What You Need to Know About Drug Laws in Japan

From drug laws and items you didn't expect to be illegal, to which medications you can and can't bring into the country, here's how to avoid trouble with Japanese law.

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A busy crossing in Tokyo, Japan Photo © Jason Ortego on Unsplash

There's a "zero-tolerance" policy in place for crimes related to drugs, and the penalties are strict in Japan. Same goes for drink-driving offenses, which can lead to fines or jail time, and alllowing someone else to drink and drive with you as a passenger. Bar patrons are also subject to random drug testing, and if you smoke outside designated smoking areas in parts of Tokyo and other major cities, police can fine you on the spot.

Some Drugs and Medications are Illegal in Japan

Japan's government may have different ideas on what is considered illegal drugs to the laws in your home country. To Japanese authorities, common over-the-counter medications for sinus and allergy problems are banned – such as inhalers, anything containing Pseudoephedrine or Codeine, and nasal-spray bottles.

Don't expect to use the "I had no idea" excuse, as it won't fly with authorities in the country. You can still be fined or jailed for bringing what their law enforcement terms as an illegal substance onto Japanese soil. Drug-filled syringes, such as EpiPens, may also be heavily scrutinized. One Virtual Tourist traveler was detained for carrying a common American decongestant, Sudafed, to Japan. 

How to Avoid Hassles Over Medications

To avoid sitting in the slammer over your cold meds, triple-check the list of prohibited substances and consult your country’s embassy before your trip.

For the most part, any drug that has stimulants (such as Pseudoephedrine or Codeine) is banned. You can carry a two-month supply of certain over-the-counter medications, up to four-months worth of allowed vitamins, and a one-month stash of permitted prescription medicine into Japan – however, you must include a copy of your doctor's prescription and a letter stating the purpose of the drugs. 

Some drugs are still no-go even with this documentation, and you can't mail prescription medicines without obtaining an import certification called “Yakkan-Syoumei” from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

If all your usual meds are prohibited, you might be able to get similar, not exact, types from Japanese doctors.

Always Carry Your Passport With You

It’s not just drugs that the Japanese government are strict about. Much like China, visitors to Japan – especially for less than three months – may be asked by local police to produce their passports at any time. Even foreign residents should keep their residence card with them at all times.

Police also conduct random checks at pubs and nightclubs, and if you don’t have proper identification, you can be detained. Police may let you off easy if you apologize, but if they’re in a particularly grouchy mood, it’s within their right to fine you up to ¥100,000. There goes your day at the onsen.

Note: you must carry your physical passport, not just a photocopy – this will not do the trick.

Things You Might Not Know Are Illegal in Japan

A few other things you might not have known were illegal in the country include UHF-CB radios (walkie-talkies) which were purchased in another country, and you can get fined or serve jail time for possessing one.

The legal drinking age is 20 in Japan, and people under the age of 20 will not be allowed to purchase alcohol, and same goes for smoking and buying tobacco.

What to Do if You Are Arrested in Japan

Jail time for any of the above offenses can last close to a month. Getting out of the penal pickle is quite tricky. Police interviews, which are often long, do not allow lawyers and are not recorded. Bail is out of the question if you are a foreigner, and you can be stuck in the slammer awaiting trial for up to six months if indicted.

Don’t sign anything unless you completely understand the legal wording included; putting your signature on a confession will lead to a guilty verdict.

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6 Comments

  • goha said

    hi, 1 question - what happens if I take drugs in a country where it is legal (let's say cannabis in Netherlands) and then come to Japan. If I'm drug-tested I'll be of course positive but I wouldn't bring any drugs to Japan or take them in Japan. I'd take it legally before crossing japanese border. Can something like that get me into trouble? Recently my japanese friend tried to convince me that it would be against the law. It's really hard to believe but I just want to make sure. I can't find any information on the internet

    Reply

  • Bryan said

    Hello goha. First, despite the popular belief, recreational use of cannabis is not legal in the Netherlands. The police just take a reasonable approach to it if no one is being harmed. Second, it is not illegal to have THC in you system. It is only illegal to possess or facilitate in the manufacture or distribution of marijuana.

    Reply

  • Santhosh said

    A few medications are still no-run even with this documentation, nor would you be able to mail physician endorsed meds without getting an import affirmation called Yakkan-Syoumei from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. Much like China, those meeting the nation, particularly for under three months, might be requested that by neighborhood police create their international IDs whenever. Indeed, even outside inhabitants ought to keep their outsider enlistment personality card with them. My name santhosh I'm a car driver now working http://buddycab.in

    Reply

  • Mighty Midget said

    wow

    Reply

  • Dusty said

    To goha and Bryan -- According to CNN, you can be convicted of drug use from positive blood and/or urine test results alone.

    Src: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/05/05/asia.drug.offence.penalties/

    Reply

  • Dusty said

    Another, more detailed source, which seems to be the source of the CNN article I cited earlier.

    http://www.countryreports.org/travel/Japan/criminalpenalties.htm

    Reply

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