I used to work at a college with an older ex-pat. He was a funny guy and the nicest person you'd ever want to meet. We often spent lunch hours talking about current events or bemoaning the ridiculousness of English education in Japan—perhaps a topic for another day.

He had lived in Japan since the 90s. He had some interesting, and at times jarring, stories: on his first date with a Japanese woman he was chased by a racist businessman, he was the victim of a hit and run, he had business dealings with upper-echelon Chinese investors, and the list goes on. In short, he was an exceptional conversationalist.

We are both American, and in the course of our conversation one day during lunch, we began discussing the progressive decriminalization of marijuana in The United States.

"It's pretty crazy," I remarked, "how much America has changed over such a short period. I've only been in Japan for nine years or so. When I left the country, I would've never have guessed that within a decade, nearly half of the states would have legalized it. I think it's true that American culture develops quickly."

With a mouth full of fried pork, he smiled in agreement.

“Japan, on the other hand, never changes. It’s illegal now, and it’ll be illegal forever.”

He forced down his fried pork. "I'm not so sure that's true," he said. "When I first came to Japan," he continued, "things were very different. Magic mushrooms were legal."

“Huh?" my slack-jawed response.

“When I first moved here, you could buy magic mushrooms at head shops, completely legal. I went with a bunch of ex-pats to a shop in Shibuya once, and we all got some. We ate 'em at my buddies place, and it was a good time. Until this one guy started thinking I was the devil." He paused and looked at his pork, "Then it became awkward."

A Psychedelic Loophole

Later on, I did some internet sleuthing and verified what he had said. Throughout the 1990s and before, mushrooms containing the psychoactive chemical psilocybin were indeed legal in Japan. Due to peculiar narcotics laws, isolated psychedelic chemicals like LSD or mescaline were outlawed while possession and import of "narcotic vegetable material" were permitted.

According to online accounts, head shops often sold small packets of the potent hallucinogen at very affordable prices. Apparently, a 1/8th ounce of the dried mushroom cost somewhere around 1000 JPY ($9.30). Because this is Japan, magic mushrooms were also commonly sold in vending machines in seedier parts of town. Other users, at the time, preferred to grow their own. Imported home-grow kits were also permitted under the lax laws.

For further context, here is some footage posted by YouTuber xrcjpx from 1997. It shows how carefree vendors and consumers formerly were.

The video showcases a street-side or festival table selling bags of mushrooms in the open. They are a "high quality" strain imported from the Netherlands. While the cameraman revels in the situation, he explains to a passerby that he "had an experience" yesterday.

Reform

While this glimpse into the past seems relatively innocuous, it indicates a reality that was clearly unsustainable. According to online reports, head shop owners understood they walked a fine-line legally. Yet, despite having easy access to powerful chemicals, indiscriminate selling was the norm. Although bags warned consumers that mushrooms were not for consumption, senior citizens and even junior high school students commonly partook.

Stippy.com, a blog about Japan, detailed how things could get out of control. The writer of a featured article related how he and a friend easily accessed magic mushrooms from vendors in Kobe. Unfamiliar with their potency, they illegally consumed a certain amount before heading to an Osaka night club.

According to the author, the trip was pleasant enough, to begin with. At the offset, they felt confident and amiable to the people around them. Either of them had tried the substance in their home countries, and they were sure they could handle the effects.

Nevertheless, things quickly escalated. The author soon lost control of his body, falling into a type of motionless, “comatose” like state. He laid down in the club. Eventually, two large Australians had to carry him out and call an ambulance.

His friend, on the other hand, began dancing on the bar before, knocking over drinks, before swinging from a hanging light. While the author was taken to the emergency room, his friend was attacked by a bouncer and threatened by the Yakuza. He escaped after bribing the club staff. Although they both broke the law by consuming the mushrooms, fortunately, they were neither arrested nor fired over their blackout night out.

And with that story in mind, it's all the easier to imagine the end of magic mushrooms in Japan. A 2002 law closed the loophole, and Japan altogether prohibited the use and possession of the potent psychedelic.


By - Luke Mahoney.