Photo By Radspunk – Own work, GFDL,

Japan has extremely strict laws against growing, manufacturing, possessing, or using and kind of illegal drugs.  Professional athletes have seen their soaring careers come to abrupt ends for being found smoking a joint.  One might wonder, then, why would anyone in Japan take the risk?  It might be even more shocking to you that Japan is leading the market in consumption of methamphetamine pills, and crystal meth.

A Home-Grown Problem

While amphetamines were first discovered in Germany by a Romanian chemist named Lazăr Edeleanu, it was later synthesized into methamphetamine and methamphetamine  hydrochloride by Japanese pharmacists in 1893, and 1919 respectively.  During World War II, methamphetamine were sold in tablet form as a stimulant to stave off hunger and promote wakefulness.  At the time, these were issues everyone in Japan found themselves struggling with.

These tablets were sold under the brand name Philopon, like any other typical pharmaceutical product.  Supposedly, the brand name was derived from the Greek word “philoponus”, meaning “he who loves labor.”

With Philopon to fuel them, Factory workers could work longer without feeling the gnaw of starvation.  Soldiers could march longer.  Pilots could fly further distances, especially if it was a one-way trip…  After the war ended, however, there were still mass supplies of methamphetamine on hand, and no army to buy it up, but a large number of starving addicts all around.  So, meth tablets became cheap and easy to access.

It wasn’t until 1948, after enough meth-fueled post-war construction workers went off the deep end, that people started to figure out meth might be bad for you.  The Japanese government made tablets and powders illegal, but left the loophole of injection wide open, which was significantly worse.

“Using drugs is akin to committing suicide little by little every day.”  “So many people have come and gone in my life that my heart has become numb and my tears have dried up.” ~ Yoji Miura, director of Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC)

Keeping The Machine Running

After Japan broadened restrictions, imposed heavier penalties on possession (such as five years imprisonment for the first offense), and took steps to crack down on those who were supplying it, many of the manufacturers moved out of Japan.  However, this didn’t put a stop to meth usage in Japan.

Meth labs remain prevalent all over Asia, and are heavily trafficked to Japan, where dealers find it safer to import than to cook their own.  In 2013, nearly 13,000 people were arrested on methamphetamine-related charges in Japan, and nearly half of them were yakuza.

It’s no surprise that the yakuza have dipped their fingers into the meth business, as its street price in Japan is roughly double what it is in the US.  Some estimates claim the value of a single gram in Japan may run as high as $700 US.  While the business is dangerous, it is also highly lucrative.

A Tempest In A Teacup

Now, let’s try to keep Japan’s “raging drug problem” in perspective.  While there were nearly 13,000 people arrested on meth-related charges in 2013, that’s down from some 55,000 in 1955.  Meanwhile, Japan reports roughly 4,000 cannabis related arrests per year, while the state of California alone reports approximately 75,000.

In the grand scheme of things, methamphetamine use is nowhere near an “epidemic” in Japan.  However, it is still a highly destructive drug.  Meth addicts tend to pick at their skin, leaving open sores, often because they feel like their skin is “crawling”.  The drugs they’re consuming, combined with their decreased nutrition, also lead to tooth decay and hair loss.  They may also gravitate toward compulsive sexual behaviors, engaging in risky and unprotected sex.  High-dose users experience “crashes” after they stop taking it, and withdrawal symptoms may continue for weeks, including depression, sleepiness, anxiety, and violent mood swings.

A Drug-Free Japan

Japan continues to fight against all drug use, both through legal penalties, and social implications.  Drug users are often ostracized by their communities to such a degree that even recovered addicts are faced with difficulties finding housing and employment.  This unfortunate implication means that many recovered addicts are prone to relapse, as their new “clean” life provides constant obstacles.

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