Drugs have traditionally been sold by people with links to organized crime. Much of speed available on the streets of Japan is sold by directly by the yakuza or by members of motorcycle gangs or immigrants. Japanese reportedly find buying drugs from immigrants a less frightening experience than purchasing them from the yakuza.

These days dealers come from all walks of life and employ a number of different methods. An increasing number are operating out of clubs and bars in entertainment district or through Internet and cell phone networks. Many dealers are foreigners. Of the 544 smugglers and dealers arrested in 2008, 128 were non-Japanese.

Many drug dealers in Tokyo are Iranians. They primarily sell stimulants in parks and parking lots. Ones working in Ueno Park in the late 1990s offered fake telephone cards, cocaine, “teriyaki” (heroin), “shabu-shabu” and hashish. In 1992, one Iranian was arrested for drugs in Japan; in 1998, some 220 were.

In 2004, an Iranian crime boss known as the “King of Fear” was arrested in Tokyo. He reportedly ran a 1,000-dealer rung that earned $300,000 a month from selling hashish, stimulants and Ecstacy. The Iranian, whose name is Mahmoud Kadkhodaei, wrestled for Iran in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He traveled frequently between Japan and Iran with false passports, even after an arrest warrant was issued for him in Japan and he was placed on an Interpol list.. He was reportedly turned in by dealers that were treated poorly by him.

Dealers in Japanese are skilled at using cell phones, beepers, the Internet and overnight delivery services. Drugs are most sold in pills and powder form not injectable doses. In October 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A Sudanese man was arrested in Tokyo for allegedly possessing illegal drugs with a total street value of more than 100 million yen. According to police, Zamzam Nimeri, 24, was found in possession of 1.7 kilograms of cocaine, 38 grams of stimulant drugs and 600 grams of cannabis at an apartment in Setagaya Ward in July, 2012. A self-proclaimed trading company employee with no fixed address, Nimeri is suspected of selling illegal drugs in the Roppongi entertainment district and other places. He denied the allegations and claimed the drugs belonged to a friend, the Metropolitan Police Department said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 16, 2012]

Drug Dealing Operations in Japan

“The smuggled drugs are then handed over to Chinese and Japanese dealers who further divide the drugs into smaller portions,” Toru Igarashi and Kenji Ogata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun. “Retail prices are determined by the purity and origin of the drug. Although the drugs are procured for about 15,000 yen a gram, the street value jumps to about 90,000 yen. The man said he has also carried out his illegal activities with individuals from Myanmar (Burma) with fake passports who approached him to sell illegal stimulants.”

“In the past, the yakuza were intimately involved in the procurement and selling of stimulant drugs, but the situation has changed in recent years.” Another man involved in drug smuggling said, "Organized crime groups take a cut in the form of commissions. That is why we do not let them in. There are many Japanese besides the yakuza who deal in drugs."

One man who runs a legal business during the day, but has a drug business which he operates on the side at night, said he buys Ecstacy made in the Netherlands and Myanmar (Burma) from a Chinese drug dealer and sells them to homemakers in Japan. Word on the street that the drugs heighten sexual pleasure has been a boon to his business. His return on three pills bought for 15,000 yen is between two and three times that amount. "I have been smuggling for more than a decade, but have yet to be found out by the police," the man said. "I am very careful...While I am happy to make profits, I also am concerned as a Japanese about a further increase in drug addicts.”

Drug Trafficking in Japan

Japan produces virtually no illegal drugs itself and thus almost everything is smuggled in from abroad, mostly from China, North Korea, Taiwan or Southeast Asia. Most drugs have traditionally been smuggled in on sea routes, either hidden in freight or picked up at sea by local boats from mother ships.

With the exception of amphetamines, the amount of drugs coming into Japan is relatively small. Between 1985 and 1990, cocaine seizure in the country went up from 129 grams a year to 68.8 kilos. The largest single drug cannabis seizures in 1996 was 84 pounds of marijuana.

In the early 2000s it became increasingly common for drug smugglers to use the mail and third parties to bring drugs into Japan. People have been arrested after picking up parcels that have drugs hidden in them for other people. One man who was arrested in Osaka after picking up a package with a wooden frame with 300 grams of cocaine hidden in it.

When the third parties are caught they inevitably claim they had no knowledge they were smuggling drugs. A women which had a cookbook with 200 grams of cocaine sent to her said she asked to accept the package by a Nigerian man. The man was arrested.

