Dealing with addiction: Japan’s drug problem

With popular singer-songwriter Ryo Aska appearing in court on drug charges on Thursday, we examine the darker side of substance abuse

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Some kid shot up a dose again tonight
Pushed back by his other self
Even if you were to buy your dream
You need self-control
No one talks about hopes and dreams
All that’s there is something better, something new, a better way
The name is “Kicks Street” — the city of desire

— Lyrics from “Kicks Street” (1998), Ryo Aska

Who knows what is going through singer-songwriter Ryo Aska’s mind as he awaits his first appearance in court on drugs charges in Tokyo on Thursday. Does he have any regrets over his alleged possession of illegal substances? If he did use such substances, does he have any desire to quit? Or will his 1998 song prove to be something of a premonition?

The pop star, whose real name is Shigeaki Miyazaki, made headlines in May when he was arrested for the alleged possession and use of illicit substances. Newspapers and TV programs universally decried the horrors associated with stimulants, suggesting such drugs are eating away at the fabric of society.

Every time a celebrity such as Aska is arrested on drug charges, news outlets whip themselves into a frenzy about how dangerous such substances are. Fueled by overwrought media coverage, the public typically gets behind the police in pushing for tougher drug-related legislation.

But little, if any, light is shed on the darker side of drugs — addiction.

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

In 2013, 12,951 people were arrested in Japan on drug-related charges. Most were charged with the possession or use of stimulants broadly called methamphetamine. It’s virtually impossible to gauge from this figure how many people in the country are currently struggling with an addiction, but the health ministry says the number of arrests is just the tip of the iceberg.

Miura himself is a recovering addict. Bullied as a child for being overweight, he realized his size enabled him to fight back and he began hanging out with a rough crowd. He started sniffing glue to get high but, eventually, started using marijuana and methamphetamine. He was arrested twice before being sentenced to a year in prison.

“When you are first in prison, you think you’re never going to use drugs again because you never want to go back there,” Miura said. “By the time you are released, however, you tell yourself to make sure you’re never caught again.”

That was when Miura was first introduced to DARC.

Established in Tokyo in 1985, DARC now has 57 branches with 78 facilities all over Japan. Most members live in DARC dormitories and they generally attend two internal meetings and one external Narcotics Anonymous meeting every day. Most employees at each facility are recovering addicts, too.

“DARC is the only place addicts can be honest,” Miura said. “Once you’ve spent time in prison, you have to lie all the time: when you’re looking for a job or a place to live, or meeting new people.”

Stimulants have effectively dominated the domestic drug scene since the end of World War II. Chemist Nagayoshi Nagai first synthesized methamphetamine from ephedrine in 1893, and people would primarily use it to recover from fatigue.

Philopon, produced by Dainippon Pharmaceutical Co. (now Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma), was used as a pick-me-up during World War II for military personnel who needed to stay alert. The name is said to have originated from the Greek word philoponus, which means “he who loves labor.”

Military stocks of the methamphetamine fell into civilian hands in the aftermath of World War II, leading to widespread abuse. At its peak in 1954, police reports estimated there were 550,000 addicts in the country, with around 2 million people having tried the drug at some point in their life.

The Stimulant Control Law was enacted in 1951, banning the production, import, possession or use of methamphetamine across the board. A subsequent police crackdown meant that the number of arrests over the substance fell dramatically from 55,664 in 1954 to 271 in 1958, the lowest number in postwar history. However, stimulants are strongly addictive, and the number of arrests has remained steadily above 10,000 since 1976.

That said, drug use in Japan appears to be significantly lower than the figures reported abroad. According to statistics compiled by the health ministry in February, 0.4 percent of the Japanese population aged between 15 and 64 years old have tried stimulants at least once in their life. In the United States, 5.1 percent of the population over the age of 12 has tried meth at least once. Meanwhile, 41.9 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at least once in their life, compared to 1.2 percent of the Japanese population.

