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  • Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History by Miriam Kingsberg
  • Richard Reitan (bio)
Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History. By Miriam Kingsberg. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014. xviii, 304 pages. $60.00, cloth; $60.00, E-book.

Moral Nation explores the history of modern Japan, from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s, through the lens of the problem of narcotics addiction, trade, and regulation. Kingsberg suggests that during this time, three crises associated with the narcotics trade occurred that jeopardized the moral legitimacy of the modern Japanese nation-state. During the first of these crises, from the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) to the turn of the twentieth century, Japan confronted the problem of regulating widespread opium use in its newly acquired colony Taiwan. At this time, “moral entrepreneurs” in Japan (a category appearing throughout the book and referring to a wide range of actors crusading against opium use) succeeded in positioning Japan among the “civilized” nations of the West by linking Japanese abstinence to a morality of civilization. The second crisis, from 1919 to 1945, appeared as a struggle to legitimize Japan’s empire in the face of post–World War I calls for decolonization and the self-determination of peoples. Japan’s response was a “moral crusade” against opium and a colonial policy of “Kingly Way” (wangdao) benevolence over opium-addicted colonial subjects incapable of self-regulation. Here too, legitimacy was tied to the containment of narcotics use, but rather than seeking legitimacy in a morality of civilization, Japan struggled to legitimize its empire (with mixed results) through Kingly Way ideology. The third crisis occurred in the 1950s in Japan itself and took the form of a “moral panic” associated with widespread use of hiropon (methamphetamine), a mark of the “dispirited and defeated” nation. Overcoming this problem allowed Japan to reestablish itself as a legitimate moral nation in line with the values of the postwar international community. In each of these three periods, Kingsberg suggests, a crisis of legitimacy gave rise to a moral crusade led by moral entrepreneurs to contain the deviance of narcotics use in order to uphold the moral legitimacy of the nation.

This work is thorough, well researched, and novel. Kingsberg’s study of narcotics is not confined to Japan and seeks to place this issue in a global context. She adeptly takes the reader from late nineteenth-century colonial Taiwan and the nuances of Japan’s struggle to rein in opium addiction there, to the opium dens in the port city of Dairen on the Liaodong Peninsula, to medical laboratories and a lucid discussion of the emergence of addiction science in early twentieth-century Japan, to hospitals in Seoul in the 1930s [End Page 398] treating opium addiction, and elsewhere. She examines efforts to contain opium use among a wide range of “moral entrepreneurs” and through various institutions: government officials, the police force and legal institutions, scientists, academics, merchants, medical doctors, and others. Kingsberg also documents her claims and brings in a wealth of detail through an impressive range of sources in Japanese, Chinese, and English. And though she engages with the familiar themes of civilization, empire, and postwar trauma in the context of modern Japan, she approaches these through the lens of narcotics trade, addiction, and regulation and so brings to these issues a novel perspective.

With concepts and categories such as the moral nation, moral entrepreneurs, crises of (moral) legitimacy, and moral crusades running throughout the book, morality is clearly of central importance to the way this book is framed. But this is one area that would benefit from a higher level of historicization. Kingsberg suggests that “morality refers to individual or group attempts to meet the values of a community” (p. 201, note 3). Thus, the moral nation is one that is in accord with the values of the national (or the international) community. But it is not clear how this definition can accommodate the diverse range of moral positions within the Japanese national community, even when they were framed within a common discourse (civilization, benevolent imperial rule, postwar international values). Kingsberg’s defiitions of morality, value, and...


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pp. 398-401
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