In the early 1970s, Okinawa was a major hub for narcotics smuggling – the so-called “Okinawa System” – and drug use was rampant among US service members on the island. The lives of Okinawans were harmed in two main ways: some became addicted to narcotics and others fell victim to crimes committed by US service members who were trying to fund their habits.
Leading the research into these problems was Taira Hiroshi at Amekudai Neuropsychiatric Hospital, who helped to treat some of the first Okinawans to become hooked on heroin. According to Taira’s research – “Studies on Narcotic Crimes and Narcotic Addicts in Okinawa” (1983) – the narcotics issue first became apparent in 1968 as US troops brought back drugs from Vietnam; also, some service members and their families grew marijuana on the island.
From 1972, heroin use on Okinawa increased “explosively”, and, by 1976, there had been 100 cases of addiction among Japanese nationals. Most of the Japanese users interviewed by Taira had obtained their heroin from US military personnel; he notes that one 14-year-old American girl was addicted, too. The highest concentration of Japanese heroin users lived in Koza City (current day Okinawa City) which is located adjacent to Kadena Air Base, the main conduit via which narcotics were smuggled from Thailand to the United States.
Furthermore, Taira discovered a “strong relationship” between the number of addicts and the number of crimes, notably theft, committed by foreigners on Okinawa; this suggests that active or ex-military personnel were stealing from Okinawans to pay for their heroin use.
By 1976, the heroin problem on Okinawa had subsided and only six cases were recorded. Taira concludes, “The types of drugs, and the motivation and distribution in dependence resembled the United States pattern and had a strong correlation with the Vietnam War.”
Taira’s research is an important window into how the US military presence impacted Okinawa in the years immediately before and after Reversion; although problems such as violent crime and aircraft accidents have been widely known, there has been little awareness of the “Okinawa System” and narcotics smuggling via the island.