Nobuya Naruse, deputy chief at Saitama Prefectural Psychiatric Hospital, says police in Japan often brag about being extremely vigilant when it comes to drugs but show little interest in treating addicts once they’re caught.

“Japan is very good at regulating drug-related crime — one of the leading nations in the world — and depends on regulation to keep the crime rate down in terms of drug use,” Naruse says. “But that is why it has fallen way behind in terms of the treatment and recovery of addiction.”

More recently, a new problem is changing the outlook on drugs in the country: “loophole drugs.”

In addition to the Stimulant Control Law, other drug-related legislation includes the Cannabis Control Law, the Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Law and the Opium Law. The Metropolitan Police Department is, ineffectively, using the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law to deal with this new variation of drugs.

Loophole drugs typically include a mixture of chemicals that are not regulated by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law but can have similar effects to illegal drugs such as methamphetamine and marijuana. The possession of these compounds is not strictly illegal, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared war on such law-evading drugs after a recent series of car accidents that were allegedly caused by drivers under the influence of such substances.

Naruse expressed concern over such drugs, which he said were extremely dangerous and difficult to treat because of the complex mixture of substances. Alarmingly, the latest statistics show that the number of patients at Saitama Prefectural Psychiatric Hospital who had been committed in 2013 over an addiction to loophole drugs outnumbered those who had been addicted to methamphetamine for the first time in history.

(Loophole drugs) drugs have become the most dangerous drug in Japan,” Naruse says. “They are several times more dangerous than methamphetamine and 10 times more effective than marijuana.”

The health ministry says that more than 1,370 chemicals have now been outlawed — a sharp increase from the 68 that had been banned in 2012. But every time the health ministry bans one compound, a new one finds its way onto the market, turning the whole exercise into an endless game of cat-and-mouse for authorities.

Sakae Komori, a lawyer who specializes in drug cases, says the government should speed up the process of outlawing the substances in the first place. A health ministry official said that it typically takes about three to six months to designate a drug.

Komori, however, says that simply speeding up the designation process won’t solve the problem on its own, and governments in Europe and the U.S. are battling similar difficulties.

“As there is a massive global market supporting these synthetic drugs, authorities must be prepared to engage in a prolonged war,” Komori says. “Any series of measures must first look at strengthening the capacity of analyzing and evaluating the drugs.”

With the rapid spread of synthetic drugs as well as the unchanging number of arrests over methamphetamine, authorities are expected to crack down harder.

Recidivism is also a major headache, with statistics showing that 60 percent of convictions for stimulants are repeat offenders. A 2009 survey compiled by the Justice Ministry shows that 30 percent of suspects convicted for stimulants were jailed again for a related crime.

Naruse, a 20-year veteran on treating drug addicts, says the primary focus needs to shift from penalties to treatment. Naruse says the country’s famous catch phrase, “Dame. Zettai.” (similar to the “Just Say No” campaign in the U.S. in the 1980s) simply doesn’t work anymore.

“Not everyone becomes an addict,” Naruse says. “It is the lonely, people with low self-esteem and have a strong sense of anxiety about being disliked by others who typically become addicted. Publicly attacking people such as Aska is not going to help at all. … These types of people have already lost so much along the way.”

Experts suggest there is already a trend in Western nations to shift away from harsh punishment over “victimless crimes” such as the possession and use of illegal drugs. For example, many drug courts in the U.S. are now part of the diversion program, a type of sentencing that offers offenders a chance to avoid criminal charges.

Komori, who has defended more than 1,000 drug cases, says it probably isn’t realistic to import exactly the same system in the country from the United States. Nevertheless, it’s still an overall objective worth striving for. “Correctional facilities greatly damage the relationship that the offenders have with society and I don’t think it is an appropriate punishment for drug crimes,” Komori says. “I think criminals should be treated within the community.”

In 2013, a revision of the Criminal Law introduced a new option for sentencing narcotics users that offers convicts suspended sentences and probation. Authorities hope the new procedure will allow addicts to be rehabilititated back into society and, ultimately, reduce recidivism.

