Tokyo | Fall, 2001 | 19 years old
Before going to Japan, I was taught that social disapproval carries a much higher stigma in Japanese culture than it does in the United States. It was a recurring theme in the culture lessons in my Japanese language and history classes in college that social approval and approbation play a very important role in Japanese society. I was taught that group approval as an aspect of Japanese culture was markedly pronounced and considered quite important. I found the Japanese attitude toward drug and alcohol use of great interest to me during my stay there for reasons of cultural comparison.
When I first visited Japan in 2001, the sale and/or purchase of psychedelic mushrooms was legal. In fact, there were entire stores devoted to selling mushrooms and other drug paraphernalia, and low-level criminals often sold mushrooms off of folding card tables at night in the streets of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s largest business and entertainment districts. However, despite this apparent air of permissiveness, other mind-altering substances, such as cocaine and marijuana, were regulated with strict efficiency. A number of Japanese people told me that penalties for the use or possession of these substances were very severe, and I did not know of a single person who risked using them. On the contrary, mushrooms seemed to me to be very popular among students, and I knew of many people who used the drugs before their sale was made illegal in 2002. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that it was legal to buy, sell, or possess mushrooms, it was illegal to use them for recreational purposes, or for shopkeepers to dispense advice regarding the drugs. Through conversations with my host father, I learned that mushrooms were originally protected because of their potential for use in traditional Japanese religious ceremonies, and they became criminalized because they had in recent years acquired the stigma of a recreational drug with the potential for abuse.
My encounter with Japanese peoples’ attitudes towards alcohol was also of great interest to me. With very few exceptions, it seemed to me that people adhered very strictly to the laws regarding minimum drinking age, which in Japan, was twenty. For instance, despite the fact that clubs that served alcohol in Tokyo rarely if ever carded, I almost never met an underage Japanese person who went out to bars or clubs. Unlike in the United States, where students frequently purchase fake IDs and often drink underage if they can get away with it, in Japan, such activity was almost unheard of. In fact, it was my experience that, while underage students in the U.S. often sought to subvert the system in Japan, it was not only expected that underage persons would not drink, it was self-enforced. I remember one instance when I tried to get my language partner to go out to a club with me. “I can’t,” she replied, “I’m not twenty yet.” When I pointed out that no one at the clubs actually checked on that, she still refused. On top of that, at one point my host mother offered me a drink, then caught herself, saying, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot. You’re only nineteen – you don’t like beer yet.”