Trends in Japan 2009: celebrity drug busts

December 28th, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

The children's decongestants above were not the only powders on the street, apparently

The children’s decongestants seen above were apparently not the only widely distributed powders in Japan this year

One doesn’t have to be an ardent news junkie to know that drugs and drug busts featured prominently in Japan’s headlines this year. From soldiers to pop stars, 2009 will be remembered as a year of disillusionment for many of the Japanese public regarding the “purity” of their heroes.

Still reeling from the marijuana scandal that began with Russian sumo stars in 2008, the search for other pot-smoking wrestlers continued in January, resulting in the first native Japanese to fall victim to the purge (he apparently smoked blunts). All wrestlers were subjected to a number of drug tests, most of which produced nothing. As the scandal unfolded, coverage of Japan’s “Reefer Madness” grew, with statistics showing that use of and arrests involving the devil weed were on the rise in the archipelago. Interestingly enough, as Jake Adelstein explains, it’s not a crime to use marijuana in Japan, but it is a crime to possess it (a retired cop once told him “don’t smoke more than you can eat”).

Not the case with “stimulants,” the catch-all phrase used for hard synthetic drugs and the real source of Japan’s drug problems. The stoner sumo fiasco was completely overshadowed this summer by two stories that continue to reverberate across country. Two celebrities – Noriko Sakai and Manabu Oshio – were accused of using meth and ecstasy, respectively. Both cases were a muckracker’s wet dream, made even more tantalizing to the press when placed in context. On the surface, Oshio’s story was the juiciest, since he had allegedly shared his stash with a bar hostess, who subsequently died of unknown causes. If that wasn’t enough to pique national interest, the event in question happened in a swank Roppongi Hills apartment owned by Mika Noguchi, the founder of lingerie giant, Peach John, Japan’s answer to Victoria’s Secret.

Sakai, on the other hand, was more or less busted by her husband, who ratted her out after being searched and questioned by police in Shibuya. Sakai’s case eclipsed nearly every story this year, not necessarily because of salacious details but because Sakai’s career was built on her innocent image (she was once even a spokesperson for a government-sponsored anti-drug campaign). Newscasters and other television personalities feigned shock (despite probably knowing better). So did her record company, who immediately halted distribution of all her albums, a common PR strategy in Japan. Despite this self-imposed boycott, Sakai’s 1995 hit “Blue Rabbit” shot to number one on iTunes, and her case was followed feverishly by the public, with around 6,600 people applying for the 20 courtroom seats available during her trial.

Despite the yakuza’s central role in domestic drug distribution and a number of possession cases involving Japanese nationals (including a rock star and members of Japan’s self-defense force), many media outlets continued to emphasize any drug-related news that implied that the Japan’s drug problems were imported from the outside (of course, cases like this didn’t help). One interesting exception was the Sony PS3 slim campaign, in which Sony used a number of Japanese celebrities known for drug-related rumors. Whether this was an oversight or an orchestrated decision is debatable, but the story was no more than a blip on the radar compared to the seemingly 24-hour coverage of Sakai and the supposed non-Japanese origin of her habit. Headlines implied that Sakai’s connections to rave culture were evidence of outside influence, and her husband’s claims that their drugs were purchased from a “foreigner” were given front-page coverage. The Japanese Guradian Angels were even interviewed about their experiences dealing with “Middle Eastern” drug dealers in Shibuya, and police were reported to be raiding Roppongi nightclubs patronized by ex-pats and giving on-the-spot urine tests.

Recent rumors point to a city-wide sweep, with both local celebrities and “bad foreigners” under watch. If  true, then perhaps the only white power we’ll see in the press next next winter will be on the slopes. White Christmas indeed.

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