The arrest of a high profile American executive at Toyota Japan on drug charges highlights Japan's hard line stance on narcotics and psychotropic drugs.
Toyota Managing Officer Julie Hamp was arrested by Japanese police on June 18 after customs officials discovered the narcotic Oxycodone in a care package sent by mail to Hamp from relatives in the United States.
Oxycodone is an opioid medication similar to morphine used to treat severe pain from arthritis and other chronic illnesses. Possession of such narcotics is generally illegal in Japan, where prescription of pain medications that contain narcotics (opiod analgesics) still lags far behind most Western countries.
While Oxycodone may be a common prescription drug in the United States, in Japan it is only used in the most extreme circumstances:
— 森林 香 (@powershinrinkou) June 19, 2015
On the Toyota executive who was arrested for importing narcotics, [Oxycodone] is really only prescribed to relieve severe pain from cancer. If you don't have cancer all the drug would do would be to make you feel sleepy I think. Although I haven't used either Oxycontin or OxyNorm [other names for Oxycodone, the drug Hamp was arrrested for], I have used a fentanyl patch, and when the pain from cancer finally subsided I felt extremely drowsy.
The US Embassy in Japan's website also states:
It is illegal to bring into Japan some over-the-counter medicines commonly used in the United States, including inhalers and some allergy and sinus medications. Specifically, products that contain stimulants (medicines that contain Pseudoephedrine, such as Actifed, Sudafed, and Vicks inhalers), or Codeine are prohibited…
Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis, stimulant drugs including some prescription medications such as Adderall, and including some medications available over-the-counter in the U.S. are prohibited in Japan. There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan.
Julie Hamp, a former director at General Motors, is the Japanese automaker’s first non-Japanese female senior executive. Hamp was originally hired from GM in 2009 by Toyota to lead communications for the company's North American operations following a major crisis whereby Toyota vehicles were found to accelerate without warning.
After receiving criticism that the company responded too slowly and ultimately ineffectually to the crisis, Hamp was hired to help change corporate culture in Toyota.
Hamp was then promoted to managing officer in Tokyo in March 2015.
Following her arrest, Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, has stood behind Hamp, stating he believes Toyota's managing officer had no intention of breaking the law. In a June 19 news conference Toyoda also stated he thought the company could have done a better job onboarding Hamp when she moved into her new role in Tokyo. The Toyota president, who recruited Hamp to the company himself, then made a formal public apology in front of television cameras.
As Julie Hamp has been remanded in police custody, she does not have the opportunity to make a public statement.
Media reports suggest that police intercepted the drugs as part of a care package mailed to Hamp from family in the United States. According to police, the Oxycodone seemed to be concealed near the bottom of the care package, and appeared to be camouflaged to resemble a necklace.
Hamp's arrest also bears striking similarities to that of another American woman, Carrie Russell, who was arrested in March 2015 on suspicion of importing stimulants. Stimulants, like narcotics, are banned in Japan as illegal drugs.
In Russell's case, the young woman also received the drugs as part of a care package from home. Russell had recently relocated to Japan from South Korea. Russell's mother, a pharmacist in Oregon in the United States, had mailed Russell 180 Adderall pills. Adderall is used in the United States to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) and is popular among college students preparing for exams.
Customs officials in Japan became suspicious because Russell's mother sent the pills to her daughter without a prescription, and packed it in an old Tylenol bottle. Russell was arrested by Japanese police and spent 18 days in detention before being released after frantic efforts by the American embassy.
Policies and practice
In Japan, with the exception of alcohol, most drugs remain taboo and illegal, and zero-tolerance remains the government's official stance. When celebrities or other high profile figures in Japanese society are caught doing drugs, consequences can be severe.
After popular entertainer Ryo Aska was arrested for possession of MDMA by Tokyo police last year his long career was effectively ruined. The singer allegedly relied on mafia contacts to supply him with the drugs.
But beyond disgraced pop stars, stimulant use has always found a place in Japanese society.
Known as shabu or kakuseizei, methamphetamine was used by Japanese soldiers and factory workers during the Second World War, just as their contemporaries in the United States and Germany used the drug. Today the drug is considered to be widely used in Japan by long-haul truckers that need to stay awake.
Japanese authorities are also attempting to crack down on the growing acceptance of marijuana and synthetic designer drugs known as dappo habu.
According to the Tokyoite, a blog published by Time Out Tokyo:
Dappo habu are made up of ‘herbs’ spiked with chemicals and, when smoked, they cause hallucination and intoxication. So far, they have managed to escape being classed as illegal because they get sold as ‘herbal incense’.
For the past ten years such designer drugs have become popular in Tokyo's club scene. Stars and Stripes, an independent publication read by many people serving in the American armed forces, including service personnel stationed in Japan, has taken pains to warn its readership about the dangers posed by these quasi-legal synthetic drugs.
Hamp health fears
From the Japanese point of view Toyota executive Julie Hamp has definitely broken the law:
— ゆず（安保法案反対） (@kyuzyou) June 19, 2015
Toyota's first female executive arrested for importing drugs… Toyota's reputation is RUINED! (ﾟДﾟ)ﾉ
Another Twitter user expressed concern over whatever it is that is prompting Julie Hamp to take medication in the first place.
トヨタの女性役員逮捕事件は、間もなく釈放ということで解決するだろう。これは日米の法制度の違いによるもので、女性役員の単なる不注意だと思う。それよりもこの女性役員の体調不安が心配。ストレスの多い仕事で薬を使わないと眠れないのだろうか。 — 足立勉 (@adachitom) June 19, 2015
In the case of the female Toyota exec arrested for drugs, I'm pretty sure she'll be let off the hook momentarily. It's just a difference between Japanese and American laws – [Hamp] really just made a mistake. What's more worrying is Hamp's physical health. I'm sure she must have a stressful job, so perhaps she's taking this medication to sleep at night.
But in the fast-moving stimulant-powered world of stocks and shares, Hamp's opiate scandal has not made a major impression. As one Twitter user quipped:
— R-YM (@Ref116622) June 19, 2015
Toyota stock ended the day up 1.04% to 8269 yen. The arrest of the female executive didn't have any effect [on the stock price].