Tokyo Stories

Richard Lloyd Parry munches magic mushrooms, meets a giant PM, and deplores the lack of nudity
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The Independent Online

As any backpacker in Asia will tell you, Japan has some of the harshest and most inflexible drug laws in the world. This is the country where Sudafed cough medicine is a controlled substance, where possession of a Vicks inhaler can get you deported, and where anything stronger can land you in prison for years at a time.

Not that Tokyo is a city without drugs, but the risks are great and everyone knows that. So you will appreciate my astonishment when I came across a new shop called Freak Brothers.

It occupies a ground-floor spot a few yards from Roppongi Crossing, one of Tokyo's busiest intersections. The window display contains T-shirts and sandals of a hippyish character; within are shelves of candle and incense, and baseball caps bearing CND symbols and smiley faces. But the point of Freak Brothers is the locked plastic display cabinet in the middle. Within are vacuum-packed plastic bags containing a variety of dried brown fragments. Some of the names on the labels are bafflingly scientific – psilocybe cubensis, salvia divinorum – but the rest leave no room for doubt: Thai magic mushrooms, Hawaiian magic mushrooms and Mexican peyote.

A young assistant stood ready to offer advice. For there is nothing clandestine about Freak Brothers: hallucinogenic mushrooms – Class A drugs in more liberal countries – are perfectly legal in Japan. Freak Brothers is the flagship of a chain of mushroom emporia. There are at least 10 of the so-called "headshops" in Roppongi alone; down the road in Shibuya the fungi are sold from stalls in the street.

No one seems to know how this legal anomaly came about, but one headshop website suggests an answer. "Although the mushroom itself of the magic mushroom is legal, the extraction of the hallucination element is illegal," its cheerfully inexact English says. "Use the magic mushroom of our store for the appreciation because it is a botanical specimen for the appreciation."

But, of course: botanical specimens! In a spirit of scientific curiosity, I made a small purchase myself: two grams of Mexican for Y2000 (£11.75). The assistant said someone my size needed to consume at least three times that to notice any effect – but here I go anyway. Mmmm. They taste like tree bark.

 

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I experienced a hallucination of a kind the other day as I passed through the district of Nagatacho, home of the Japanese Diet (parliament). Japanese politics used to be dismally dull, but in April everything changed with the rise to power of Junichiro Koizumi, the dashing new prime minister. Mr Koizumi must be the world's most popular head of government. Last week, his personal approval rating suffered its first fall: to 67 per cent. Women squeal with delight when he takes the stage. At party headquarters in Nagatacho, they queue round the block for Koizumi T-shirts, Koizumi telephone cards, Koizumi mobile-phone straps. To live in a country where the hippest, coolest, most desirable man is the 59-year old prime minister is exciting in its way, but also disturbing.

Back to my hallucination. I was walking in Nagatacho when before my eyes floated a giant Mr Koizumi. His eyes – stern but compassionate – were the size of car tyres. His face was as large as a house and he rippled gently in the summer heat. This Godzilla of Koizumis was a poster, the biggest I have seen in Japan, hanging from the upper floors of his party's HQ. There was something naggingly familiar about it, and eventually I remembered where I had last seen such a vision: North Korea, where the world's last Stalinist dictator, Kim Jong Il, is revered as a god. All hail, Koizumi, Great Leader of the Japanese Revolution!

 

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Tonight, hallucinations allowing, I will go to the cinema to see Romance, a French film which caused a stir when it came out in Britain two years ago.

It is a disturbing and erotic film and includes scenes of explicit unsimulated sex. That kind of thing is a problem in Japan, which until fairly recently censored anything below the belt with the so-called "mosaic": a shimmering shadow which obliterates anything hairy or erect without interfering with the rest of the screen. Then in the mid-Nineties, the policy was liberalised. In certain circumstances, female nakedness could be tolerated.

A new expression came into the Japanese language: heya nudo, or "hair nude". Suddenly there were heya nudo magazines, heya nudo videos, and every other ambitious starlet was promoting a heya nudo photo book. At the cinema, the irritating mosaic was seen less and less. But with Romance the Japanese censors have regressed.

It is not surprising that they cut a scene featuring the glories of a male porno actor, nor that they obliterated a close-up shot of childbirth. The alarming thing is that after five years the heya nudo seems to be coming to an end. Much of the nudity in Romance has been obscured. When challenged, the censors explained that the hair in question was "wet" or "too bushy". As the director, Catherine Breillat, said of the censors: "Are their wives 'obscene' if they give birth? If they don't like where they came from, maybe they should go back."

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