Workshop Report: Drugs and the Politics of Consumption in Japan

Editor’s Note: This workshop report is from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who recently traveled to Switzerland for the event.

A workshop entitled “Drugs and the Politics of Consumption in Japan” was held at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, from Aug. 22-24, 2019. It was organized by Dr. Judith Vitale with the help of Ulrich Brandenburg of the host institution. The workshop was impressively multinational, bringing together speakers representing universities from six countries and three continents. 

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Workshop papers were divided among six panels. On “Knowledge and Consumption in the Pre-Modern Period,” Dr. Anna Andreeva of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, spoke about Buddhist notions of pain during childbirth and knowledge of analgesics in medieval Japan. Her work was based on sources including Heian-era monk writings and Kamakura encyclopedias. Next, Jonas Rüegg, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, problematized early modern conceptions of poisoning and addiction. Prof. David Howell, also of Harvard, offered discussant’s remarks at the conclusion of the panel. 

The second panel, “Commerce and Diplomacy,” featured Prof. Ozaki Kōji of Otemae University (Japan) speaking on the prohibition of opium in nineteenth-century Japan. A particular focus was the Hartley Incident, in which a British national repeatedly smuggled opium into the archipelago in defiance of Japanese law. His trial in a British consular court dragged on for years and became an international sensation. Next, Brandenburg spoke on Japan’s opium trade with Iran and the Ottoman empire, adding a new dimension to studies of relations between the Meiji administration and the Middle East. Prof. Martin Dusinberre of Zurich served as discussant for this panel.

At the end of the first day, Prof. John Jennings (U.S. Air Force Academy) delivered a keynote address reflecting on the research, publication process, and legacy of his book, The Opium Empire: Japanese Imperialism and Drug Trafficking in Asia, 1895-1945 (Praeger, 1997). In just over a hundred pages of text, this volume (the first on the subject in English) used primary source research to demonstrate the significance of opium and refined narcotics (i.e., morphine and heroin) to the process of Japanese empire-building. Jennings came to the topic after discovering Amleto Vespa’s 1938 Secret Agent of Japan, a lurid espionage thriller which detailed drug trafficking in the puppet state of Manchukuo. A work of social history ahead of its time, The Opium Empire did not earn due acclaim in its day, but has now been recognized as a seminal introduction to the important question of Japanese narcotics operations before and during World War II.

The following day, the third panel took up the theme of commerce, spotlighting the relationship among trade, consumption, and imperialism around the turn of the twentieth century. Prof. William Gervase Clarence-Smith of SOAS (UK) explored the supply of opium to the expanding Japanese empire by the British trading firm, Samuel Samuel & Co., from 1895-1926. Next, Prof. Timothy Yang (University of Georgia) looked at the marketing of a ubiquitous patent medicine purporting to treat stomach ailments, produced by the Hoshi Pharmaceutical Corporation (the dominant such company of its day). Finally, Prof. Hung Bin Hsu, of National Cheng Kung University (ROC), presented work on the spaces of opium consumption in colonial Taiwan. He argued that official restrictions on public smoking institutions helped to transform a social into a solitary activity. The discussant for this panel was Prof. Harald Fischer-Tiné of ETH Zurich.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth panels were organized chronologically, spotlighting the interwar and wartime eras, early postwar period, and contemporary times, respectively. Leading off the fourth panel was my attempt to delineate a genre of imperial literary production concerned with drugs. Drawing on medical journals and other sources, Vitale sketched the contours of narcotics consumption and moral panic in interwar Japan. Prof. Christopher Szpilman of Teikyō University (Japan) returned to the issue of imperialism with a presentation on Nonami Shizuo, a Japanese trafficker and mouthpiece of pan-Asian ideology in occupied Manchuria. Prof. Mariko Iijima of Sophia University (Japan) offered discussant’s comments.

The fifth panel, on early postwar Japan, opened with a talk by Harvard Ph.D. student Jesús Solis. Previous scholarship has suggested that methamphetamine dominated the drug world of late 1940s and 1950s Japan; Solis offered new research indicating the ongoing significance of refined narcotics. Next was a videoconference presentation on public anti-methamphetamine campaigns by Dr. Jeffrey Alexander, dean of Pueblo Community College and author of Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth: Alcohol and Drug Use in Japan (Association for Asian Studies, 2018). Showing anti-drug propaganda from the 1950s through the present, Alexander traced its evolution from terrifying depictions of degraded users, to benign images of attractive women. The discussant for this panel was Prof. Sheldon Garon of Princeton University. 

The final panel showcased research on drugs in contemporary Japan—an exciting and original new direction in the field. Prof. Maki Umemura of Cardiff University, author of The Japanese Pharmaceutical Industry: Its Evolution and Current Challenges (Routledge, 2011) spoke via videoconference about regenerative medicine from the early 1970s through the present. Prof. William Marotti gave a talk about Shinjuku (today the world’s busiest train station) as a site of political activity and youth counterculture, including glue-sniffing, in the Japanese student movement of 1968. Lastly, Prof. Oleg Benesch of the University of York (UK) brought to light the virtually unknown history of Japan’s “magic mushroom moment”: a brief interlude (ending in 2002) during which the hallucinogen was available for legal purchase. Prof. David Chiavacchi of the host institution served as the final discussant.

In the more than two decades since the publication of The Opium Empire, the literature on licit and illicit drugs in Japan has grown considerably. As Jennings said, when he published his book he could never have imagined he would one day attend an entire workshop devoted to the topic. Japan has long represented itself as a narcotics-free state, but the scholarship now debunks that image, showing the significance of intoxicants from the earliest past through the present. The organizers of “Drugs and the Politics of Consumption in Japan” hope to circulate the findings of the workshop more broadly through a future publication. Stay tuned!

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