Walking along Tottenham Court Road on a recent, rare, trip to London I was struck by a sweet, pungent odour, which I couldn’t immediately identify. The answer arrived moments later while cutting through a dark Dickensian alley en route to Oxford Street.
My way was blocked by a group of wild-eyed, ragged looking men, all smoking marijuana. It was like a scene from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, except genuinely scary. The men were staring at me as if I were a trespasser. Concluding that proceeding with my shortcut was probably unwise; I turned on my heels and took the long way round.
The reason I had forgotten that distinctive aroma is simple: I’ve lived in Tokyo for the last 20 years. In all that time I don’t think I have ever smelt marijuana, even in my earlier more socially active days in the grungier parts of Roppongi or Shinjuku. And I have never felt afraid walking around the city. Not once.
Attitudes in the UK and Japan to drugs seem to come from different centuries. In Britain it seems we have accepted the smoking of cannabis, even openly in our town centres, as a fact of life. In Japan, drug use is minimal, and on a public street, unimaginable. In the UK there is a noisy and growing lobby calling for full legalisation of cannabis; in Japan it’s not an issue.
On the BBC’s The Big Questions recently journalist Peter Hitchens cited Japan and South Korea as two examples of countries where strict application of drug laws has resulted in the near eradication of usage. His comparison was airily dismissed by Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the British Medical Journal, with the following: ‘South Korea and Japan have very culturally different histories to ours’.