After nuking Japan, the Americans, in order to protect Japanese society from the dangers of marijuana, passed the Hemp Control Act in 1948. A few years later Japan experienced the first methamphetamine epidemic in the world. During the 1950s, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, approximately 30,000 people each year were arrested in connection with speed. Things have calmed down since then. But speed is still the number one illicit drug of choice in Japan, and its use is once again rising among young people.There are an estimated 1-2 million users of speed in Japan. That’s equivalent, percentage-wise, to the number of coke-sniffers and crack fiends in America. While amphetamines were first synthesized in Germany, it was the Japanese, in 1919, who brought us methamphetamine, a more potent close chemical cousin, and the more popular form today. Sold in the 1920s and 30s mainly as a nasal decongestant, speed became a crucial weapon during World War II. The Americans, the British, the Germans (including Hitler, who is rumored to have shot it up daily), and the Japanese all fed it to their soldiers like a vitamin.

The Japanese, especially, used it extensively at this time, giving it to soldiers, sailors, pilots (it’s been reported that high doses helped the kamikaze be courageous), truckers, factory workers — whoever could help the war effort. To supply this demand (or maybe, to create it) the government cranked out speed copiously. After the war the Japanese people, devastated and hungry, comforted themselves with the large surplus. Realizing that methamphetamine abuse was becoming a problem, in 1951 the government passed a law making it illegal. Unfortunately, this only attracted the yakuza, who have controlled the distribution ever since.

Japan’s Drug Problem

Japan's Drug Problem

Welcome to the Big Smoke

The epidemic lasted until 1955 when it peaked with around 55,000 people arrested and up to 2 million regular users. Japan has since had waves of widespread speed use, in the late 60s to early 70s, and the late 90s till now, which has seen the largest confiscations in history. Clearly, speed has tweaked the interest of the Japanese. And given the structure of society, this is not so surprising. Typically, a student faces long hours at school regurgitating information to their teachers like a bird feeding its young. Then four more hours at juku (cram school) to prepare for high pressure entrance exams. The life of a sarariman (businessman) adheres to the same pattern of marathon gambarimasu (doing your damndest)ing. The appeal of speed is obvious.

The second most popular illicit drug for young Japanese is inhalants—‘huffing’ paint thinner or glue fumes. In the States it’s stereotypically associated with trailer park trash. This is hard evidence that the youth has abandoned Japan’s traditional emphasis on aesthetics. But as tasteless (and dangerous) as huffing is, the only drug that kills on a massive scale (12 percent of all deaths in Japan) is the obvious one—tobacco. At 300 yen a pack, and available in vending machines every five feet along the street, cigarettes can easily be had by any teenager. So, while methamphetamine (which can be dangerous) and marijuana (which almost never is) are vilified, Japan’s youth is given easy, cheap access to the most addictive, most toxic drug on Earth.