Japan's major “problem drug,” according to governmental agencies, is methamphetamine. The most conservative estimates of Japan's speed problem are those of the United Nations, which estimated that 0.3% of Japan's population—about 375,000 people—“abused” stimulants in the year 2000. The U.S. State Department estimates that there are 600,000 methamphetamine addicts and another 2.18 million casual users in Japan—nearly two percent of the population.

In either event, Tokyo has been named “speed capital of the world.” Estimates by a Japanese Ministry of Education panel in 2001 placed the number of amphetamine users around 2.6 million, and estimated that 15 tons of amphetamines were consumed each year. In 2000 alone, over 19,000 Japanese were arrested on stimulant abuse or trafficking charges, and one in four prison inmates was being held on an amphetamine-related conviction.

The prominence of amphetamines in Japan dates back to the Meiji period of the late 1800's, when opiates from South and Southeast Asia first appeared in Japan. In 1887, a Japanese physician developed a potent chemical stimulant called philopon, which swept markets across East Asia. Another Japanese chemist created the world's first methamphetamine in 1919.

The real proliferation of amphetamines in Japan began in the late 1940's, when American soldiers and Japanese factories began dumping their surpluses on the market. Amphetamine tablets were available in drugstores nationwide without a prescription. Despite the widespread availability of oral stimulants, the most common method of usage was (and, arguably, still may be) intravenous injection.

Following the postwar explosion, which leveled out following anti-drug legislation in the mid-1950's, Japan has seen two major waves of amphetamine abuse. The first began in 1975 and ended around 1984. The demand for amphetamines began to diminish in the late 1980's and remained low into the 1990's, until it rose once more in 1996 alongside the economic downturn in East Asia. By 1998, the National Police Agency was ready to declare that another abuse wave had begun. The following year, NPA seizures of amphetamines totaled over 1,800 kilos, the largest drug haul in Japanese history, and a clear sign that the country's drug problem was not over.

Within the past decade, Japanese counter-drug authorities have reported an increasing trend of Western-style amphetamine pills, known in Japanese slang as supîdo (“speed”) or esu (“S”), hitting the streets and displacing more traditional philopon derivatives. They have also found that many teenagers have begun inhaling the steam from boiling speed, or mixing speed with juice and drinking it. Despite this, the Asian Harm Reduction Network estimates that there are still up to half a million intravenous amphetamine users in Japan today. While the AIDS epidemic is still very minor in Japan, AHRN asserts that the continued use of intravenous amphetamines may lead to a major Japanese AIDS problem in the future.

Why amphetamines? Several societal factors have combined to make Japan a hotbed for speed abuse. Young Japanese women equate beauty with being very slender, so many take illegal amphetamines to lose weight. Many more use speed as a fashion statement—a revival of the American drug culture of the sixties and seventies.

Japan does not appear to produce an appreciable portion of its own amphetamines thanks to tight government controls on ephedrine, an important precursor chemical in amphetamine manufacturing. Most of Japan's methamphetamine supply comes from production facilities in three states with less stringent regulations: the Philippines, China, and North Korea.