Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

The hypocrisy of Japan’s punitive drug policy

Reading Time: 5 mins
A dreadlocked Japanese man holds a placard calling for the legalisation of medical marijuana during a pro-marijuana rally by Street Cannabis Speech in Shibuya's Hachiko Square, 4 March 2023 (Photo: Damon Coulter / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters).

In Brief

Across Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Danshukai (Sobriety Association) meetings in Tokyo, the unifying factor is pain, anguish and suffering among the attendees. Drug seeking and use coincided with a pain that needed to be numbed or silenced. Too often, these feelings have been exacerbated by the punitive approach to drug use that Japan largely refuses to reevaluate and the enduring consequences of imprisonment, harassment and surveillance.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Greater attention to this frequently unaddressed aspect of Japanese life is needed as the nation aims to assert its stature as a global leader. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will welcome world leaders to his hometown of Hiroshima as the host of the 49th G7 Summit from 19–21 May 2023. The Hiroshima summit shines a spotlight on areas where Japan has become a notable outlier from its G7 compatriots.

The absence of marriage equality or protection of the rights of Japan’s LGBTQ+ community is one issue that has recently garnered scrutiny. Another major gap between Japan and the rest of the G7 is Japan’s outdated and unyieldingly carceral approach to drug policy, addiction treatment and related health issues.

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States have all initiated changes to their laws governing the use and possession of narcotics, moving broadly towards decriminalising previously illegal drugs such as cannabis. Meanwhile, Japan remains stubbornly steadfast in its reluctance to treat drug use as anything but a criminal issue.

The differences between the other nations are noteworthy. Even within the United States, approximately half of all Americans live in states with legal access to cannabis, but mass incarceration and the spectre of federal criminal law loom large. Still, the emerging impetus across the six nations is the recognition that punitive approaches to drug use turn a public health issue into an intractable police matter without addressing the underlying concerns. In disjointed steps, these nations have begun to cautiously change course, acknowledging the decades of irrevocable harm that castigatory policies have wrought and starting to adopt more humane approaches.

Japan is alone among G7 nations in maintaining an approach that does little more than perpetuate harm, stigma and suffering. An April 2020 report titled Drug use, regulations and policy in Japan from the International Drug Policy Consortium and the Japan Advocacy Network for Drug Policy outlines Japan’s approach, noting adherence to a drug policy ‘focused on prohibition and punishment’.

The rigidity of Japan’s process is captured in its official opposition to harm reduction, defined by the US National Institute of Health as ‘interventions aimed to help people avoid negative effects of drug use, but [understood by many] as a way to meet people where they are with kindness and respect’.

Harm reduction is viewed across other G7 nations as the emerging standard of care that should be applied when helping and treating those struggling with their drug use. In 2018, harm reduction was mentioned for the first time in Japan’s fifth Five-Year Drug Abuse Prevention Strategy, which stated that ‘with regard to the discussions on harm reduction in the international community, we ask for understanding of our country’s perspective on the necessity of carrying out policies based on each country or region’s unique circumstances and maintaining a balance in reducing supply and demand for drugs’.

Many individuals who participate in recovery programs in Japan, such as the one at Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center (DARC), would benefit from harm reduction approaches. Such NA-focused programs typically do not recognise the contextual and societal factors that lead to addiction.

The absence of empathy or options afforded to Japan’s drug users reflects how the nation maintains practices that often foster stigma and trap users in impossible situations where their rights can be infringed, ignored or absent. At the same time, Japan hypocritically proclaims adherence to a ‘rules-based international order’ where human rights abuses are condemned.

Others have noted with some hope that nuance can be found in parts of Japan’s drug policy. But as the International Drug Policy Consortium report notes, Japan’s ‘educational’ materials on drug prevention have not been scientifically evaluated and its policies continue to foster stigma and marginalisation, while the emerging global standards around treatment and care are systematically ignored.

When Prime Minister Kishida welcomes some of the world’s most powerful leaders to Hiroshima to speak of the shared values and commitments that unify the group, he and his counterparts are being selective about the rights and values they choose to champion. If Japan is to speak of the shared values of the G7, it must address the violations of individual dignity and rights inflicted on its own citizens through carceral and antiquated drug policy.

Paul Christensen is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and specialises in the study of addiction in contemporary Japan.

Comments are closed.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.