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


In Japan, beer has been known since the 1960s as the “beverage of the masses,” and whisky culture has roots stretching back to the 1950s. Meanwhile, methamphetamine was first developed in Japan and came to be sold commercially by the 1940s, and the country has also experimented with homegrown hangover drugs. By combining studies on each of these products and marketplaces, “Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth” explores the efforts of those who brewed, distilled, synthesized, and marketed Western alcohol and innovative pharmaceuticals. Jeffrey W. Alexander asks how these products became so popular, available, and fashionable, and explores what their advertising campaigns say about Japan’s shifting culture, which is often quick to absorb and refine foreign wares. Alexander’s research highlights themes like the seedy reputation of early bars, the style of prewar beer advertising, the scourge of illicit postwar liquor, the promises offered by hangover pills, and the swift campaign to demonize meth and eradicate its use. Examining these products, as well as their innovators and advertisers, offers us unique and rich perspectives on Japan’s experience with drugs and alcohol.

Excerpt on illicit postwar distilling:

"...the chief obstacle to a broad postwar recovery was poverty, which drove thousands of men and women to drink cheap, illegally produced liquors. In late 1945 and 1946, illegal distilling and blending operations were set up throughout Japan, especially in urban areas, over 140 of which were officially designated as war damaged cities. As John Dower writes, the black market (yami-ichi) emerged simultaneously with the end of the war, and during the early Occupation era, it was virtually the economy for many Japanese. In alleys and under railway overpasses, vendors at wooden street stalls known as tachiuri (stand and sell) sold cheap, unrefined sake (doburoku) and noxious shōchū liquor called kasutori, which was distilled from sake lees. Worse still, Japanese who survived the era recall that, immediately after the war, people also drank a dangerous ethyl/methyl alcohol cocktail called “bakudan,” or “bomb.” The details of its manufacture are hair-raising. Hirosawa Masaru, who later worked for Suntory, writes:

"Illicitly distilled kasutori and bakudan sales were rampant in the bars. Because most people didn’t have the money for high priced regular alcohol like sake and beer and whisky, such drinks were sold in hastily-built street vendors’ stalls (yatai) on the black market, [where you could] eat pig organs grilled on skewers (horumon-yaki) and drink a cup of kasutori – a shōchū distilled from sake lees. As for the one called bakudan, that was industrial-use alcohol that was heat-treated and cut with water, which was illegal liquor. Its raw materials were strong, toxic ethyl alcohol blended with methyl alcohol; in order to indicate how dangerous the industrial use alcohol was, it had been dyed pink. It was cheap, but if you drank it, it could kill you. During heat-treating, the methyl alcohol was boiled off until it was drinkable, but it was illegal liquor. If you were unlucky, some of the methyl alcohol would be left behind and you would go blind, and possibly even die because it was so hazardous. Thus the name “bomb” was exactly right."

    Such were the lengths to which many Japanese went to get drunk amidst the extreme privation and nihilism of the early postwar – drinking bomb in the ruins of bombardment."

What People are Saying...

“Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth is a masterful analysis of modern Japanese alcohol and drug culture. Alexander links shifting attitudes towards a century-old methamphetamine culture, and a post-WWII pink poisonous alcohol “bomb,” with anxieties over addiction and foreigners—a trajectory that could hardly differ more from that of the seemingly more fashionable whisky and beer, whose consumption is shown to have moved from shady alleyways to decidedly more positive venues. This is a must-read scholarly study, with details alternately humorous and horrific.”

Norman Smith, University of Guelph and author, Intoxicating Manchuria

“The history of intoxicants is rife with misperceptions and normative evaluations— or often simply ignored. Jeffrey Alexander’s engaging and readable study trains a discerning lens on this fraught subject, showing how the manufacture and marketing of stimulants that originated in the West was both a symptom and a byproduct of rising affluence in postwar Japan.”

Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, University of Colorado Boulder and author, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History