Source: Knight Ridder news service
Pubdate: 11 Feb 1998
Author: Michael Zielenziger, Mercury News Staff Writer
Note: Emiko Doi of the Knight Ridder Tokyo bureau contributed to this report. 


NAGANO, Japan -- In this nation where millions of businessmen come home
drunk from work each night, and cancer of the liver is a leading cause of
death, there is no tolerance for what Americans consider recreational drugs
such as marijuana.

So while Canadian officials hoped to convince a panel of arbitrators that a
positive test for marijuana should not compel the International Olympic
Committee to strip Canadian Ross Rebagliati of the first gold medal awarded
in snowboarding, it was hard to find anyone here to support them.

After all, this is a nation where expatriates are forced to smuggle in
bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol, because the drug is banned by the
national health agency. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was kept out of
the country for nearly two decades because of an old marijuana charge. And
even the hint of marijuana at a social gathering can cause serious
suggestions that the police should immediately be called.

``The way Japan prohibits marijuana is just fine,'' said Hiromi Suzuki, 22,
a university student, as he drank a beer and ate nachos with friends at
Liberty, a smoky bar that is proving popular during the Winter Olympic
Games. ``Some say Japan is too strict and others are not. But I think the
rules as they are seem just fine.''

Added Shigeru Togasaki, a television cameraman who lives in Nagano: ``When
in Rome, you should do as the Romans do. If the IOC decides how to deal
with this, the athletes should accept what the IOC has said. Since he is
part of the official Olympics, he should behave himself.''

While the Canadians argued that the IOC should not act as a ``social
police'' cracking down on a drug long associated with snowboarder culture,
there is little questioning of authority here. While the Canadians argue
that using pot does not enhance an athlete's performance, the Japanese
don't see a distinction.

``Illegal is illegal,'' said Shigeru Wakabayashi, owner of the Liberty.
``If one wants to smoke, he should do it without anyone noticing. It is not
smart to show signs that can be detected officially and obviously.''

Even other athletes had little support for the Canadian position. Male and
female hockey players have been warned for months that using Sudafed, an
over-the-counter cold medication, could trigger positive drug findings
because it contains the banned substance ephedrine.

``It was stupidity,'' said Karyn Bye, a forward on the U.S. women's hockey
team. ``We've been lectured nonstop for months that we can't take anything
into our bodies,''

The lack of support for Rebagliati's cause should surprise no one who has
spent any time in Japan where repressed desire is a constant theme.

``We have been drinking sake and alcohol for so long now, it's part of our
culture,'' said one Japanese woman who says she occasionally smokes
marijuana, and asked that her name not be printed. ``But drugs are so new
to us, that we are very afraid of them.

``Still, there are more people doing drugs than people realize.''

By U.S. standards, the number of drug abusers here is minuscule. But in a
nation remarkable for its orderliness and conformity, National Police
officials say they are alarmed by what they perceive as a dramatic upsurge
in drug arrests. Last year, for instance, 235 high school students were
arrested for drug use, compared to 111 in 1995. Meanwhile, nationwide drug
crimes topped 26,000 last year for the first time since the mid-1970s.

For young people here, the illegal drug of choice is not marijuana, but
methamphetamine, known here as ``shabu.'' Mostly manufactured with the help
of Japan's organized crime, or yakuza, it is said to be the first serious
drugs teenagers use after sniffing glue. Police officials say women, more
than men, are more likely to be drug users.

Western drug advocates like to pose a distinction between marijuana, which
they view as a ``lifestyle'' drug, as opposed to harder substances like
heroin or cocaine. But in Japan, the approval of drugs is so rigidly
controlled that alcohol and tobacco are perhaps the only substances that
Japanese can routinely abuse.

In the corporate culture of Japan, the ``social drink'' after work usually
extends from the close of business until the last trains leave Tokyo's
largest stations, just after midnight. A straggler can stand in the city's
giant Shinjuku station on any night at 11:45 and see perhaps 200,000
drunken commuters staggering to catch the last train home.

As Western music and movies grow popular and more Japanese travel abroad to
study and travel, the curiosity about marijuana has grown. So even though
none of those interviewed at Liberty said they had ever tried pot, all
expressed eagerness to sample it.

``I would love to smoke pot at least once before I die,'' said Ayako Sudo,
22, another art student. ``Some of my friends in Tokyo, in New York tell me
they have smoked marijuana, but I haven't met anybody in Nagano who smokes.

``I'd really like to try it,'' she added, ``but I don't want to get