Taiwan Center Notes: Taiwan, Cocaine and Drug Production - Taipei Times

Taiwan Center Notes: Taiwan, Cocaine and Drug Production – Taipei Times

Japan used Taiwan as a base to grow a variety of tropical herbal medicines that were indispensable in the early days of the pharmaceutical industry, which helped expand its empire.

  • By Michael Turton / Contributing Journalist

After Taiwan became a Japanese colony in 1895, the government of Japan, always interested in proposals to increase its economic independence, began to explore the possibility of cultivating tropical medicinal plants in Taiwan.

The leader of these experiments was Hoshi Pharmaceuticals, founded in the second decade of the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hoshi was a leader in the cultivation of cinchona in Taiwan and cocaine, then used as an anesthetic.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hoshi’s cocaine production became quite large, and after the invention of better anesthetics in the 1920s, Japan’s problem became getting rid of all its production. Taiwan’s production was particularly helpful. The coca leaf produced in Chiayi contained twice as many alkaloids as the Peruvian varieties (the modern domination of South America over the cocaine trade is largely a historical accident of German chemistry, the victory of the States States during World War II and the Japanese destruction of Dutch coca plantations in Java during its brief occupation there) and it was much cheaper to ship to Asian destinations than Peru.

How humans stimulate each other is a product of politics and culture. In Taiwan, alcohol and betel nut, so destructive, are completely legal, while marijuana remains prohibited. Imagine today going down to Chiayi in an alternate universe to visit the endless plantations of coca or high quality marijuana rather than betel and tea.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cinchona became another key tropical product explored by Hoshi. The bark of the tree had long been recognized in Europe as a medicine against malaria, a problem until modern pesticide campaigns and the draining of swamps wiped it out in most developed countries.

Westerners often associate malaria with the modern tropics, but in the United States, especially before the 1880s, it was deadly, accounting for about 4.5% of all child deaths and a major drag on the economy, just like this is the case today in malarious regions. Even during the brutal Little Ice Age of the 17th century, malaria was common in London and the surrounding region. Shakespeare makes reference to it in eight of his plays.

With the Japanese colonization of Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria, with plans to expand further south, malaria treatments became a pressing security issue. In the 20th century, it was the third killer in Taiwan, after cholera and the plague, and until 1940 sent 1.7 million people to local hospitals and clinics. It wreaked havoc among Japanese soldiers in Korea, and a milder strain plagued Chinese miners in Manchuria, reducing coal production.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


During Japan’s invasion of southern Taiwan in 1874, army medical teams reported nearly 8,000 cases of infectious disease, including about 4,500 cases of malaria. Cinchona had been introduced to Japan in 1876, but cultivation failed and an attempt at cultivation in the Bonin Islands failed. Given the empire’s malaria problems, growing cinchona in Taiwan seemed like a no-brainer.

As the scholars have noted, Hoshi saw the Western monopoly on cinchona as a threat to Japan. Japanese thinkers also proposed cinchona cultivation as a means of solving what the Japanese saw as “the aboriginal problem” – the problem of imposing Japanese imperial power on aborigines defending their lands.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Japanese scientists have argued that Taiwan’s indigenous population should be moved away from slash-and-burn farming techniques and that growing cinchona will create a more “sustainable” way of life. Of course, they also argued that since the native population had no concept of land ownership, they did not own the mountain lands.

According to scholars Heather Rogers and Kelly Chan (“Mapping Ecological Imperialism: A Digital Environmental Humanities Approach to Japan’s Colonization of Taiwan,” Material Culture Review, Fall 2022), Japanese thinkers saw it as a humanitarian and cooperative approach in which indigenous communities be integrated into the colonial economy through the cultivation of cinchona in the plantations and receive low-level food and agricultural education.

“This dynamic thus places agriculture at the center of the structure of colonial relations,” observe Rogers and Chan. In the form of an easement contract for indigenous communities, I might add.

Successful cultivation of cinchona began in 1922. Hoshi established plantations in Taitung and Kaohsiung, with other companies and individuals establishing them elsewhere in Taiwan. All located on what had been indigenous lands, they operated using indigenous labour. By 1934, Hoshi had produced quinine from the bark, creating an integrated supply entirely within the boundaries of the empire.

In 1937, Japan invaded China and the demand for quinine became urgent. The government ordered the Japanese in Taiwan to plant 8,000 acres of cinchona, for a production target of 2,400 tons of bark (a quarter of Dutch Java production). Although there are few surviving records, scholar Ku Ya-wen (顧雅文) has produced a few tentative maps of their locations, all largely at elevations over 1,000 meters. Ku observes that wartime demand meant that Taiwan, once more or less self-sufficient in quinine, developed shortages.

One of the hallmarks of science-based medicines is that they are quickly integrated into mainstream and alternative systems and touted for their supposedly amazing properties. In Japan, cinchona bark has become a cure for all sorts of ailments, from “hysteria” to impotence (impotence is apparently the most traditional ailment), and has enjoyed something of a vogue in the 1930s.


After Germany started World War II in Europe, it became almost impossible for Japan to obtain antimalarials like quinine, atabrine and plasmoquinine from Germany. The occupation of Java with its huge cinchona plantations, responsible for around 90% of the world’s bark production, briefly improved the situation, but shipments to Japan declined as the war progressed.

Quinine remained the most important antimalarial until other drugs took its place in the 1940s, and colonial production of cinchona was less important. In his book How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwhar observes that the development of new technologies such as plastics and artificial rubber have rendered settlements obsolete. They no longer produced unique raw materials.

Taiwan’s next colonizing power, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), as George Kerr observed in Formosa Betrayed, seized Japanese stocks of raw opium and coca leaves.

“The narcotics industry as a state enterprise has always been a source of great friction between Formosa and the Japanese administration,” he writes.

According to Ker, in the mid-1930s the Japanese, even under figures doctored to avoid attracting attention, admitted to possessing over 4,000 tons of coca leaves and 125 metric tons of cocaine.

A decade later, Chen Yi (陳儀), whom Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) appointed to lead Taiwan, said the government had recovered only 9,700 pounds of opium and “a small amount” of cocaine. Chen Yi also said that cocaine and coca production would cease and he would resume coca plantations.

According to Kerr, the U.S. government reported in 1949 that it had received no information from the KMT government about the production or stockpiles of such narcotics in Taiwan.

Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by longtime resident Michael Turton, providing incisive commentary informed by three decades of living and writing about his adopted country. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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