TOKYO -- Japan appears to be in the midst of a marijuana epidemic of unprecedented proportions.
In the past six months alone, four sumo wrestlers have been kicked out of the sport for using the drug and a player on the national rugby team was banned for life. In addition, police have arrested a rock star and staged high-profile raids at some of the nation's top universities, arresting students and confiscating Ziploc bags full of suspicious substances.
To many non-Japanese, the thought of sumo wrestlers smoking weed to foster the munchies and pack on the pounds may seem like the punch-line of a joke. And the idea of rock stars or university students partying with illicit drugs hardly seems scandalous in celebrity circles or on university campuses.
But in Japan, these incidents have shocked the nation. They received front-page coverage. And they prompted television exposes and editorials like the one in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper earlier this month that said, "Our incipient cannabis pollution must be contained at all costs."
The penalty for the possession and use of marijuana in Japan is severe -- not only in terms of prison time (Paul McCartney famously spent 10 nights in jail here after being arrested for possession in 1980). When a player for Japan's national rugby team tested positive for marijuana earlier this month, he was banned from the national team forever and the professional team he also plays on, sponsored by electronics maker Toshiba, has suspended all team activities until the end of March and has withdrawn from the ongoing national championship out of shame. Smoke on that, Michael Phelps.
Late last year, after four Waseda University students were arrested for marijuana possession, university administrators called a press conference, bowed deeply to the dozens of reporters assembled and issued a formal apology. "We are sorry for causing so much trouble," Tomoki Waragai, the humiliated executive director of the university, told reporters.
They vowed to conduct a comprehensive survey of the student body to determine the extent of the problem. And university administrators sent an email to all students warning them that students "foolish enough" to try marijuana "all too often end up physically and mentally ruined, perhaps leading lives of crime. There is no 'innocent' or 'harmless' way to take illegal drugs. In Japan, possession alone is sufficient to lead to the most dire of social punishments. Engaging in drug-related activity is utter stupidity."
This comes at a time when Japanese society's whole-hearted acceptance of another mind-altering substance -- alcohol -- is at center stage. Recent events highlight the contradiction between this country's treatment of marijuana and its treatment of alcohol. The same week that the rugby team pulled out of the championship because one of its members used marijuana, Japan's Minister of Finance Shoichi Nakagawa stole the limelight at an otherwise staid press conference at the G-7 meeting in Rome with this apparently drunken behavior, now a viral hit on YouTube:
After the debacle, Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso initially stood by Nakagawa and only accepted his resignation three days later, when opposition parties complained that Nakagawa's behavior had embarrassed the nation.
"Attitudes towards alcohol are incredibly lax here," explained Jeffrey Kingston, the director of Temple University's Japan Campus. "Alcohol facilitates the frank exchange of opinions and views in a society where communication can be quite stilted."
In this conformist society, seemingly laden with rules about everything, says Kingston, alcohol is the acceptable method for relaxation. "There is no wiggle room on this."
So alcohol, even hard liquor, is on offer from vending machines throughout Japan's cities in the same way vending machines offer Doritos in the U.S. And public drunkeness is considered normal. So much so that Tokyo's late night trains are populated night after night by masses of inebriated businessmen, many of whom have to be physically removed from the train after passing out.
Japan's National Police Agency declined to comment for this story, other than to point to crime statistics. In 2003, just over 2,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related crimes. Last year's figure, though not yet final, is expected to top 2,800. Although the number is clearly on the rise, drug use here remains far below the levels in the U.S. or Europe. Polls in the U.S. indicated that 46 percent of Americans say they have tried banned substances. In Japan the figure is only 3 percent.
Police are quick to point out that increasing numbers of Japanese -- including in one instance a Buddhist monk -- are trying their hand at cannabis cultivation. The number of green thumbs arrested for cultivation has doubled in the last decade. But the total number of arrests for that crime still doesn't top 200 per year.
The Asahi Shimbun editorial explained, "surely, we don't need to try to catch up with the west in drug use."
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