Japan followed West by drug-peddling in China

by Reiji Yoshida

A newly discovered document on wartime Japan’s Shanghai-based opium dealer shows the Tokyo government was deeply engaged in the trade to make money off Chinese addicts.

But Japan was not the only state involved in drug-trafficking. It was just a latecomer.

The colonial governments of Britain, Portugal, Holland and France had all heavily depended on opium-related revenues from areas of Asia under their control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to Harumi Goto, an associate professor at Chiba University, opium revenues accounted for 10 percent to 50 percent of the fiscal budgets of many colonial governments in Asia, including the British rulers of India, Hong Kong and Singapore, the Portuguese ruling Macau, the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina.

The British empire grew poppies and produced opium in India, exporting more than 80 percent to China, a trade that resulted in the Opium War in 1840 and semicolonial rule of the Qing Dynasty.

But those Western powers, most notably Britain, started to curtail their opium trade in their colonies in the early 1900s amid mounting criticism that narcotics were destroying the lives of millions of Chinese.

Britain stopped shipping opium from India to China in 1913.

The Western powers and Japan then signed three separate international conventions, in 1912, 1925 and 1931, that obliged them to bring the opium business under state control and gradually suppress it.

But Japan, which did not rein in the rampant opium and other narcotics dealings pursued by Japanese merchants in northeastern China, became a major target of international criticism at the League of Nations after the mid-1920s, replacing Britain.

“Japan was an imperial state that arrived late,” said Shinichi Sano, a writer familiar with Japan’s opium business in Manchukuo and Shanghai.

Records show that opium revenues accounted for less than 6 percent of the fiscal budgets of Japan’s puppet governments of Manchukuo and Nanjing around 1940, but historians suspect more funds may have been secretly channeled to the military.

In 1942, opium revenues accounted for 28 percent of the initial budget of Japan’s puppet regime set up in Inner Mongolia in 1937, according to internal documents of the Mongolian government discovered by historian Keiichi Eguchi in 1982.

The postwar International Military Tribunal for the Far East judged that Japan violated the three antiopium treaties by promoting the drug in China to increase revenues for its military and puppet governments.

“In all areas occupied by the Japanese, the use of opium and narcotics increased steadily from the time of such occupation until surrender,” the judgment read.