BestKenko, Part I: Is the Largest Internet Pharmacy Targeting Japan Illegal?

If you try to buy prescription drugs online in Japan — the second-largest pharmaceutical market in the world — chances are that you’ll click a link to a website like bestkenko.com. The website, written in flawless Japanese, assures “first time customers” that the website is completely legal, and typically offers pristine pictures of familiar Japanese medicines. The customer is told that the medicines have been approved for safety by the US Food and Drug Administration. The prices are in yen, and a page offers multiple glowing testimonials, apparently from Japanese residents, regarding the medicines they purchased on bestkenko.com. To many Japanese internet users, it would seem that bestkenko.com offers a legal, safe, and convenient way to order prescription medications online.

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Here’s the problem: online prescription drug sales are, with limited exceptions, illegal in Japan. Many of the drugs you can buy on bestkenko.com are not approved for sale in Japan — or most countries in the world. The website’s operators are ensconced safely outside of Japanese jurisdiction, with an opaque supply chain. And it’s only one of more than 800 online pharmacies that comprise a sprawling network known as BestKenko. (Note: these websites are typically accessible only via a Japanese IP address. If you’re outside of Japan, you may not be able to view them.)

This blog post is the first in a five-part series untangling the BestKenko network. We’ll dig into sources such as years’ worth of domain name registration records, corporate registration databases of a handful of countries, and even the Panama Papers, to explore who is behind the network, how it really operates, and how it came to be the largest online pharmacy network targeting Japan. As we have seen elsewhere on the internet — particularly with networks pretending to be Canadian and targeting US consumers — this organization has the support of a domain name registrar that turns a blind eye to its illegal activity. It also sources drugs from outside of the approved supply chain, and in fact, partners with some of the same entities in India that provide drugs to so-called Canadian pharmacies that ship medicines into the US from non-Canadian sources.

First, let’s discuss exactly why BestKenko’s operations are illegal.

As a general rule, prescription medicines cannot be sold over the Internet in Japan, and no licensed Japanese pharmacy is permitted to sell prescription drugs online or to actively market unapproved drugs to Japanese customers via the internet. However, there is a legal loophole, or exception, that permits personal importation of prescription drugs in exceedingly narrow circumstances. This exception can be found at mhlw.go.jp/kinkyu/diet/tuuchi/0828-4.html. BestKenko uses this loophole to mislead consumers into believing its websites are legal and compliant. However, a closer examination shows that its websites do not comply with the exception at all.

The exception permits a small degree of prescription drug importation, and such importation is permitted only if the online pharmacy does not advertise drugs and display drug images that are unapproved by Japanese laws and regulations. The websites, however, do display images of drugs that aren’t approved in Japan. None of the BestKenko websites adhere to the narrow nature of the personal drug importation exception, although the network claims, inaccurately and with considerable oversimplification, that its websites are legal because “prescription drug importation is permitted in Japan.”

The websites also violate the Japanese prohibition of marketing and selling unapproved drugs online. The websites do not dispense drugs that are approved by the US FDA, despite the website text and images that claim as much.

BestKenko sells both human and pet prescription medicines that include a large number of drugs that are not approved and regulated by the Japanese government for safety and authenticity.

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Even worse — once you reach a product page, you’ll find the following image with text in the Japanese language that states, “All the products can be delivered anywhere in the country without prescription.”

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Yikes!

Since early 2012, we have monitored BestKenko’s activities for the safety of Japanese citizens. In recent years, we have done so in partnership with one of our clients, the Japanese Ministry of Health. The agency has specifically asked us to try to get BestKenko’s domain name registrations and online merchant processing services shut down. We’ve researched how the network operates, and have even become a part of its history, as it had to rebrand itself when we got a number of its flagship websites shut down in 2012. (It was formerly known as BestKusuri. Incidentally, “Kusuri” means medicine in Japanese, and “Kenko” means health.) In this series, we will share what we’ve learned about BestKenko and the companies that work with it.

In our next post, “Boys and Their Toys,” we’ll dig into BestKenko’s history, and who is behind it.