I would hope that most people reading this post would have the common sense to refrain from carrying illegal drugs for personal use in any foreign country, Japan or otherwise. Watch one episode of Banged up Abroad and you’ll have a pretty clear idea of the potential consequences – and they aren’t pretty.
What you may not realize is that many commonly used legal drugs in Western countries are out-lawed in Japan, and innocently packing these in your luggage can land you in some serious hot water. Even carrying prescription drugs taken for chronic conditions is not as black and white as you might imagine. The use of recreational drugs, with the exception of alcohol, is heavily frowned upon by both society and the law in Japan. While casual drug use might have formed an enjoyable part of traveling in the past for you, my strong advice would be not to even consider using drugs in Japan.
Let’s pick this subject apart a little bit more so that we can understand why Japan is so strict on drugs of all kinds, and how to approach this issue as a foreigner in Japan.
Jishuku refers to the Japanese culture of self-restraint. While self-restraint is obviously not a quality unique to Japanese people, it is a concept that is strongly promoted within Japanese society.
So how does this pertain to drug use? Well, certainly on an individual level using drugs would be considered a violation of jishuku. How can one effectively practice self-restraint when under the influence of a mind-altering substance? And indeed, the very act of drug-taking is considered evidence of a lack of self-restraint.
Jishuku stretches beyond this, though. Societally, to support someone who uses drugs is considered a violation of jishuku. This could mean employing a person who uses drugs, being friends with a person who uses drugs, or availing of the services or products of a person who uses drugs. You can see how a person who uses drugs is very quickly completely ostracised by Japanese society.
Prescription medicines that are illegal in Japan
Many drugs that are commonly prescribed by doctors in Western countries are illegal in Japan. If you use these drugs to treat a medical condition, it is unlikely you will be permitted to bring them across Japanese borders – even with a medical note. The best course of action would be to visit a doctor or pharmacy as soon as possible after landing in Japan, where you can source a legal alternative to your regular prescription.
These drugs are commonly prescribed by Western doctors for the treatment of Attention Defecit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Defecit Disorder (ADD). Strictly speaking, they are amphetamines – and have been abused in Western society. For this reason, they are entirely illegal in Japan and Western tourists have been arrested for possession of these drugs.
Japanese society has a questionable relationship with mental health stigma – but that’s a discussion for another article. Sadly, the lifesaving anti-depressant Prozac (and its generic form fluoxetine) is illegal in Japan. Do not carry this with you into Japan, and do not attempt to source it on the black market – this could result in jail time.
Viagra and other sexual stimulants containing sildenafil are illegal in Japan. Again, do not attempt to bring these in, do not attempt to source them while on your trip.
Interestingly, CBD oil (commonly used to control anxiety) is legal in Japan – however, THC is not. THC is a common ingredient of many commercially sold Western CBD oils, and carrying this across Japanese borders is illegal. This is one medication that you’re best re-purchasing once in Japan to ensure you aren’t in violation of guidelines.
Over the counter medications that are illegal in Japan
There are many components of the innocent first aid box that you might pack for all your trips that could land you in a sticky situation at the Japanese border. Ingredients found in many over the counter Western cold and flu medicines are considered narcotics in Japan, and you could very easily carry medicines that use these ingredients in illegal quantities into the country. Here are some particular offenders to watch out for on medication packages.
This decongestant that is commonly found in sinus medication is banned in Japan – or at least, the quantities one might find of it in Western medicines are banned. You can pick up decongestants once you land in Japan that contains pseudoephredine in reduced quantities – these are fully legal. Pseudoephedrine hydrochloride (a variant of pseudoephredine included in many cold and flu remedies) is subject to the same restrictions. Please note, oftentimes these medications must be prescribed by a doctor in Japan, rather than available over the counter – you are perhaps better sourcing these if you are suffering from nasal or sinus congestion on your trip, rather than going through the headache (bad pun, sorry) of pre-emptively purchasing them.
Codeine is a painkilling ingredient, used in many painkiller tablets and cough remedies. It is an opiate and is well-known for its addictive qualities. Restrictions on codeine in Japan are similar to those of pseudoephredine – it is technically available, but in much lower doses – stay on the safe side and don’t attempt to bring it across the border. Purchase in Japan if needed.
Carrying Legal Prescription Drugs Into Japan
If you are carrying over the allocated quantity of legal prescription drugs into Japan, you will need to apply for a Yakkan Shoumei in advance of your trip. This is a certificate explaining to border control that you are permitted to have your drugs or medical devices.
