Commentary: The Japan That Can Say No To Cold Pills

I was a foreigner in possession of narcotics, a threat to the public health and morals of Japan. But I wasn't smuggling speed into the country. I was simply a newly hired BUSINESS WEEK correspondent, moving to Tokyo from Hong Kong. When my belongings arrived at the port of Yokohama, my moving agent called to say that customs had found my supply of Drixoral, an over-the-counter decongestant for my occasionally drippy nose.

The officials wanted me to hand over the pills: They contained more pseudoephedrine sulfate, the active ingredient in decongestants, than Japanese law allows. Baffled, I asked my mover for an explanation. "Ma'am, your drugs are considered narcotics," he said. "You know, dope."

PROTECTIONISM. It was a comical episode, but I learned a serious lesson: Don't be fooled by Japanese leaders' pledges about lowering all trade barriers. This incident at the customs post wasn't meant to stem the rising abuse of cold pills. It was protection pure and simple of Japanese companies that sell their own remedies. Yes, there has been progress in deregulation. But there remains a host of subtle obstacles for foreign goods--from cold pills to vitamins, from farm products to building materials.

Stories of such customs encounters abound. One friend tells of an acquaintance who had to abandon his supply of American condoms. His offense: bringing in more than 24, a violation of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law. More than 24 is considered a shipment destined for "commercial use." Explained one ministry official I called: "If people bring in more condoms, they may share them with others." When I asked if that was so bad, he assured me it was a matter of safety-- and there were other reasons, too. Is protecting Japan's condom makers one of them? "That might be part of it," he conceded.

This got me wondering: How tough would it be for a merchant to import condoms? The Tokyo Metropolitan Government told me that getting a condom-import permit would take a long time. I pressed for more details. I could import condoms only if I had a testing facility of my own, built to the government's specifications. That was enough to discourage the owners of Condomania, a boutique selling Japanese condoms and American condom novelty toys in the hip-hop district of Harajuku. "We never tried to import American condoms because we knew customs would stop them," says spokesman Koji Negishi. That's a big loss to some condom makers: The shop has annual sales of more than $800,000.

HEADACHE. Eventually, I found other medical imports the Japanese government monitored closely. You can forget about importing Vicks Inhalers. Bringing in Extra-Strength Excedrin is, well, a headache. "The dosage of aspirin, caffeine, and acetaminophen in Excedrin Extra-Strength is too high. Japanese maximum dosages must be lower since the Japanese are smaller," explained one employee of Bristol-Myers Lion Limited. And bizarre as it seems, "the name Extra-Strength is not permitted by the Health & Welfare Ministry because it describes the medicine's function," he says. So instead of accepting dangerous American-made Excedrin, Japanese consumers pay $5.40 for a package of 10 Excedrin capsules made in Japan. Price for 24 Excedrin in New York: $3.29.

To be fair, U.S. health regulators ban or restrict some imports seen as health hazards, including certain foods, medical items, and also a few condom brands. But Japanese bureaucrats still seem in a class by themselves. "If Japan truly deregulated, there would be less need for officials," says Mitsuru Shinozaki, an officer at Keidanren, the Japanese confederation of business. In Japan, it takes shipments two to four days to clear customs. In the U.S., it takes 30 minutes. Says Shinozaki: "I don't blame everything on the bureaucrats, but we are still doing some very strange things."

Perhaps the Japanese should lift restrictions on some items, such as foreign-made decongestants and vitamins. They might learn to like the greater choice and the lower prices that result. And Japan would learn it doesn't need a fortress of trade barriers to be a great and prosperous country.

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