[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian Studies] Miriam Kingsberg’s fascinating new book offers both a political and social history of modern Japan and a global history of narcotics in the modern world. Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (University of California Press, 2013) locates the emergence of a series of three “moral crusades” against narcotics that each accompanied a perceived crisis in collective values and political legitimacy in nineteenth and twentieth century Japan.
In the first moral crisis after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, opium became a symbol of difference between Japan and an “Other” epitomized by Qing China, as Japan sought to “leave Asia” and “enter” the West. Here, Kingsberg traces a series of attempts to regulate drug use in Taiwan in the wake of Japan’s transformation into a formal empire. Between the end of WWI and Japan’s defeat in WWII, Japan saw its second moral crisis as it navigated the most protracted and intense moral crusade against narcotics in its history. The central chapters of Kingsberg’s book trace this second crisis, paying special attention to Japanese colonial rule in Korea and in the Kwantung Leased Territory (KLT) in southern Manchuria as Korea became the “global capital of morphine” and the KLT port handled “the second-highest volume of banned drugs in the world.” The third moral crisis brings us to the end of Moral Nation and the thick of the “hiropon age” of the 1950s, when methamphetamine production and usage skyrocketed in postwar Japan and the nation saw its first full-fledged domestic drug plight. Kingsberg locates a changing cast of “moral entrepreneurs” who motivated these three crises, shedding light on the formative roles of merchants and mass society in this chapter of global narcotic history. It is a wonderful, meticulously researched book that contributes significantly to the histories of Japan, of drugs, and of global politics. Enjoy!