If you require regular medication such as contraceptive pills, insulin, inhalers, or even contact lenses and like to carry some spares with you when traveling, be sure to request your Yakkan Shoumei at least two weeks before your departure date.
Receiving Illegal Prescription Or Over The Counter Drugs In The Mail
There are numerous incidences of expats receiving jail time for being sent legal prescriptions or over the counter remedies from their country of origin to their new address in Japan, where said prescriptions are illegal. Be sure to inform your family of these laws before they send you a well-meaning care package for the flu!
Recreational Drugs In Japan
You’ve probably gathered from all the above information that there are huge restrictions on recreational drug use in Japan. If a drug is illegal in your home country, chances are it’s definitely illegal in Japan. Some examples include heroin, cocaine, ketamine, MDMA, marijuana, and opium. The general rule of thumb? Don’t attempt to bring them in, don’t do them while you’re over there, don’t attempt to bring them out. Simple.
What Happens If I Am Caught Using Recreational Drugs In Japan?
Let’s just say you were caught smoking a joint by Japanese authorities. You might imagine that for possessing such a small quantity of a drug that your culture might not consider particularly harmful, you would be let off with a warning or a fine.
Wrong. Personal drug use carries a jail sentence of up to five years and does not permit bail or outside contact while awaiting trial. When you do eventually get out of jail, you will be banned from future entry to Japan – as are individuals with drug convictions from other countries (interestingly, Paris Hilton is banned from Japan for this reason).
Ergo, a small lapse in judgement could have very serious and potentially permanent consequences.
Surely There’s A Secret Drug Culture In Japan?
Of course, no nation is completely drug-free – to make a statement like this would be preposterous. It is difficult to source accurate statistics around recreational drug use in Japan due to massive societal stigma and fear of strict anti-drug laws, the amount of people being caught by authorities for drug possession does appear to be on the rise.
While a mere 57 people being arrested for carrying MDMA in the year 2019 might seem a very small number, it is more than double the statistics from 2013 – perhaps indicating that drugs are being more widely used for recreational purposes in Japan.
Can I At Least Talk About Drugs In Japan?
I hate stereotyping, so please forgive me here as I resort to a shamefully sweeping generalization. For many Western backpackers, drugs can be a widely discussed topic. Whether it’s talking about the space cake you sampled in Amsterdam or the pills you popped in Berlin, recreational drug experiences can roll off the tongue when mixing with other travelers, and provide easy conversational fodder in hostel lobbies and bars.
My advice? Steer clear of this in Japan. If you’re talking to a local person, it’s possible this topic will make them uncomfortable – I mentioned jishuku at the start of this piece, and hanging out with a “druggie” is a pretty clear violation of this. An even worse scenario? The person you’re talking to may feel obliged to report you to a relevant authority if you make disclosures about having recreational drugs in your luggage or seeking to buy illegal drugs while in Japan.
Stick to more neutral topics. You’re in the most incredible country in the world – there’s no shortage of things to talk about!
High-Profile Examples Of Illegal Drug Use In Japan
While very few Western industries would look kindly on employee drug use, there’s often a willingness to turn a blind eye on what people do in their personal life once it’s kept quiet. This is not the case in Japan – casual drug use is enough to end a person’s career entirely.
To highlight this, there are a number of high-profile cases involving celebrities that have resulted in societal shunning of individuals who were once national sweethearts. One of the most recent examples of this is Pierre Taki, the Japanese actor, and musician who was linked to cocaine use in 2019. Sony Music stopped selling Taki’s work, his plethora of TV shows were canceled, a video game where he provided voiceovers was pulled from stores, and he lost a high-profile deal with Walt Disney Japan. This all happened within days of Taki being linked to personal cocaine use and is far from the first time a celebrity has received such treatment from the brands and their fans.
Other Japanese celebrities who have fallen prey to a similar fate include Erika Sawajiri, Noriko Sakai and Ai Takabe.
Contrast this with the casual cocaine use on say, New York or London’s nightlife scene – if Western celebrities were held to the same standards as Japanese celebrities in relation to drug use, we would have virtually no performers left.
The Bottom Line
I’m aware that I’m repeating myself and probably sound like a cringe anti-drug campaign, but I can’t stress this enough about Japan – just don’t do it. The potential consequences are in no way worth it. Get your natural highs from your incredible surroundings, and then do whatever it is you usually do when you get home.