Intoxicants, Stimulants and Pseudoscience

A History of Modern Japanese Alcohol and Drug Culture

Simon Paxton, Rikkyo University [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 3 (Book review 5 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 16 December 2018.

Alexander, Jeffrey W. (2018) Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth: Alcohol and Drug Use in Japan, Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, Inc. ISBN 978-0-924304-85-9, paperback, 180 pages.

Jeffrey Alexander’s Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth: Alcohol and Drug Use in Japan is published by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) as a part of their ‘Asia Shorts’ book series. A relatively short book, it consists of only four chapters, all of which are independent bodies of work.However, it is by no means lacking in thoroughly researched content. Indeed, the book offers numerous great insights into the history of Japan’s consumption of alcohol and drugs. It considers a number of important issues and skillfully fills a gap in the literature. An historian, Alexander has already written on the history of Japan’s beer industry (Alexander 2013a) as well as drug use (Alexander 2013b, 2015). As such, he gives a truly thorough account of this significant but sometimes overlooked aspect of Japanese society.

In the first chapter, Alexander offers an account of how whisky was marketed and consumed in post-war Japan. In the second chapter, he provides a thorough account of the adoption of beer by Japanese consumers and the image, advertising and consumption of beer in Japan. In the third chapter, he turns his attention to liver stimulants and hangover remedies of the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, in the fourth chapter, he provides an historical account of methamphetamine (‘meth’) in Japanese society. Besides the first chapter, all other chapters are based on previously published material. Although each chapter deals with a different theme, they are all interrelated. According to Alexander, the common thread tying these themes together is the rise of economic affluence and how this has enabled greater consumption of Western alcohol and stimulant drugs.

Alexander’s research is motivated by historical interest in Japan as opposed to a more general examination of social and psychological factors that lead to substance abuse. He succeeds in providing an historical account which accurately depicts many aspects of Japanese society and culture. For instance, the acceptance of Western alcohol in Japan illustrates one of the many changes experienced in Japanese society as it underwent fervent economic growth (e.g. pp. 24–32). Furthermore, the approaches taken to curb methamphetamine use provide the reader with insights into crime prevention in Japan. The highlight of the book is how Alexander reveals the impact of influential marketing campaigns to both curb and promote alcohol and drug use in Japan (e.g. pp. 17–25). This—coupled with the incorporation of nostalgic pictures of post-war advertisements for beer and liver stimulants and hangover cures—makes for compelling reading.

In addition to offering an intriguing account of how whisky in Japan was marketed and consumed, Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth also looks at the evolution of whisky bars throughout this period, as well as the acceptance of whisky in traditional Japanese restaurants and inns. Alexander argues that it was the remarkable efforts of the Japanese distiller Suntory Holdings Limited that brought about a transformation in Japan’s drinking culture, so that the country not only accepted but embraced whisky (pp. 17–19). He also traces the history of whisky in Japan in remarkable detail. His analysis of advertising copy used to promote the beverage will be especially interesting for those who wish to know more about the interplay of advertising and alcohol consumption. In this respect, Alexander demonstrates an ability to look beyond the words and reveal more about the culture of the time.

Alexander also presents a thorough account of the adoption of beer by Japanese consumers and the image, advertising and consumption of beer in Japan. Research in this field, he suggests (pp. 35–36), has been prevalent among Japanese scholars but very little scholarly work has been conducted in this field in English (e.g. Francks 2009). Alexander cites company histories as one of the most thorough sources of information on Japan’s beer marketplace (pp. 35–36). However, his research also includes many other sources, including but not limited to newspaper reports, market analyses and travel literature. Alexander traces the fascinating history of beer in Japan from the early stages when there was a reluctance to accept beer through to its genesis as a beverage that would not just rival but ultimately surpass sake in consumption. One of the most interesting sections is the discussion of the emergence of Japan’s ‘Third-Category Beer’, a beer which was made with less hops so that it would not be officially recognised as beer, thereby avoiding steep taxation and generating greater profits.

