What Happens When You're Caught With Weed in Japan
They'll never let you go back again.
For most American urbanites, the thought of Tokyo conjures up vivid imagery and curious emotions—the infinite LED lights, Harajuku style, delicious raw fish—you name it. The Japanese cityscape provides all this, including the bright vices of sex, alcohol, and pop music to an often extreme degree.
What you will not easily find is marijuana.
When I visited Japan for the first time last April to tour with my friend and Tokyo-bred DJ/multi-instrumentalist starRo, I immediately fell in love with the scene. A few days in, with a Snapchat story full of street names I couldn’t pronounce, Save the Last Dance-inspired hip-hop clubs, and highball whiskeys, I realized something was missing. Coming from California where marijuana is just short of growing in city park planters, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where were all the smokers?
Image via Jindong H
We asked our resident tastemakers-turned-tour guides what was up. One of them, an affiliate of famed Jazzy Sport Music Shop we'll call Tsuyoshi, said he had been arrested for about 1/2 a gram in a bag that fell out of his pants pocket in a 7-Eleven one early morning. It wasn't until he got home from the store that he noticed the weed was gone—a friend had passed it to him at a show the previous night. That afternoon, he returned to the convenience store to retrieve the lost bag. Police were there waiting for him. Apparently, the store cashier hadn't hesitated to review the security camera footage and incriminated Tsuyoshi on the spot. Our friend stayed locked up for five days until he was released on bail. A five-year sentence is the norm for similar charges.
If you’re looking to get high in Japan, the advice is simple: Throw your expectations out the window.
This specific story would be unlikely here in California. A cashier is more apt to smoke a found joint than report it. But Japan is different. It’s record-low crime rate coincides with a near 99 percent conviction rate. This, coupled with the well-known societal pressures and stigma against arrest, deters the vast majority of the populace from the most mundane of missteps. And when it comes to illicit substances, both Japanese law enforcement and the general public give weed the same harsh judgment as the country's number one abused drug, speed (methamphetamine).
To add insult to injury, Tsuyoshi’s arrest made headlines: Media scrutiny followed him as he ponied up a public apology and put his rock band cro-magnon on an indefinite hiatus out of respect. The shame is real.
Talking to locals, I’ve found that Japan is much slower to progress on socio-political issues like the Cannabis Control Act than they are with technology and gaming. Traditions hold strong.
Image via thelongjourney/VSCO
For each discussion surrounding marijuana regulation, there’s a parallel one happening around the corner. For example: Tattoos, which for years have been banned in many public baths and gyms for their historical links with Japan’s notorious yakuza gangs, may finally find acceptance, mainly due to the influx of inked-up foreign athletes expected at the 2020 Olympics.
Still today, if foreigners are caught with any amount of weed, they can be deported with no chance of return.
If you’re looking to get high in Japan, the advice is simple: Throw your expectations out the window. It’s likely you won’t be able to find anything good. If you do, it could potentially wreck your life.
Next time I visit, I’ll settle for the bevy of natural city stimulants Tokyo has to offer, like street fashion and spicy-AF ramen.