Published: Feb. 2, 2015

Miriam Kingsberg, Assistant Professor of History, recently published a book on the intersection of empire, identity, and drugs in 19th and 20th century Japan. Bill Sewell's (Saint Mary's University) review of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History speaks to the strength of Kingsberg's publication.

"In Moral Nation, Miriam Kingsberg calls attention to the role of identity discourse surrounding the drug trade and its suppression in modern Japan and Japan’s prewar empire between the 1890s and the 1950s. Chiefly she analyzes the interplay between public figures, the drug trade, rehabilitation efforts, and perceptions of identity in Japanese holdings in Manchuria between 1905 and 1945, though bookending the work are chapters considering Japan proper in the Meiji (1868-1912) and immediate postwar eras. The result is a kind of social history of the drug trade in Imperial Japan (1868-1945) with an epilogue juxtaposing the experience of methamphetamine addiction in Japan following war’s end.

"For Kingsberg, the Japanese annexation of Taiwan in 1895 provided the model for opium policy in Manchuria. The 1897 opium monopoly enabled a measure of control and was in line with European practices in Southeast Asia. It did not, however, ultimately function in the same manner in southern Manchuria, as the port of Dairen (Dalian) in the 1920s harbored the highest rate of narcotics consumption in the world, and the second highest volume of trafficking, following Shanghai (p. 29). For Kingsberg, Dairen became the “epicenter” of not only the drug trade in Manchuria but also “the global narcotic economy” (p. 117). Many consumers were Japanese men and women—at higher rates than the Chinese—and both the Japanese and Koreans worked as dealers of opium and eventually more refined drugs. Kingsberg suggests that transitory migration patterns in a rapidly expanding urban setting contributed to “rates of drug use reach[ing] a globally unprecedented peak” (p. 44). Undergirding this were “early twentieth-century ideals of modernity [that] subordinated individuals, with their moral imperfections, to a rigid set of standards achieved through mechanical technology” that suggest the city was only the worst to suffer what was becoming an international issue (p. 47).

"The subsequent six chapters explore how Japanese morality, venality, and willful ignorance also contributed to this growing trade. Some bemoaned it: researchers reported on work and living conditions while novelists and poets appropriated those conditions for their work. Journalists reported scandals. In the 1920s, Christian reformers sought to establish treatment centers and Pan-Asian ideologues endeavored to rally people against drugs as a common enemy in the 1930s. However, many Japanese enabled the trade. Merchants who agreed to an eventual ban saw market potential and little regulation or threat of prosecution or punishment. Growing income from the monopoly proved useful for the state, and enhanced state control of opium production after 1932 resulted in increased consumption. People on the imperial margins, such as Koreans, found escape and/or personal income in peddling drugs. Ideologues provided exculpatory rationales by portraying the Chinese as inherently prone to drugs and erroneously assuming that the Japanese were inherently immune. Clinicians were apparently satisfied with the cures they devised and did not test for relapses, nor did they consider the addictive qualities of drugs used to combat addiction. And while addiction researchers gained a global standing in the 1920s, they were isolated in the following decade.

"Kingsberg links many of these activities with a civilizational thread. The Japanese in early Meiji seeking to overturn unequal treaty arrangements viewed foreign opium with suspicion and eagerly banded together against its import. This contributed to a later sense of immunity and fostered an identity of superiority vis-à-vis other countries that succumbed to problems of addiction. Perceiving addicts in a moral light—characterizing addicts as degenerate—also provided Japanese justification to “civilize” backward peoples.

"Kingsberg is to be commended for extensive research in Japanese and English, and for some in Chinese. In raising a host of practical and abstract issues for historical figures, she provides future historians with much to ponder."

To read the full review, please click here.