Aura of Criminality: Perspectives of Empire in Japan’s East Asian Conquests, 1932-1945

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Chinese civilians at leisure, via


In part one of this essay, Jessica Pitcher reviewed literature on the “comfort women” issue and set out a basis for understanding the everyday nature of Japanese empire in the 1930s. In a new installment of her work for Sino-NK, Pitcher delves further into the narcotics narrative. Although Marc Driscoll has moved on to histories of racism and climate change in the Chinese sphere, Pitcher sifts his work on narcotics networks, and nods to Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi’s scholarship in the title. — Adam Cathcart, Founding Editor


Government involvement in narcotics trafficking, conducted through a managed monopoly on the sale of opium, was a daily experience which defined the Japanese empire in China. The Japanese government established the official Opium Monopoly in November 1932, but many of the exact details remain unknown due to a lack of primary sources.[1] Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi argues that the ‘aura of criminality’ surrounding the opium operations meant that incriminating evidence was tightly controlled, and is therefore very difficult to find.[2] However, we do know that the Opium Monopoly required the registration of all users and dealers, and the licensure of opium houses.[3] This meant that the Japanese imperial authorities, at least in theory, had control over the production and sale of opium.

Scholarly debate over why the government engaged in narcotics trafficking centers around three possible motives: to fund its puppet state in Manchuria and other administrative efforts on the mainland, to fund undercover operations which facilitated further aggression against yet-unconquered parts of China, and to weaken and further control the Chinese people living in occupied areas.[4] Driscoll argues that Japan’s main motivations were financial, and that the Opium Monopoly primarily existed to generate revenue.[5] He focuses on the motivation of generating revenue for the puppet states, using Manchukuo as an example. He estimates that post-1935, 50-55% of Manchukuo’s earnings came from narcotics sales, and refers to two testimonies that mention the ‘secret fund’ of Manchukuo: Takabe Rokuzo testified that Manchukuo ‘owed its entire existence to this fund’, and Furami Tadayuki testified that Manchukuo was ‘built with the secret fund’.[6] Driscoll argues that this ‘secret fund’ is revenue from narcotics trafficking.[7] The Japanese government’s attempts to generate revenue to fund puppet states through opium makes narcotics trafficking something which affected the daily lives of those living under Japanese rule.

As well as through the official Opium Monopoly, the Japanese government also generated narcotics revenue through the use of ‘hustlers’. ‘Hustlers’ were criminals involved in the illegal narcotics trade, a group who Driscoll states have been ‘marginal to previous scholarship’ of the war, but who were ‘the central constituent subjectivities of it’.[8] For example, during the invasion of Manchuria, the Kwantung Army and associated bureaucrats worked with traffickers and ‘hustlers’ who had access to intelligence and narcotics networks.[9] Japan needed access to intelligence networks to plan the invasion, and narcotics networks to fund it.[10] The success of the invasion suggests that this collaboration was indeed ‘central’ to the war. Further evidence of cooperation between government officials and ‘hustlers’ comes from a 1933 report from the American consul in Shanghai, which stated that just before the Manchuria Incident there had been only 4 or 5 Japanese ‘drug houses’, but that six months later this number had risen to 600.[11] These 600 ‘drug houses’ were operating ‘publicly’, and their popularity further justifies the claim that they generated a considerable share of imperial revenue.[12] That they were able to operate publicly, at such a scale, without facing opposition from colonial authorities suggests that the government knew about them and were allowing them to operate.


Opium addicts in China during the Second World War, via


Those already working for the government were also involved in opium operations. The Japanese narcotics trafficker known as Gionbo wrote in his diary about being supported ‘everywhere he [went]’ by ‘Japanese consulates and their police and military’, who ensured the safe transportation of his narcotics supply.[13] This suggests widespread collaboration between the criminals, government agents and the police and military working for the government. The degree of agency of the government agents is unknown, due to the lack of reliable sources. However, Ginobo’s statement that he was supported ‘everywhere he [went]’ does suggest government participation and endorsement; the likelihood of so many agents working independently is unlikely. Criminal ‘hustlers’, police officers and government agents were all involved in underground narcotics trafficking at a scale which defined the Japanese empire from the perspective of its subjects.

