It must have taken him by surprise. Kenji Kobayashi, former member of the House of Representatives from the Democratic Party of Japan had just lost his seat a week previous.

Then on Sept. 18, his house was raided and he was busted for narcotics possession. To be more precise, he was busted for “kakuseizai,” or stimulants.

Such a sensational case comes at a time when Japanese awareness about drug abuse is on the rise, as is public concern over the growing number of young people using “kakuseizai,” or more specifically methamphetamines, or “shabu.”

Television media regularly carry stories about high school and even middle school children using, and the long-running popular television program Kinpachi Sensei, which has a history of showcasing social problems in its episodes, has featured a story line involving a middle-school student struggling with addiction.

According to Roy Assenheimer, a facilitator and coordinator for DARC and MAC, (Japan-based drug and alcohol treatment centers respectively), the Asia-Pacific Addiction Research Institute (APARI), and a 45-year resident of Japan, amphetamines and methamphetamines suit the Japanese mindset perfectly.

Japanese “like to work and study,” he says, and on shabu you “don’t have to eat or sleep.”

In 1919, Japanese chemist A. Ogata developed methamphetamine, and it was widely used as a way to keep soldiers up and at ’em during WWII.

After Japan’s defeat the military stock of shabu leaked into the civilian community. Japan, which due to its isolation and social structure that condemned drug use had little problems with addiction in the past, found itself with its first drug epidemic.

Today use is rising among young people, says Assenheimer, who often start out on “shinna,” the katakana-ized moniker for paint thinner, and “graduate” to shabu as they get older.

Young people are “feeling freer and freer,” says Assenheimer, and “peer pressure is very strong. They aren’t taught how to say ‘no.’ ”

Although the rate of drug use in Japan is relatively small when compared to other countries, it is increasing. U.N. reports on world drug use cite shabu as the drug of choice throughout South East Asia, and Japan is no exception.

According to a U.N. study released in 2002, kakuseizai accounted for 90 per cent of all narcotic arrests in the country, and named Japan as shabu’s largest market in Asia.

Statistics from the National Police Agency (NPA) show that the rate of people suspected of possessing stimulants rose 25.3 per cent from last year, and the number of minors that were arrested or questioned on suspicion of possession rose by 22 to make 120 this year.

However these statistics are for arrests only, and can only provide an indication of the levels of abuse.

The cops aren’t really interested in arresting addicts, says Assenheimer, because they just get out of jail and do it again. “You have to practically throw rocks at the (station) window to get arrested” for shabu abuse in Japan, he says.

Paul Oberheim, a certified drug and alcohol counselor who has operated in Japan for the past five years estimates that the number of addicts in rehabilitation programs in Japan at any given time hovers around 150,000.

The actual number of addicts who aren’t in rehab is unknown, but a various reports released by world bodies such as the WHO and the U.N. estimate the number of casual users to be as high as 2 million.

Drug addiction, until very recently, has been viewed and treated as a crime or a psychiatric problem, says Assenheimer.

Addicts were either put in jail or committed to a mental facility and given medication.

However, after seeing the results of recovered addicts Japanese public opinion is on the right track, he says.

People are beginning to recognize that drug addiction is an illness, not a choice, and that it can be treated.

MAC was created in 1978, with DARC joining in 1985. Currently there are 75 of these rehabilitation centers throughout Japan.

Their services are now being sought out by administrations in private prisons, churches and schools. After over 20 years of operation in Japan, last year, the Ministry of Justice approached the group, praising their efforts, but not employing their services.

As for the future of rehabilitation services, Assenheimer is hopeful.

“Once the Japanese catch on to an idea, they go all out,” he says. But although public opinion is changing, “the government is in denial about the problem,” he says.

Oberheim agrees. “Japan is the number one recycling country in the world,” he says, “but they don’t recycle people. They just throw them away.”

It is this denial that may see Japan’s drug problem become an epidemic in the future.