Supplies of methamphetamines began to dry up in mid 2006 after large drug-producing labs were shut down in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Drug Smuggling Operations in Japan

Toru Igarashi and Kenji Ogata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, ‘so far, law enforcement has failed to uncover the organized criminal groups that use carriers, known as "mules," to smuggle drugs into Japan. According to a man who claims to have been involved in smuggling, carriers from China land at various airports and harbors in Japan after obtaining the drugs in China, North Korea, South Korea and Mexico. "They each carry about a kilogram of drugs," he said. "The other day, 29 kilograms passed through an airport, but the authorities did not discover it.” How are the drugs hidden? reporter asked. “That is something I cannot reveal." [Source: Toru Igarashi and Kenji Ogata, Asahi Shimbun, December 30, 2010]

Of about 50 individuals who were detained for smuggling in late 2010, only 20 percent were members of organized crime groups. The remaining 80 percent had no direct ties to any gang and were classified by police as belonging to "the general public.” "I unthinkingly agreed (to bring drugs into Japan) after being asked to do so by a former colleague," said one unidentified smuggler busted by police. "I was told I would receive 500,000 yen just for traveling abroad and returning to Japan."

Drug Smugglers Switch from Ships to Commercial Planes

In December 2010,Toru Igarashi and Kenji Ogata wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “Drug dealers stepped up their smuggling activities in 2009 by making more use of commercial flights to bring illegal stimulants into Japan. According to the National Police Agency, law enforcement authorities uncovered 164 drug smuggling cases in 2009, more than double the figure of the previous year. Of that number, 127 cases involved carriers bringing in drugs into Japan on commercial flights. [Source: Toru Igarashi and Kenji Ogata, Asahi Shimbun, December 30, 2010]

‘ships used to be the major form of transport for drug smugglers, but customs and police officials began stepping up their inspections around 2005.According to the NPA, in the 1990s when ships were primarily used for smuggling, it was not unusual for police to seize up to 1 ton of stimulants over the course of a year. However, a clampdown on smuggling reduced the amount seized to about 37 kilograms in 2005.”

“The shipping clampdown forced smugglers to turn to small-lot transport involving carriers hiding the drugs in their baggage on flights into Japan. After 2006, the total amount seized again surpassed 100 kilograms. In 2009, it exceeded 200 kilograms. The NPA issued instructions in November to prefectural police departments to determine smuggling routes by allowing carriers some leeway after entering Japan in an attempt to uncover their distribution routes.”

“When ships were the primary mode of transport, most smuggled drugs came from Asia. In recent years, the supplier nations of illegal drugs have spread to 23 countries and regions, including Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya. The NPA said drug trafficking is a major source of income for terrorist groups in western Africa. Police said terrorist groups have been switching their business to Japan in search of higher profits.”

Drug Busts in Japan

A record 640 kilograms of drugs — 150 kilograms of stimulants, 680,000 ecstacy tablets and 280 kilograms of marijuana — were seized from a port in Osaka in 2007. The drugs were found inside lumber from Canada on boat that originated in Vancouver and was discovered by custom officials who X-rayed the wood and saw cavities inside. Valued at ¥2. 72 billion, it was the largest drug haul ever in Japanese history.

In September 2004, a Japanese and Briton were arrested with 60,000 ecstacy tablets worth an estimated $3 million. The tablets were hidden in a wooden table shipped from the Netherlands to the port of Kobe and were discovered with X-ray machines. the two men were arrested when they picked up the table. They claim they were ordered to pick the table up and did not know drugs were inside.

See Drug Penalties Above

In late 2008 and early 2009 there was a string of arrests involving Mexicans and drugs at Narita airport. About 17 kilograms of drugs were seized. Some people were caught with liquid solutions of drugs inside shampoo bottles. In the same period there were also a number of cases of people smuggling stimulant drugs from Malaysia via South Korea.

Drug Seizures and Arrests in Japan in 2010 and 2011

A record 150 kilograms of stimulants worth ¥13.5 billion was seized at Narita airport in October 2010. A total of 100 kilograms were smuggled from African countries. In the past most drugs originated from Asian countries.

In May 2010, three Vietnamese were arrested for growing $1 million worth of marijuana in three houses in Hyogo Prefecture. A total of 1,443 plants were seized during a three hour raid on the houses. A total of 16 rooms in the house were equipped with lights and fans. Some of the plants were over 1.5 meters tall.

In June 2010, two Iranians were arrested on suspicion of manufacturing stimulant drugs with over-the-counter cold medicines. The earliest known cases of stimulant manufacturing was in 1995 by the Aum Supreme Cult, the group behind the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack.

In May 2011, two Japanese were held in a free trade zone in North Korea on charges of drug trafficking and the use of counterfeit currency. The two worked for a Japanese firm in the free trade zone and were charged after being caught of hiding drugs in canned good exported to China. North Korea said the crimes were very serious. In 2003 a Japanese man was arrested in North Korea on drug charges and held until 2009 when he was released on humanitarian grounds.

A few days earlier a 36-year-old man was sentenced to 18 years in an Indonesian prison for attempting to smuggle six kilograms of hashish through the Bali airport. The man, Yuki Morita, had just been released from a Indian prison a few months before where he was released after serving a 16-month jail term on similar charges.