The concluding statements of the Tokyo Trial stated that the Japanese government ‘pursued a systematic policy of weakening the native inhabitants’ will to resist’ by producing and trafficking opium in China.[14] The phrase ‘systematic policy’ suggests that this was considered the primary purpose of the opium policy. This conclusion is supported by Furumi’s testimony that the policy was adopted with the ‘primary goal’ of ‘fostering the physical ruin of the colonised people’, and that revenue was of ‘secondary importance’.[15] Achille Mbembe argues that in order to prepare for total war, Japan needed to engage in ‘necropolitical’ mobilisation.[16] The Japanese state used their political power, through engaging in narcotics trafficking, to influence how people lived and died – creating, in effect, a population of approximately 9 million drug addicts who were more easily controlled.[17] Hans Derks suggests that this motivation originated from Japanese belief that Chinese people were ‘culturally and racially inferior’, and therefore more susceptible to drug addiction.[18]


Proceedings of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, via alamy


The issue of agency also arises here: although the Japanese government did produce and traffic narcotics, the colonial people chose to take them, and some even engaged in trafficking themselves.[19] Wakabayashi argues that left-wing political correctness has created a bias amongst scholars investigating Japan’s opium policy.[20] He argues that leftist Japanese historians are reluctant to accept the involvement of colonial collaborators in narcotics trafficking because it challenges their labelling of China as a victim, and inadvertently supports the conservative Japanese government’s stance that ‘Japan alone did not perpetrate evil’.[21] This has led to an under-investigation of the Japan’s role in the opium trade, partially explaining why the issue is not as well-known as other issues affecting colonised people, such as the comfort system. Nonetheless, the Japanese government’s attempts to control the colonised people through opium, and involvement of collaborators in trafficking it, was a crucial element of Japan’s imperial activity.

In conclusion, it is difficult to define the Japanese empire independent of geographical and ideological bias, but the evidence points to government involvement in sex and narcotics trafficking. On the surface, sex and narcotics trafficking were experienced by the government who established them, state enforcers who partook in them, and colonial subjects who were victimised by them. When we investigate further, we see that the level of agency, responsibility and involvement of each group of people is more complex. These two experiences are shared by all parts of the empire, and each had a profound effect on the lives of colonised people.


Jessica Pitcher is a final year BA History student at the University of Leeds currently on a study abroad year at Korea University, South Korea. Jessica is especially interested in social and cultural history, particularly how individual people on the peninsula experienced high profile historical events. 



[1] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolutely Grotesque p.241

[2] Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, ““Imperial Japanese” Drug Trafficking in North China: Historiographic Perspectives”, Sino- Japanese Studies, 13:1 (n.d) 1-19, p.8

[3] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.253

[4] Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952 (California: University of California Press, 2000), p.17; John M. Jennings, The Opium Empire: Japanese Imperialism and Drug Trafficking in Asia, 1895-1945 (Connecticut: Praeger, 1997), p.106, citing Keiichi Eguchi, Ni-Chu ahen senso (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1988), p.235

[5] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.237

[6] Quoted in Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.245

[7] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.245

[8] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.235

[9] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.232

[10] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.232

[11] Cited in the 10-volume collection ‘Kyokuto kokusai gunji saiban sokkiroku, 9524’, International Military Court for the Far East

[12] Ibid

[13] Gionbo, The Result of Incidents of Opium Smuggling, (1934), p.57

[14] John M. Jennings, The Opium Empire, p.106

[15] Arai Toshio and Fujiwara Akira, eds., Shiryaku no shogen (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1999), p.123

[16] Marc Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, p.230; Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”, Public Culture, 15:1 (2003) 11-40

[17] Wakabayashi estimates that ‘the Japanese opium operations [lead] to an average number of 9,056,112 addicts supplied per year’, see Wakabayashi, “Imperial Japanese”, p.19

[18] Hans Derks, History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, Ca. 1600-1950 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), p.512

[19] Shu-ming Chung, Nihon tachi jidai ni okeru Taiwan no taigai hatten shi (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Tokyo University, 1996)

[20] Wakabayashi, ““Imperial Japanese”, p.7

[21] Ibid, p.9

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