Since being arrested for possession of stimulant drugs on June 2, it is assumed that 30-year-old actor Ryo Hashizume’s career is over. As Mark Schilling wrote in the June 15 Japan Times, Hashizume’s latest film, in which he played a supporting role, was pulled from theaters. It reopened June 17, but with Hashizume’s scenes deleted. For all intents and purposes, he had become a nonperson in show business.
And I mean that literally. Owing to the way drug busts are covered in the media, anyone even accused of using illegal substances is presented as not just a criminal, but something subhuman. This idea was established in the 1980s with an anti-drug public service announcement that used the slogan, “Ningen yamemasu ka?,” meaning, “Will you stop being a person?” By taking drugs, that is.
Media critic Chiki Ogiue mentioned the campaign on his “Session-22” radio show back in January.
“But do you stop being a person when you have cancer?” he asked rhetorically, emphasizing that drug addiction should be treated as a disease rather than as a mortal sin. The stigma is built into the vocabulary used to talk about people with drug habits. Invariably, those who have kicked their habits through whatever means have been “corrected” (kōsei), a word that stresses incarceration, whereas Ogiue thinks a better verb is “recover” (kaifuku), as if from an illness.
But “kōsei” represents the reality in that drug convictions lead to time in prison rather than time in hospitals, and prisons aren’t designed to cure addicts of their dependencies. The radio show and other sources mention that in Japan, more than 60 percent of those who do time for drug crimes end up being rearrested for drug crimes after they get out of jail.
The public thinks drug users deserve hard punishment because drug use is seen as a lapse in moral rectitude that can have a bad effect on the community. Ogiue thinks the opposite is actually the case; that downplaying a drug’s health-abating properties can make the drug attractive to certain people.
For these reasons, Ogiue, working with experts, former addicts and listeners of his program, came up with guidelines for the media when covering drug-related stories, since such coverage will affect addicts in treatment programs and their supporters, including families. The media should always stress that drug use is an illness requiring treatment rather than a crime that needs to be punished. It should incorporate coverage of people who give and receive such treatment, including recovering addicts. It should also show links between drugs and social problems, such as poverty and abuse, whenever applicable.
More significantly, the guidelines tell reporters what to avoid, including “images of white powder and syringes,” comments that express disappointment in the accused as either a person or a professional, “extreme coverage” using helicopters or hidden cameras, suspicion of drug use as the basis for a scoop and creating “beautiful stories” out of anecdotes of drug recovery with the help of loved ones.
For these efforts, Ogiue’s show received The Galaxy Grand Prix Award for excellence in broadcasting, though, given the usual overblown tone of the Hashizume coverage, those efforts don’t seem to have had the desired effect yet.
In fact, the authorities seem to be moving in a progressive direction faster than the media is. On another radio show, Bunka Hoso’s (Nippon Cultural Broadcasting) June 13 edition of “Golden Radio,” writer Maki Fukasawa reviewed Ogiue’s guidelines and talked about how the government was now considering switching the impetus of drug sentencing from punishment to treatment in line with other countries’ approaches. Recently, Japan’s judicial system has expanded its use of suspended sentences for certain crimes. In the case of drug offenses, convicted persons spend part of their sentence in prison and part in a recovery program. The main purpose of the new law is to prevent repeat offenses, and as Fukasawa points out, the program will also need to ensure that ex-offenders can secure jobs once they are back out in the world, since unemployment is a strong incentive for falling back into a drug habit.
That includes show-business people. Fukasawa used the example of Robert Downey Jr., who was a serious drug addict at one point and even did jail time for his habit. He eventually got sober and is now one of the highest paid actors in the world, but as Fukasawa said, that couldn’t happen in Japan because the media would never allow the public to forget about his drug use.
What Fukasawa didn’t mention is that while Downey’s career has been rehabilitated in the U.S., he is still persona non grata in Japan. Some years ago when he came here to promote one of his Iron Man movies, immigration officers detained him for six hours because of his felony drug conviction. Eventually, he was allowed in, but he’s never been back since.
Drug convictions leave an indelible mark, and while the Japanese media perpetuates the stigma due to its proclivity for sensationalism, it’s the law and the rationale behind the law that creates the stigma in the first place. In his quest to change media behavior, Ogiue makes the age-old argument that personal drug use does not directly harm anyone else, but he doesn’t go so far as to say that drug possession is a victimless crime. The victim is the user and, by extension, his or her family.
Given the examples he used, Ogiue was obviously talking about methamphetamines, but he doesn’t distinguish between “stimulant” drugs and other kinds, because the police don’t either. (There are different laws for stimulants and for narcotics, but no appreciable difference in how they’re prosecuted.)
Marijuana users in Japan are also branded as criminals, but can they also be described as being ill? In many countries now, pot itself is used to treat certain medical conditions. The demonization of drug users is a function of the demonization of recreational drugs, regardless of whether or not they lead to addiction.