Japan benefits from a squeaky clean image. Like most of Asia, criminal behavior, especially violent crime, is relatively low. According to macrotrends.net, crime rates have mostly declined or stayed even since 2000, with a sharp 33.33% decline in 2017.

This may be due to an overall decrease in juvenile offenses. Yoshiko Ohmachi, a Family Court probation officer, explains that, despite the public perception that youth crime is increasing, in reality that rate is declining. Between 2007 and 2014, for example, the number of first-time offenders declined by 56%. Ironically, crime statistics among the nation’s elderly are increasing as the demographic increasingly struggles with poverty.

While that’s positive news for future generations, one negative trend is certainly clear among Japan's young people: an ever-increasing number are experimenting with narcotics like marijuana and MDMA. In a country that takes illicit drug usage very seriously, this has deep implications for the culture as well as addiction treatment.

“Will You Stop Being Human?”

In recent history, several high-profile celebrities in Japan have been caught with illegal drugs. While such stories are certainly not unique to Japan, the consequences are notably different than in Western nations.

After a 2017 arrest, actor Ryo Hashizume’s career was effectively ended. He was edited out of his final motion picture after being caught with stimulants. Voice actor Pierre Taki met with a similar fate after being arrested with cocaine. And Erika Sawajiri’s life was similarly disrupted after she admitted to using MDMA and LSD for over 10 years.

As The Japan Times notes, media coverage of drug busts is extraordinarily harsh despite the fact that magic mushrooms were formerly legal here. Suspects are treated as subhuman, while the notion of addiction as a disease remains entirely foreign. The extremely harsh ideology may have its roots in the 1980s, at about the same time as the doomed-to-fail "War on Drugs" was heating up in America. Here is a clip from a famous PSA commercial:

Essentially, the PSA decries the effect drugs have on the human spirit. Perhaps alluding to the Japanese adage, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," the commercial shows a nail driving into a glass human-shaped figure. The narrator warns viewers that you may think you'll do drugs once to feel good, but they will eventually destroy your spirit. Will you stop doing addicting drugs? Or will you stop being a human? Finally, the nail cracks the glass figurine, and it shatters.

Surging Youth Drug Rates

While that 1980s PSA offers a striking message, it aired decades before today’s young people were born. It seems like some never got up to speed.

Indeed, the rates of drug abuse amongst younger residents is experiencing an upward trend. The Mainichi Shimbun reports that while investigations involving stimulants have been decreasing, arrests involving cannabis and MDMA are increasing, especially among people in their 20s. Although offenders are aware they are breaking the law, most view the act as “harmless” or “rather healthy.”

Despite such lax attitudes, authorities view marijuana and MDMA as gateway drugs and are lobbying for strengthened measures. If such policies are to be effective, they will likely have to take into consideration the effect of the internet on underground culture.

Dealers and buyers alike are leveraging online hangouts to buy and sell drugs. Messages like "Vegetables sold using hand push, by the gram or bulk orders! They will be delivered at night," or "Batsu is in stock" serve as adverts to young party-goers "Vegetables" refers to marijuana, "hand push" means in-person delivery, and "Batsu" refers to X or MDMA.

Addicted During the Pandemic

On the other end of the spectrum, those in Japan who develop serious addictions face excessive hurdles. Those who find themselves in such a dire situation face jail time, relapse, and a litany of trials surrounding a criminal background.

With programs like the Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC), people with drug addiction problems can connect. However, recently the COVID-19 outbreak has made it difficult for individuals to meet with support groups. This is particularly troubling for their recovery. While DARC is still holding sessions, an infection among staff would effectively mean a suspension of meetings.

Narcotics Anonymous, on the other hand, has seen a decline in the rate of meetings since March. Rather than throw in the towel, members have moved to hold meetings online.

A member struggling with a drug addiction spoke to the Japan Times about the situation surrounding online meetings. He said, "It was great that I was able to see others even if it was online. I had some hesitation in starting a new thing, but it helped me."

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine online meetings replacing in-person group sessions for an extended period. Hopefully, with COVID-19 infections seeming to slow down, much-needed group meetings can resume. With the unfortunate trend of growing drug abuse among young people, such groups may also see a change in membership in the not to distant future.

By - Luke Mahoney.