VIEW FROM THE STREETS. How the Eliot Ness of Japan's drug world gets job done
SHIGEO UMEDA is a tough cop. The men who work with him half jokingly call him ``god.'' An American familiar with his work admiringly dubs him ``the Eliot Ness of Japan.''Skip to next paragraph
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For 28 years Mr. Umeda has battled illegal drugs in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture. He has prowled the docks and warehouses of Yokohama, the bustling seaport of Tokyo Bay. He has gone undercover to outwit the Yakuza, Japan's mafia.
Umeda's no-nonsense attitude is typical of the approach taken by most Japanese policemen to fighting drug abuse. And it is an approach that works. Japan has had greater success in fighting drugs than most other industrialized nations.
The US counts drug arrests in the hundreds of thousands - some 800,000 in 1985; Japan apprehended only 22,980 in that same year. After two postwar waves of serious drug abuse in the 1950s and early '60s, the police thought they had the problem licked. In the mid-'70s, drugs, mainly stimulants, suddenly reappeared. Still, Japan's troubles with illegal drugs are minor compared with those of the United States and other Western nations. Because of stringent police programs, the drug problem, Umeda says, ``is leveling off.''
Umeda, a dark, handsome man who seems always in control, has observed the problem from the streets. He accounts for Japan's success from that special perspective.
``The most important factor is that we bust suspects with drugs,'' he says. ``The best way to control drugs is strict enforcement.''
Yoshio Kanda (not his real name) lives in a small corner of Umeda's often seamy world - a world that foreigners seldom associate with a safe and pristine Japan. Mr. Kanda has spent 13 years of the last 25 in jail. Umeda personally put him there at least once.
Kanda's life reveals the two main weapons in Japan's war on illegal drugs - an unwavering, ubiquitous police force and a close-knit society that readily cooperates with police to isolate and even detain drug abusers.
Kanda has lived the life of a drug addict and a pusher in Yokohama. He dresses in the pseudo-'50s style of Japan's underworld, a black-and-red-paneled, zippered jacket worn over a black shirt and black slacks. His presence at police headquarters is a command performance.
``Sit down,'' Umeda barks. ``Tell this man the truth. ... When he finishes, you stay here till I get back. If you don't do what I tell you, I'll bust you.'' Umeda smiles and leaves.
Kanda speaks in short, almost angry bursts. ``I used heroin for the first time in 1960. A friend gave it to me. ... Yokohama was a mecca for heroin. I became an addict. ... To buy dope, I had to raise money by selling it.''
Kanda describes himself then as a tokotai (the word for a kamikaze pilot), a maverick pusher. He got his heroin, which came in from Hong Kong, from the Yakuza, but he did not join them. A few years later, in the midst of a fierce antidrug campaign, he was arrested on charges of ``possession for sale,'' the first of his eight arrests. The police had only one treatment for heroin addicts - cold turkey in jail.
When he got out of prison 2 years later, he says, ``heroin had disappeared because of the tough campaign.'' Kanda eventually found a substitute, kakusezai, methamphetamines, the stimulant known in the US by the street name ``speed.''
Kanda is trying to go straight. His wife consults with the police to keep him that way. ``I'm not using now,'' he insists. ``Rarely using,'' he corrects himself. He doesn't say, and neither does Umeda, but he is clearly an informer for the police.
The long history of drug abuse
The abuse of stimulants has a long history in Japan. The drugs were first produced in 1893, for medicinal purposes. During World War II, a brand of stimulants, Philopan, was legally manufactured and given to factory workers, Imperial Army troops, and kamikaze pilots before battle. The stockpiles of the drug made their way into the black market after the war ended.
Without any legal curb, stimulant abuse spread, as the drugs were marketed as ``tiredness removers.'' After the government moved to control the drugs in 1951, production and circulation were taken over by organized crime.