Paris Hilton left Japan today having never made it further than a hotel outside Narita International Airport, after having been questioned by immigration officials over her recent drug offenses in the US. Ms. Hilton is not the first celebrity to have encountered problems with Japan’s narcotic laws, highlighting Japan’s famously strict official stance on drugs.
In 1980, Paul McCartney was busted at the same airport for possession of marijuana and deported after spending over a week in detention. The Rolling Stones were refused visas for years because of the drug convictions of some members, before authorities finally relented and allowed them to tour.
When Japan co-hosted the soccer World Cup with South Korea in 2002, immigration authorities initially refused a visa request from Argentine legend Diego Maradona because of his cocaine scandals, before relenting and granting him a special 30-day permit.
Japan just says 'no' ...
Despite Japan’s harsh drug laws and low rates of use compared to much of the West, the country has been hit by a series of high-profile scandals in recent years that have grabbed the headlines and provoked moral outrage from the media and social commentators.
While university students smoking pot might barely raise an eyebrow elsewhere, the arrest of members of Kanto Gakuin rugby team for growing cannabis plants at the end of 2007 was national news. The students were expelled from the university and the rugby club canceled the rest of its season’s program.
Throughout 2008, the media was full of stories of university students getting busted and expelled, leading most of the major newspapers to run editorials about moral decay and the dangers of drugs for the nation’s youth.
Later the same year, a pair of Russian wrestlers in Japan’s national sport of Sumo, were found to have smoked marijuana, leading to their expulsion from the sport and testing of every wrestler in Sumo's top two divisions . Although the head of the Japan Sumo Association resigned over the scandal, there was some relief that the miscreants were foreigners: until a Japanese wrestler then failed his test.
...or does it?
The most commonly abused drug in Japan is "shabu" a form of methamphetamine, much of it imported from North Korea by the yakuza mafia. The drug is widely believed to be – along with counterfeit currency – the communist state’s biggest export earner.
Shabu was at the heart of Japan’s biggest celebrity scandal last year. Actress/singer Sakai "Noripi" Noriko went on the run for six days in August following the arrest of her husband on drug charges. The whole nation watched as she turned herself in and later confessed to being a user herself.
In the same month, the taboo of drug use in Japan may have actually contributed to the death of Kaori Tanaka, a young woman who took ecstasy (MDMA) with actor Manabu Oshio. When Tanaka began to experience an adverse reaction to the drug, Oshio – no doubt aware that revelations of drug use would spell the end of his career – fled the apartment they were using without calling an ambulance. At his trial, a string of expert witnesses gave varying estimates of her chances of survival had paramedics been able to reach her in time. Last Friday Oshio was sentenced to more than two years imprisonment for aggravated abandonment leading to death.
Rather than provoke any debate in Japan among politicians or the media about a rethink of drug policy for the 21st century, the scandals of recent years appeared to have, if anything, hardened opinion on the issue.
The mainstream view appears to be that Japan doesn't yet have a Western-style drug problem, nor does it want one.