However, a number of experts say there are not enough private facilities to take care of the former addicts who have spent time behind bars, expressing doubt over whether such a system can be effective in the longer term.

DARC founder Tsuneo Kondo says putting addicts in jail in the first place will not help prevent drug crimes or reduce recidivism.

A recovering addict himself, Kondo expresses frustration that no one seems to understand that addiction is a disease and that Japan’s solution to drug crimes is to put the offenders in prison and then release them, automatically expecting them to stay sober without any additional support.

“Drugs are a sign of pain,” Kondo says. “The pain could come from anywhere — from stress or work or the loss of a loved one — and anyone can become addicted. Once you become an addict, you have to deal with it for the rest of your life.”

(Akira Okubo contibuted to this report)

The first of a special two-part series on addiction. Join us next Sunday for a special report on the country’s drinking problem.


‘I still get angry all of a sudden when I am talking about my past’: former drug addict

Shigeo Nomura

Shigeo Nomura is a 66-year-old former gangster. He has spent about 40 years of his life doing all sorts of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and, more recently, so-called loophole drugs.

Nomura has completed eight separate stints in prison. He would usually return to his yakuza franchise after rejoining society and start using drugs again, but found that his gang had disbanded after his most recent release. With nowhere to go, he found Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC) and has been sober for a year and four months. It’s the first time he’s been clean since he started doing drugs four decades ago.

He is separated from his ex-wife and child, although he keeps in touch with both of them by phone. His young girlfriend, however, dumped him and disappeared. He took this opportunity to quit drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.

“It’s easy to quit inside the prison walls,” Nomura says. “This time, I’ve managed to stay clean by creating an imaginary wall about common sense and the dangers of drugs. It’s hard to say what has been my moral support. I am living day by day, just floating by.”

Naofumi Kubota

Naofumi Kubota is a 43-year-old former salaryman who has been sober for four months. He had a wife he idolized and a stable job, but lost everything after becoming addicted to inhaling poppers and gas.

“My wife was the light of my life and I was the darkness,” Kubota says, speaking quietly. “I was able to maintain balance because she was there. I was completely dependent on her. After she left, I just wanted to die.”

Kubota said he quit his job and went on welfare. He spent every day of his life abusing drugs in an attempt to kill himself. At one point, he had 400 or 500 empty cans of gas in his small one-room apartment.

Realizing he wasn’t strong enough to take that final plunge, he decided the surest way to die was to get sick — with HIV. He hung out in gay districts, had sex with men and, soon enough, he got what he wanted. He now has full-blown AIDS.

“Regrets? I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t recovered (from my addiction) and a part of me is laughing at myself, thinking I have found the perfect disease — because I will never get better.”

Shigeru Saito

Shigeru Saito is a 41-year-old former bartender and a recovering alcoholic. He has been sober for two years and four months after serving time in prison twice for becoming violent while intoxicated.

While he has dabbled with illicit substances, his principal weakness has always been alcohol. He would drink from early in the morning, chugging back a few secretly during work hours. Once drunk, he became physically violent. Saito’s parents disowned him after his arrest and he had nowhere to turn.

He was introduced to DARC by a social worker when he went to apply for welfare after being released from jail for the second time. Saito admitted he felt indignant at first, and refused to be lumped together with other addicts who had abused illegal substances. “I had a bias against drug addicts at first,” Saito says. “Not anymore. Alcohol may be legal … but it doesn’t really matter. Alcohol is also a drug.”

Joji Itoi

Joji Itoi is a 33-year-old trainer at DARC who has been sober for seven years. He started inhaling lighter fuel when he was 14 before turning to marijuana, Ecstasy, methamphetamine and cocaine.

He was completely addicted to drugs by the time he turned 19 years old and was committed to a mental institution for treatment. He spent three months in the institution every year, but would immediately start using drugs again as soon as he was released. He stole money from his parents and even helped run an illegal gambling ring to earn money to satisfy his habit.

