know).
    2. There was a lot of work to be done (stuff got blown up pretty good and needed to be fixed).
    3. A lot of people were coming home, and there wasn't enough food to go around (people were hungry!).

    Luckily, the second two problems could be fixed by the first problem – How lucky! Dainippon Pharmaceuticals (aka Dainippon Sumitomo Pharma, maybe you've heard of it) had a lot of Philopon to sell, and there certainly was a demand, too.

    a print ad of a mother and son selling meth in japan

    First of all, lots of soldiers were probably addicted to the stuff, meaning they could (legally) keep taking it once they got home. Second, a lot of industrial workers needed to stay awake for long periods of time. Philopon gave them that extra kick they needed to work those long shifts. One other nice side effect of meth is that you stop being hungry. With a shortage of food and a surplus of philopon, these two things went nicely together. Plus, you eventually lose all your teeth so why would you want to eat anything anyways? Win-win.

    Really, anyone and their grandmother could get the stuff, and because not a lot of research had been done, people didn't understand the implications of a nation on meth until a bit later. By then, though, it was kind of an epidemic.

    The Crystal Meth Epidemics

    image of japan before meth and after meth

    After the war in 1946, we start to see the first reported cases of psychosis due to meth in Japan (as well as around the world). By 1948, people started to figure out that meth wasn't a good idea, so Japan banned its use in tablet or powdered form. This left injection, which is actually much worse for you in the long term. Hospitalizations increased and drug-related crimes increased. Obviously it was time to put a stop to all this.

    In 1951, the Japanese Ministry of Health banned meth in Japan, causing an overproduction of the stuff once again (yay, cheap meth!). Also, labs just began to move overseas (which partly explains why there are so many meth labs in Asia around Japan, and very few inside of Japan). 17,528 people were arrested in the first year of meth being illegal, but this number just continued to increase. In 1954, harsher penalties (including imprisonment up to 5 years for the first offense) got introduced. Despite this, 55,000 people were arrested in 1955 for drug-related crimes.

    In 1955, however, a few things changed. The Japanese government created a huge campaign against substance abuse. Also, began to prohibit the raw materials usually used to make meth from being imported into the country and meth labs started getting raided. Really, this is when Japan put its foot down, and although crystal meth is still the most popular drug in Japan today, its tapered off quite a bit (as you'll see).

    Crystal Meth In Japan Today

    yakuza man covered in tattoos who sells meth in japan

    My Yakuza Meth Dealer: Toshio "No Nipple Tats" Watanabe

    Crystal meth, unsurprisingly, is the most commonly used illegal drug in Japan. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 80% of drug-related arrests in Japan have involved methamphetamine. Also, half the meth-related arrests in Japan were also related to the yakuza and other organized crime (if you go, tell them "Koichi Four-Fingers" referred you for a discount). It's used by all kinds of people too. Those skinny Japanese school girls gotta stay skinny, you know?

    For the most part, though, Japan and crystal meth manufacturing are quite separate (or people are extra good at hiding their labs). In 2010, the first crystal meth lab since 1995 was found and busted. That's 15 years of no meth-labs being discovered. I think it's safe to assume that Japan isn't producing much of its crystal meth. Instead, it's importing it mainly from the countries Canada, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey.

    Japan definitely has a history of going nuts over its "drug problem," though. While I will say that drugs are bad, kids, I think Japan's reaction to the problem is pretty interesting. When a celebrity is caught with marijuana, it's a gigantic media frenzy. The Japanese government is always lamenting about its terrible drug problems… but when you take a look, it's not actually all that bad.

    • Japan (population 127.7 million) reports approximately 4,000 annual marijuana offenses every year. The single state of California (population 38.6 million) reports approximately 75,000 annual marijuana offenses per year. Marijuana is currently the #2 most used drug behind crystal meth in Japan.
    • In Japan, only 3% of people say they have tried "banned substances." Comparatively 46% of Americans say they have tried banned substances.
    • Japan sees around 12,000 crystal meth related arrests every year (this number has been pretty level for a while now). Compare this to 1955, which had 55,000 people.

    I'm sure Japan would love a zero on the board when it comes to drugs, but when you compare these numbers to other countries (or even the Japan of 50 years ago), you have yourself a fairly small problem. I will say, though, that I think that marijuana will probably overtake crystal meth for the number one spot. Crystal meth has been holding steady at 12,000ish for quite a while now, but marijuana has been on the rise. Despite Japan's long history with meth, there'll be a new king soon. And, if I had to choose, I'd rather have to deal with pot over meth any day.

    1. A popular Japanese dish made of thinly sliced beef boiled in water. Usually served in restaurants where you cook the meat yourself at your table.