Most of the rehabilitation centers in Japan rely heavily on government money to operate. The government health insurance covers 60 per cent of the housing and operation costs of operating a group home, but zero per cent of treatment such as counseling, food services and monitoring, says Oberheim.

Many counselors end up digging into their own pockets to keep the centers running, and relying on donations.

“But I can only pay for so many addicts before my wife and kids can’t eat,” he says. He has taken on extra, unrelated work to help support his activities in Japan.

Group recovery homes have been classified in the same category as orphanages and senior citizen homes, says Oberheim.

A small group home that has four clients one director and one staff member costs about 14,000,000 yen a month. For an individual client, the bill comes to about 280,000 yen a month, of which the government covers about half.

Considering that one doesn’t overcome addiction in a day or a week, rehabilitation for now is an option only for the very well off, says Oberheim which leads to addicts either being left untreated, incarcerated, or medicated, all of which prevent them from being productive members of society.

Addicts need to recover so “they can get back out here and pay tax like me,” Oberheim says, noting that one of the first tasks he requires of recovering addicts in his care is that they accompany him to the tax office to pay up what they owe the government.

“It’s a healthy, necessary piece of our society that’s missing,” he says, noting that it costs anywhere from 5,000,000 yen to 8,000,000 yen each year to keep someone in prison. “That’s what this government needs to see.”

Next April, the government will be changing the structure of and how to establish nonprofit organizations (NPO). This move will re-classify rehabilitation facilities into NPO status.

It is a move which will wind a lot more red tape around an already tricky business, he says.

The official government stamp that accompanies NPO status will be important in building trust when working in status-conscious Japan, says Assenheimer.

However, Oberheim says, because of the new restrictions, a number of rehabilitation centers in Japan will be forced to close their doors. “We have to create a loophole out of Catch-22’s to be able to help people,” he says.

One of the interesting points of the drug debate is the amount of blame that is regularly shifted to the shoulders of foreigners.

Iranians were specifically mentioned in the Kobayashi case, but it could be Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Western or any other ethnic group that stands at the other end of the pointed finger.

The argument goes that with an increase of foreigners in Japan, there will be an increase in crime. What often gets missed in the public debate, however, is why and how these issues are interconnected, and what can be done to curtail the problem.

In a study published by Taylor and Francis in 2002, H.R. Friman examines the foreign element in connection with drug crime in Japan, and concludes that although “immigrant entrepreneurship has increased in the illicit drug trade” it has not increased to “the extent claimed in the public debate over the immigrant threat and not necessarily for the reasons suggested by Japanese scholars and law enforcement officials.”

He goes on to argue that restrictive government policies concerning the assimilation of foreigners into the Japanese community greatly compounds the problem.

The breakdown goes something like this; Japan in the past has accepted foreigners into the country on very specific working bases.

The work is usually of the three K variety –“kitanai,” “kiken,” “kitsui,” (dirty, dangerous and demanding) — the kind that average Japanese are disinclined to do. These kinds of jobs are not secure, and companies have been known to lay off foreign workers at the drop of a hat to suit new government policies and trends.

What this does on an individual level is creates a choice: Scrape by in a job with no security or benefits, without hope of ever moving up; lose your job because you are the visible problem minority du jour and get deported; make 800 yen an hour handing out tissues at the station, or make money being a front man for the yakuza selling drugs (or other illegal material such as phone cards, etc.) or smuggling the drugs into Japan yourself and stay in the country.

As Japan considers bringing in more immigrants to alleviate the flailing economy, this issue becomes particularly relevant.

Finding ways to fully assimilate a large influx of immigrants into the country could be essential in fighting the growing drug problem.

However, if the government continues to underfund the therapeutic community and refuses to look deeper into the circumstances surrounding the illicit drug trade, it could help turn the problem into an epidemic.

Says Oberheim of his frustration at the current situation, “I could either jump up and down or cry about it for hours.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.