He was arrested at the age of 26, and found that his family and friends didn’t want to have anything to do with him. With few alternatives open to him, he turned to DARC.

Itoi admits he still has trouble reconciling with his past and he hasn’t seen his family in years. While his mother has since died, he still sends his father a New Year’s card every December. “A part of me wants to apologize, but for some reason I still get angry all of a sudden when I am talking about my past,” Itoi says. “Some little word triggers anger inside me. I don’t think I am ready to see my family just yet.”

Pseudonyms have been used for all DARC members featured above except for Joji Itoi.


The hard facts on drugs

About 50 percent of all drug offenders in Japan are involved in a gang.

1.6 percent of the Japanese population have tried drugs at least once in their life.

41.9 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at least once in their life, compared to 1.2 percent of the Japanese population.

About 80 percent of all drug charges filed by prosecutors in Japan involve stimulants.

The number of charges involving the possession or sale of stimulants is decreasing, but the number of suspects aged over 35 years old is increasing.

(Compiled by Akira Okubo)

 

  • Freddie265

    “Shigeru Saito – While he has dabbled with drugs, his principal weakness has always been alcohol….”

    The inference of this line is that alcohol is not a drug. It is and, without doubt, followed closely by tobacco, is Japan’s (and the rest of the world’s) biggest drug problem. Then you have hundreds of thousands of people (probably millions) in Japan who are sadly unable to get through their day without a regular dose of anti-depressants, tranquillisers etc; like alcohol and tobacco, all legal and above board, bringing in billions of tax revenue foe the government, but still drugs nonetheless and arguably harder to come off than the pharmaceutical/medical industry will ever admit. Drugs come in all shapes and sizes, some legal, some illegal. It’s time the media changed their narrow minded definition of ‘drugs’ and started referring to all drugs, illegal or legal, as drugs.

    • JT_OnSunday

      Fair point, text revised accordingly. As mentioned, we will be dealing with Japan’s alcohol problem in more detail next week.

    • Sam Gilman

      This is a very good point, up to a point. However, I take issue with including (or, on a more generous reading, focussing on) anti-depressants and other medication for mental health issues as part of “drugs” (you didn’t mention more “physical” medications such as aspirin, AZT for HIV, or insulin). “Drugs” as you have framed them, carry a stigma of dependency. No one likes relying on medication, but there should be no more issue with taking anti-depressants than with taking insulin for diabetes.

      • Glass Otaku

        Your point is well made, but when you begin to look at a history of Anti-depressants and you’ll begin to see it as a drug. The companies who make it push their products to Doctors and give them prizes for selling their product. Secondly, here in the U.S. Anti-depressants known as “Selective Seratonin Reintake Inhibitors, or SSRI” (ex. Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil to name a few) have been linked to the mass killings which have occurred at schools and universities as the killers have been found to have either been using the time of the killing or to have been perscribed it earlier. I also agree with the first comment, Japan has a serious problem with Tobacco and Alcohol. I am a Colorado Resident and legally can use Cannabis recreationally, I do so at home after work like you would enjoy a beer or a cigarette. Upon starting this habit I have no need to drink alcohol, nor smoke cigarettes. The high does not impair me and I rest easy and wake up without any “hangover” symptoms alcohol provides. When I visit my fav country Japan I cannot do as such, which leads me to getting that beer, and that pack of ciggarettes too so I can de-stress. I really wish I could have the freedom to choose my healthy alternative rather than use those items. And that in a grand sense is whats happening to Japan. People who want to use cannabis are forced into the black market to buy, and due to a lack of quality (and regulations) users quickly pass up marijuana for other drugs. And with the rise of synthetic drugs this is much easier and much more dangerous. Japan needs to invest it’s resources in studying controlled substances, finding their benefits and cons, and finding a way to help addicts and maybe help the economy through a cannabis tourism market.

  • HK_EXPAT_IN_NEW_ZEALAND

    Sure Japan has a drug problem, they need to seriously look at ending Cannabis Prohibition