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.''

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.

Drug abuse reached a peak in 1954, when, according to a report of the National Police Agency (NPA), more than 55,000 people were arrested and the number of users was estimated at 550,000. The Japanese authorities responded with a twin crackdown on sources of supply and on demand, an approach they have maintained since.

By the late 1950s, the stimulant problem had been turned around, with arrests dropping to 271 people by 1958. Gangsters then switched to heroin as a source of income, but the police responded with similar control measures, and by the mid-1960s that problem, too, had subsided to a low level.

Affluence in the 1970s brought a new wave of drug abuse, although on a lesser scale. The population of users has risen to about 200,000, says Yoshitake Shimada, the chief of the Drug Control Office of the NPA. Other estimates place it higher.

The police cite several reasons for the ``second wave'' of stimulant abuse. Gangster leaders and drug dealers arrested in the antiheroin campaign were released from prison and turned again to stimulants to raise money. They found new sources of supply in South Korea and Taiwan and new demand among housewives and students as well as the more traditional users - truck drivers, construction workers, and unemployed laborers.

Public and police join forces

The main weapon of the police is to isolate drug dealers and users from the rest of the population. The prevailing public perception of drugs is that they are dangerous not only to the individual but to society as a whole. Japanese attitudes are comparable to those of Americans before the ``drug culture'' of the 1960s made drugs fashionable.

``Usage [of drugs] itself is a crime,'' says Shimada. ``That is a very important point.''

Ordinary users of stimulants face a sentence of not less than a year in prison, but they are given lighter sentences for cooperating to arrest suppliers. Hospitalization of addicts is compulsory.

``Mainly we aim at the supplier of the drug,'' says Umeda. ``The users are a kind of victim, but unless we arrest them, they keep buying. ...''

The highly efficient police system, which depends greatly on close involvement with the community, is credited with Japan's generally low level of crime and high state of public security. The key to this, says Shimada, is the national system of neighborhood police boxes, known as koban.

Police officers are stationed in koban throughout the country, each box serving as a mini-police station for a defined neighborhood. The officers patrol their beat on bicycles, visiting each home or business at least twice a year, collecting detailed information, which is kept on record. New inhabitants in the neighborhood receive a visit almost immediately.

The koban system requires huge police manpower. Tokyo alone fields about 40,000 policemen. (New York City has a force of about 28,000 for a slightly smaller population.)

The attitude toward authority, police say, results in drug users being reported regularly to the koban, even by family members who are no longer able to deal with the problem. The koban also carry out educational campaigns, distributing leaflets.

The koban system, says one senior Japanese police official, could be transferred to other countries, particularly to developing Asian nations facing drug problems. The NPA has already helped Singapore set up its own koban system.

Japan, a US official contends, is heading in the direction of other industrial nations, comparing it to the US in the early 1960s. The stable social structure that has supported police efforts to cope with the drug problem is coming under stress. ``The family unit has only recently started to break down in Japan. ... Along with that will come the abuse of everything.''

``It is similar to the era of the 1960s in the US because so many people are now going overseas, and many people, particularly young people, are interested in Western life style and values,'' agrees Shimada. Such youth, police officials say, are responsible for the growing Japanese use of marijuana, which is attracting the involvement of the Yakuza.

But Shimada and most other Japanese drug enforcement officials remain confident that the social barriers to drugs will hold up. ``What we are thinking of is how to create an antidrug society.''

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