In June 2011, Kyodo reported, three men were arrested Friday on suspicion of hiding roughly 90 liters of water containing stimulant drugs with an estimated street value of ¥4 billion inside the gas tank of a used car imported from Dubai to Yokohama Port, police said. Automobile dealer Joji Honda, 61, and two others have denied that they tried to smuggle the drugs, saying they did not know there were stimulants inside the car, according to the police. Yokohama Customs found the dissolved drugs, estimated at around 50 kilograms in powdered form, inside a full gas tank of the imported car that left Dubai on April 27 and arrived in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, on May 28, they said. [Source: Kyodo, Mainichi Shimbun, June 4, 2011]

Execution of Japanese Drug Smugglers in China

In April 2010, four Japanese men convicted of drug smuggling charges in China were executed. All four men were caught trying to smuggle or sell more than one kilogram of illegal drugs — in most cases, amphetamines. They included 65-year-old Mitsunobu Akano who was caught with 2.5 kilograms of methamphetamine as he tried to board a plane to Japan at China’s Dalian airport in September 2006. In China, people caught smuggling over one kilogram of drugs are often executed.

The executions marked the first time that Japanese nationals were executed in Japan since China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. The Chinese government went somewhat out of its way to make sure the executions did not harm Japan - China relations. Akano was allowed to meet with his family before he was executed, which normally is not done. All the Japanese are believed to have been killed by lethal injection.

The arrest of these men didn’t seem to deter other Japanese from trying to smuggle druhs from China to Japan In March 2010, a 28-year-old man was arrested at Shenyang Airport trying to smuggle about one kilogram of amphetamines to Japan. In July 2009, three Japanese men were arrested at Dalian Airport on drug trafficking charges.

Chinese Arrested for Drug Smuggling

In November 20011, Kyodo reported: Three Chinese men and a woman have been arrested and sent to prosecutors on suspicion of smuggling about 3 kilograms of stimulant drugs through a port in the city of Okayama earlier this month, police said. The four, including a 30-year-old Chinese sailor named Yu Tao, smuggled the drugs worth about 230 million yen in street value in six plastic bags on a Cambodian cargo vessel on Nov. 11, the police and customs authorities said. [Source: Kyodo, November 25, 2011]

The four have denied the charges, saying they were not aware that the bags contained stimulants, according to the police. The arrest came as the police received a tip that a vessel believed to be carrying drugs would be arriving at the port on Nov. 11, they said. The three men were arrested at the site, while the woman was caught the next day in Yokohama after she ran away, they added.

U.S. May Extradite American Drug Suspect Wanted in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: A U.S. district court ruled in spring 2011 that a 30-year-old American former serviceman for whom the Kanagawa prefectural police have an arrest warrant for trafficking drugs must be extradited to Japan based on a treaty between the two countries. The extradition has not yet been carried out because defense lawyers for the former serviceman, who was stationed at the U.S. military base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, filed an appeal against the ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, citing the differences between Japanese and U.S. judicial systems, among other reasons. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 26, 2011]

If the appeal is rejected, his case would be the first in which a U.S. citizen has been handed over to Japan in line with the Treaty on Extradition between Japan and the United States, sources said. According to U.S. judicial authorities' documents obtained by The Yomiuri Shimbun, the former U.S. serviceman allegedly conspired in July 2004 with two civilian men who were then working at Yokosuka Naval Base, having them order from Canada a total of 50,000 tablets of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (also known as MDMA or ecstacy) and other narcotics, with a market value of about 200 million yen. These tablets were to be delivered to a post office box on the base using military mail services.

The man in question had served as a crew member for a U.S. guided missile cruiser based in Yokosuka, but was given a dishonorable discharge in 2003 for violating military rules on drugs. The former serviceman left for Minnesota in August the following year, one day after the Kanagawa prefectural police arrested the two civilian personnel on suspicion of violating the Narcotic Control Law, according to the documents.

The police suspect that the two civilian personnel agreed to receive the tablets at the request of the former serviceman in exchange for money. The police obtained an arrest warrant for the man that month, believing it would be crucial for them to question him, according to the sources. U.S. investigation authorities found in 2005 that the former serviceman had been in Florida. The National Police Agency and the Foreign Ministry requested his extradition to Japan in April 2009. He was detained by U.S. judicial authorities in November 2010, the sources said.

According to the NPA and the Justice Ministry, nationals of Japan, China and other countries have been handed over to Japan since the treaty came into effect in 1980, but no such case has yet involved a U.S. citizen. Under the treaty, suspects who would face the death penalty or imprisonment of at least one year over violations of Japanese or U.S. laws are subject to extradition to the other country. Japan signed a similar treaty with South Korea in 2002.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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