Notes from Central Taiwan: Taiwan,cocaine and medicine production

Japan used Taiwan as a base to grow various tropical medicinal plants essential to the early pharmaceutical industry, which helped expand its empire.

  • By Michael Turton / Contributing Reporter

After Taiwan became a Japanese colony in 1895, the Japanese government, always keen on proposals to increase its economic independence, began exploring the possibility of growing tropical medicinal plants in Taiwan.

The leader of such 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 the cultivation of cocaine, then used as an anesthetic.

Taiwan’s Cocaine Production

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hoshi’s cocaine production became quite large, and after the discovery of better anesthetics in the 1920s, Japan’s problem was to dispose of all its production. Taiwanese production was particularly useful. The coca leaves produced in Chiayi contained twice the alkaloids of the Peruvian variety (modern South American dominance of the cocaine trade is largely a historical accident of German chemistry, the US victory in World War II, and the Japanese destruction of Dutch coca plantations in Java. Brief occupation there) and was much cheaper to ship to Asian destinations than to Peru.

How people motivate themselves is a product of politics and culture. In Taiwan, alcohol and betel nut, so destructive, are fully legal, while marijuana remains banned. Today imagine visiting Chiayi in an alternate universe to visit endless plantations of high-quality coca or cannabis, instead of betel nut trees and tea.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cinchona became another key tropical product explored by Hoshi. The bark of the tree was long recognized as an antimalarial drug in Europe, a problem until modern pesticide campaigns and swamp drainage eradicated it in most developed countries.

Westerners often associate malaria with the modern tropics, but it was especially deadly in the United States before 1880, accounting for about 4.5 percent of all child deaths and a major drag on the economy, just as it is in malaria regions today. Even during the brutal Little Ice Age of the 17th century, malaria was common in London and the surrounding area. Shakespeare mentions it in eight of his plays.

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With Japan planning to expand further south, colonizing Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria, malaria treatment became an urgent security issue. By the 20th century it was the number three killer in Taiwan after cholera and plague, and by the late 1940s it had sent 1.7 million people to local hospitals and clinics. It decimated Japanese troops in Korea and put mild pressure on Chinese miners in Manchuria, reducing coal production.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cinchona production

During the Japanese invasion of southern Taiwan in 1874, army medical teams reported about 8,000 cases of infectious disease, including about 4,500 of malaria. Cinchona was introduced to Japan in 1876, but cultivation failed and efforts to grow it in the Bonin Islands foundered. Given the empire’s problems with malaria, growing cinchona in Taiwan seemed like a no-brainer.

As scholars have noted, Hoshi saw the Western monopoly on cinchona as a threat to Japan. Japanese thinkers also proposed cinchona cultivation as a way to solve what the Japanese saw as the “indigenous problem”—the problem of Japanese imperial power imposing itself on the indigenous people who defended their land.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Japanese scientists argued that Taiwan’s indigenous people needed to move away from slash-and-burn techniques and that cultivating cinchona would create a more “sustainable” lifestyle. Of course, they also argued that since the tribals had no concept of land ownership, they did not own the hill land.

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 see this as a humanitarian and collaborative approach under which indigenous communities in plantations Integrating into the colonial economy through cinchona cultivation and acquiring food and low-level agricultural education.

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

Successful cultivation of cinchona began in 1922. Hoshi established plantations in Taitung and Kaohsiung, along with other companies and individuals elsewhere in Taiwan. All located on tribal land, they run on indigenous labour. By 1934 Hoshi had produced quinine from the bark, thus creating a consolidated supply within the empire’s borders.

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

A characteristic of science-based medicines is that they are quickly accepted into traditional and alternative systems and are appreciated for their amazing properties. In Japan cinchona bark became a treatment for all sorts of ailments from “hysteria” to impotence (impotence apparently being the most traditional of ailments), and enjoyed a sort of vogue in the 1930s.

World War II and beyond

After Germany started World War II in Europe, it became almost impossible for Japan to obtain anti-malarial drugs such as quinine, atabrine and plasmoquinine from Germany. The occupation of Java, with its vast plantations of cinchona, responsible for nearly 90 percent of the world’s bark production, eased the situation briefly, but as the war progressed shipments to Japan ceased.

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Quinine was the most important anti-malarial 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 Imerwar observes that the development of new technologies such as plastics and artificial rubber made colonies obsolete. They no longer produce unique raw materials.

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

“The drug industry as a state concern has always been a source of great friction between the Formosans and the Japanese administration,” he wrote.

According to Kerr, in the mid-1930s the Japanese, even under the guise of doctoring to avoid attention, admitted to possessing 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 govern 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 that he would take over the coca plantations.

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

Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who offers nuanced commentary informed by three decades of living and writing about his adopted country. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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