Former pro baseball player Kazuhiro Kiyohara was released from police custody on ¥5 million bail last month following his arrest and subsequent indictment for alleged possession and use of stimulant drugs.
It’s a sad fall from grace but Kiyohara’s been in freefall for sometime.
The media frenzy surrounding his release was astonishing, with more than 100 photographers and up to five helicopters trying to capture an image of the former Seibu Lions and Yomiuri Giants slugger leaving the Metropolitan Police Department in Tokyo by car.
In many ways, Kiyohara’s arrest wasn’t a complete surprise. Shukan Bunshun, the country’s leading weekly magazine, had reported on his alleged addiction as early as March 2014. Some believe this initial report even sparked the police investigation.
As usual, there was plenty of hand-wringing over the affair. Most of the conversation was predictable, but a commentator called “Toshi” posted some poignant remarks on the ironna.jp news blog.
“Why did he get involved in drugs?” Toshi asked. “Because he’s stupid. Because he spent his whole life immersed in baseball with education being a secondary thing. Because he never received proper education as a person. People from the Showa Era, like me, all remember a time when players from high schools famous for baseball once walked through the town like they owned it. They were a bunch of low-level gangsters.”
Toshi’s concluding remark carries a certain amount of truth, because Kiyohara allegedly purchased his drugs from a gang member (although he has yet to name anyone).
Gangs are the primary dealers and users of stimulant drugs in Japan. According to statistics compiled by the National Police Agency, members of organized crime groups accounted for 55 percent of the 10,958 people who were arrested for offenses related to stimulant drugs in 2014.
The slang term for stimulant drugs is shabu. The term comes from the verb “shaburu,” or “to suck upon,” which refers to the thirstiness that meth users often describe and is also a play on a Japanese phrase that means “being sucked to the bone” — basically stripped of everything you have. The drug is highly addictive, with users building up a tolerance to it before they eventually experience extreme delusions, paranoia and hallucinations.
However, stimulant drugs weren’t always illegal. According to a 2005 Mainichi Shimbun article, they were sold over the counter at pharmacies during and after World War II. Government-sanctioned production of stimulant drugs began in 1943 and continued until 1950; they were sold both in capsules and in liquid form (for injection). During the war, soldiers allegedly used the drugs to overcome their fear of death and deal with fatigue. Some veterans say they were distributed as part of their military rations.
On a side note, the brand name on the officially sanctioned stimulant drug, Hiropon, was allegedly derived from a play on the words “hirō,” or fatigue, and “pon,” a mimetic word for something flying away. In other words, “Your fatigue will fly away with Hiropon.” Even today, the brand name lives on in slang used by addicts who refer to their addiction as “pon-chū” — a combination of chūdoku (addiction) and Hiropon.
It became clear a few years after the war that Hiropon had terrible side-effects, and the government effectively banned usage and possession in 1951. Gangs immediately took up the slack and began selling stimulant drugs on the black market, a service that is believed to have continued to this day.
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. Nikkan Spa recently reported that stimulant drug use is declining in Japan, especially among youth. In 2014, 56 percent of the number of people arrested for stimulant drugs were older than 40, while those in their 20s accounted for just 13 percent.
A retired detective from the Metropolitan Police Department who spent most of his career investigating gang members or drug addicts notes that young people these days appear to be learning from the mistakes of older generations.
“Kiyohara exhibited weird behavior long before his arrest and eventually almost all addicts reach a point where they can’t function normally,” the detective says, insisting on anonymity. “Kids have realized that stimulant drugs just aren’t cool — they’re dangerous. What’s more, no sane person wants to catch hepatitis by sharing needles with other users.”
Yes, Japan may be aging but at least the county’s youth appear to be getting smarter and, for that, we can almost thank alleged high-profile drug users such as Kiyohara for setting an example few want to follow.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.