Nagai Nagayoshi, the first man to create meth, began his life in Tokushima Prefecture, a place that today farms sweet potatoes and strawberries, just to the west of Osaka. When he was born in 1845, the military government of the Tokugawa shogunate had presided over Japan's feudal system for more than two centuries. But the political system that had held in place for so long was changing. By 1868, when Nagai was 23, the shogunate had fallen, the Meiji Emperor had restored imperial rule, a democratic government of sorts was formed, and Japan had stepped back from its isolationism.
Nagai had grown up as a member of the elite, the oldest child of a well-off family, which had served Tokushima Prefecture for years as doctors versed in traditional, herbal medicine. In 1871, when the new Meiji government sent a handful of promising young scholars to study abroad, Nagai was one of them. He was headed to Berlin, where he intended to study medicine.
Nagai would spend twelve years in Germany, and after hearing a lecture by the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, he changed his academic plan. He would be a chemist too, and he would become close with Hofmann. By the time he returned to Tokyo, in 1883, Nagai was a Catholic, the husband of German woman and a newly minted professor of pharmacology.