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Presenting Terada Shin: The Life History of a Female Drug User in Prewar Japan

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today, Points features a guest post by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History. (University of California Press, 2013). You can read the Points interview about the book here).

For historians of drugs, user perspectives are often frustratingly difficult to capture. Narcotics consumers generally leave behind few records in their own voice, forcing scholars to rely on the (frequently biased) perceptions of those who come into contact with them: law enforcement, doctors, social scientists, policymakers, etc. In the course of my research on narcotics in Japan and its empire from the 1850s through the 1950s, each of these groups provided critical information. My search for user-authored narratives, however, proved fruitless until virtually the last moment. In 2011, as I was preparing the penultimate draft of my book manuscript, I learned that a collection of documents, formerly inaccessible to scholars due to their poor condition, had been digitized and made available by the National Diet Library in Tokyo. To my delight, I found materials on the Drug Addiction Relief Association [Mayaku Kyūgokai], founded in 1933 as Japan’s first domestic facility for treating narcotics dependence. These sources not only enhanced my understanding of the history of addiction medicine, but also included about twenty life stories by patients, as recorded by doctors at the clinic in the mid-1930s.


Terada Shin (right) with Y. Masa (a fellow patient at the Narcotic Addiction Relief Association)

A limited word count did not allow me to include these testimonies in full in my book. Here, however, I am grateful for the opportunity to offer (as far as I am aware) the first English-language translation of a self-narrated history of a drug user in modern Japan. Without discounting the individuality of the speaker, Terada Shin, the experiences she describes reflect many patterns common among female drug users of the early twentieth century (in and beyond Japan): unrelenting exploitation by men, including family members; involvement in sex work, iatrogenic addiction; and consumption of multiple narcotics.

Terada Shin (b. 1903) [1]

“I am the daughter of Uchiumi Enjirō. He died when I was five years old. At seventeen, I became the ward of Terada Katsuzō. I never knew my mother’s name.

“I was born in Tokyo, where my grandfather managed a tofu store. When I was thirteen, a fire destroyed the business, and we returned his natal village. Soon after, I was indentured to a textile factory for six years for the sum of 350 yen. [2] The job was very difficult. I was still barely a teenager, but began a relationship with another worker, aged forty-five. We would sneak out together to amuse ourselves. During our fifth or sixth clandestine meeting, the factory supervisor caught us. My lover was fired, while I was sold for 400 yen to a nearby teahouse.

“Two years passed, and one day Terada and his wife came to see me. It was then that I learned about the death of my father. He owed the Teradas a lot of money, so they sold me, their adopted daughter, into prostitution to pay off his debt. The proprietor of a Tokyo brothel paid 550 yen for me. After I gave birth to the child of a client, my health deteriorated to the point where it was impossible to continue working. I entered the hospital, where a doctor gave me injections. This was the starting point of my addiction to narcotics.

“The debt to the Teradas had yet to be fully settled, so I entered a different brothel under an assumed name. The proprietor gave me an advance of 770 yen. I brought my child with me. On February 8, 1930, my servitude finally ended. I was twenty-eight years old. [3] At this point, the doctor administered 0.3 yen worth of morphine and 0.5 yen worth of Pantopon [a brand of refined narcotics made famous by its association with Marcel Proust].

“I was still suffering from some kind of disease that caused dizziness and tremors, which I treated with narcotics procured from two local hospitals. I thought that if I contacted the Teradas they might sell me again, so I took a job in a teahouse. One of my patrons, a construction worker, began supporting me, but my adoptive parents interfered when we tried to marry, and the two of us separated. Shortly afterwards, my child died at age nine. I had no choice but to return to the Teradas and work in various Tokyo nightclubs. A man named Sakai Heijirō cared for me and provided injections of heroin and cocaine. Lately, I’m not satisfied unless I can get 0.5 [unit omitted] heroin per day.”

At the Drug Addiction Relief Association, an inpatient charity institution, Terada underwent gradual detoxification, receiving a steadily declining quantity of drugs to “wean” her of dependence on heroin. In addition to restoring the physical health of users, the clinic sought to inculcate industriousness, self-discipline, and respect for authority through mandatory labor and “wholesome” recreation. For Terada, recounting the arc of her life may have constituted a sort of moral therapy. Undoubtedly the circumstances under which she told her story impacted its form. She may have shaped her testimony to conform to the expectations of her doctors. It is also possible that they altered details in transcribing and publishing the account.

In the early twentieth century, addiction was regarded as inimical to the alleged superiority of the Japanese race-nation. The perception of users as “deviant” outsiders from the national community complicated rehabilitation. Terada’s fate after recovery—if she in fact recovered—is not recorded. Many patients remained at the hospital as staff to avoid relapse and rejection by mainstream society. Through 1943, when the exigencies of total war forced its closure, the Drug Addiction Relief Association treated well over 600 cases and served as a model for similar facilities throughout Japan’s major cities.

[1] Following East Asian convention, the surname appears first. I have lightly edited Terada’s account for clarity.

[2] In the early twentieth century, the average wage of a female factory worker was less than 0.5 yen per day.

[3] Terada gives her age in the traditional East Asian format, in which a child is considered one year old at birth.


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