Alexander notes that Japan’s pharmaceutical companies were quick to take advantage of the side effects of over-consumption of alcohol that accompanied Japan’s economic growth. Here, he delves into the fascinating world of liver-stimulant drugs that Japan’s pharmaceutical companies marketed as hangover remedies (pp. 71–98). He discusses everything from the Japanese drinking culture to the marketing campaigns used by pharmaceutical companies, arguing that Japan’s post-war drug firms used scare tactics and pseudoscience to market drugs which were potentially harmful. Alexander notes that pharmaceutical companies were able to sell these products because they were not subject to stringent safety testing, and that it was not until the potential dangers of these products became known, through published scientific research, that they were withdrawn from the market. Alexander very clearly portrays the relationship between increased alcohol consumption, as Japan became increasingly affluent, and the emergence of these products. In particular, he notes that ‘during the early postwar era, as hardworking white-collar Japanese steadily resumed the nightly carousing for which they would become famous, Japan’s leading drug makers rushed in to alleviate their pain’ (p. 71). Alexander’s excellent coverage of this topic is further enhanced by the inclusion of advertisements for these products along with translations.

The book provides an historical account of methamphetamine (‘meth’) in Japanese society which is both surprising and intriguing. Again, there is very little English literature available on meth abuse in Japan, as the majority of information available deals with illicit drugs in general, but not meth specifically (e.g. Vaughn et al. 1995). The best English-language source on meth, he suggests, comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (see Nagahama 1968). By comparison, the Japanese literature deals with Meth in much more detail (e.g. Sato 2006). Alexander traces the history of methamphetamine from 1887 through to the present. He provides an account of the synthesis of methamphetamine and its commercial sale, including a copy of the first wartime newspaper advertisement for hiropon, the name given to stimulant drugs. Of particular interest is the book’s coverage of crimes committed by hiropon addicts as well as the resulting anti-drug policy and propaganda. Once again, the book is enhanced by an image of an Anti-Hiropon poster along with translations.

Overall,Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth is very well researched with extensive notes and bibliography. By Alexander’s own admission, however, his examination of alcohol and drug use in Japan is not exhaustive, as the four chapters in this book are all from separate research projects. Nonetheless, the book makes a valuable contribution to the field and will no doubt serve as a useful English resource for scholars interested in Japan and, in particular, its consumption of alcohol and drugs. Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth makes a highly engaging read and should be highly recommended to scholars working in Asian and Japanese studies.


Alexander, Jeffrey W.(2013a)Brewed in Japan: The Evolution of the Japanese Beer Industry, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 

Alexander, Jeffrey W.(2013b)‘Japan’s Hiropon Panic: Resident Non-Japanese and the 1950’s Meth Crisis’, International Journey of Drug Policy, 24 (3): 238–43.

Alexander, Jeffrey W.(2015)‘Medicating the Salaryman Lifestyle: Fear-Based Marketing of Liver Stimulant Drugs in Postwar Japan’, Japan Forum, 27 (2): 134–66.

Francks, Penelope (2009) ‘Inconspicuous Consumption: Sake, Beer, and the Birth of the Consumer in Japan’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 68 (1): 135–64.

Nagahama, Masamutsu (1968) ‘A Review of Drug Abuse and Counter Measures in Japan since World War II’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Sato, Akihiko (2006) Kakuseizai no Shakaishi: Doraggu Disukōsu Tōchi Gijutsu. [Stimulant Drugs and Society: Drugs and Discourse] Tokyo: Toshindo.  

Vaughn, Michael S., Huang, Frank F.Y., Ramirez, Christine, R. (1995) ‘Drug Abuse and Anti-Drug Policy in Japan: Past History and Future Directions’,The British Journal of Criminology,35 (4): 491–524.

About the Author

Simon Paxton is an English language lecturer at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, Japan. He has an MA from Saitama University in Japanese and Asian Studies, and a PhD from Macquarie University in International Studies. His main research interest is in kanji acquisition for non-kanji background learners of Japanese.

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