Sunday, June 18, 2023

Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth

 Alexander, Jeffrey

Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth: Alcohol and Drug Use in Japan

Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2018


This book is a collection of essays on alcohol and methamphetamine use in Japan with a focus on advertising in the post war period and how that helped shape changes in the markets for the topics covered.

The first chapter is on whisky. Whisky distillers during the WWII had to fully convert to making alcohol based fuel. A few hid away casks of products from before that mandate and were able to sell them when the war was over to help reestablish their companies. The chapter goes into detail on how the distillers established a new post war market, first by providing whisky for the occupying forces' post exchanges, then making a cheaper product for those who could afford it. In time they turned to the establishment of company owned whisky bars and advertising to expand their market as Japan recovered from the war. The "bomb" in the title comes from bakudan which was made in the early post war years by distilling out the methyl alcohol in industrial alcohol so it could be "drinkable." The result was a cheap, and illegal, booze sold to those desperate for a drink when decent booze was too expensive. Consuming it could, and sometimes did, lead to blindness or death. Bakudan would fade away as Japan recovered from the devastation of the war and incomes rose making legal whisky affordable. 

Second chapter is on beer, as barley was a class B food established brewers were able to continue to make and sell beer, mainly to the Imperial Army and Navy during the war. After the war they worked to expand their trade by also selling to the occupiers and with advertising to a growing domestic market which increasingly included women and college students.


The third chapter is on liver stimulants and hangover remedies made and sold by pharmaceutical companies. These were heavily advertised and sold as a solution to hangovers and preventative of liver damage from drinking. This lasted until they were proven to be mainly ineffectual and in some cases actually damaging to health in the late 1950s. By 1960 they had faded from the market with a few exceptions consisting mainly of vitamins and no longer advertised in the same way. The promotion in the 1950s of these  products is similar in some ways to the unfounded claims often made today about some diet supplements.

The fourth and final chapter is on methamphetamine abuse. In WWII methamphetamine was used to assist pilots to stay alert and eventually given to factory workers to maintain production. After the war the manufacturers had a surplus supply which they then began selling to the general populace. At that time it was legal to purchase in liquid form under several brand names to be injected and there were no restrictions on access to hypodermic syringes. It was not unusual for people to use it regularly, such as office workers using it on a night of drinking when they started to lose energy. When the health problems associated with methamphetamine abuse became apparent in the 1950s meth was outlawed. At this point large advertising and press campaigns were employed by the authorities and police to discourage use.


All in all this book was very informative with many details I had never heard of before.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Prayer and Play in Late Tokugawa Japan

 Hur, Nam-lin

Prayer and Play in Late Tokugawa Japan: Asakusa Sensōji and Edo Society

Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000


While writing my book Tokyo Stroll I kept digging for resources that would help me go beyond the usual superficial treatment one finds in travel books in describing locations I was including in the book. This meant I had to track down and order many titles I was not yet familiar with. This work was one of them which I finally have been able to re-read at my leisure.


Asakusa's Sensōji is one of the most famous temples in Japan and a popular pilgrimage and tourism destination. The greater neighborhood is well known today for a large variety of sub-temples, shintō shrines, shops, theaters, and entertainments. This variety of, what we in the West would consider a mixture of sacred and secular, came to be during the Edo Period, from 1600 to 1868. Hur's book covers that period from when Sensōji was a locally important temple serving small villages to its transformation to what it became at the end of the shōgun's rule. The story is multifaceted, from the days when the temple was heavily patronized by the government, daimyō, and samurai to its increasing reliance on small donations from commoners and rent from businesses on it's property. Part of that change includes how the area became associated with play, which resulted from a large variety of businesses for entertainment operating in the area, as well as the government relocating the Yoshiwara pleasure district to just north of the temple in 1656, and later "banishing" theaters to the neighborhood in the mid 19th century. 

All of this is tied to the changing economic nature of Edo as wealth slipped from the control of the government with its Neo-Confucian ideology into the hands of rich merchants, the establishment of monopoly capitalism, the increase in commoner desire for entertainment, the temple's reliance on donations from visitors, and the diversity of what could be found in the neighborhood where prayer and play became interlinked.

The book is reasonably priced and a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in Edo, Tokyo, or Japanese Buddhism.