Reefer gladness: A brief history of hemp in Japan

Reefer gladness: A brief history of hemp in Japan

by .
Stripes Okinawa

Most people don’t know it but Japan has a centuries-old history with a simple yet popular plant that has only been making waves here and abroad for the past few decades.

It was once a sacred substance in Shinto religious tradition. Lore has it that ninja once jumped over it day after day as it grew, training to leap incredible heights because it grew, well – like a weed. Even today, it is a key ingredient in a common household condiment. What is it?


OK. Generally speaking, marijuana usually refers to a type of cannabis that can be used for medical or recreational purposes. Hemp refers to non-intoxicating cannabis grown for fiber, cloth, oil, food and other purposes. But in Japan, it’s all simply called “taima,” according to Hidehito Marui, a criminal court lawyer who has been defending cannabis cases for 40 years.

Now, while we’re on the subject of the law, let’s take a minute to be perfectly clear: Since the “Taima Torishimari Ho,” or Cannabis Control Act, was passed at the behest of the U.S.-led occupation forces in 1948, Japan has become one of the strictest countries in the world when it comes to marijuana.

The maximum penalty for possessing even a small amount is five years in prison; growing it can land you up to seven years. (Even locally beloved former Beatle, Paul McCartney, couldn’t escape 10 nights in jail for possession during a visit in 1980.) It is a very serious deal here.

Despite the strict laws, however, you can see the fibers of cannabis woven into Japanese culture. For example, the ropes at shrines and temples that are pulled to wring the bells before offering prayers are still made of cannabis. So are “yokozuna” (grand champion) sumo loincloths.

Cannabis seeds are still used in “shichimi,” a popular seven-spice chili condiment for soups, noodles and beef bowls, as well as in bird food. However, Marui says such products are free of intoxicating tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The seeds are also sterile so they cannot sprout, something he believes is a problem.

“Because of the Cannabis Control Act, most of cannabis products, especially seeds used for spices and bird foods, are imported mainly from China,” he says. “Only a small portion of these cannabis products are made by licensed cannabis farmers in Tochigi Prefecture.”

The lawyer not only defends people in court who have been charged under the law. He advocates legalizing cannabis for all uses, and says he has even formerly petitioned the government to do so. He says it used to be widely grown throughout the nation; and that is as it should be.

“Cannabis sativa L, known for its strong fiber, was the main kind of cannabis grown in Japan before 1948,” Marui says, adding that it also has great ecological potential for future use. “The cannabis was mainly used for material to make goods and products, but it also contained some level of THC.”

In fact, cannabis goes back a long time in Japan. It is believed to have been around since the Jomon Period (8000 to 300 BC). Cannabis seeds have been found at the Torihama ruins in Fukui Prefecture that date back about 11,000 years, according to Marui.

“Cannabis provided a lot of the material used to make daily goods a long time ago such as clothes, rope, fishing nets, paper, bows and so on. And the seeds were eaten as food,” he says. “In the Shinto religion, the word for cannabis means cleansing, and it was believed to have the power to purify energy. It was also respected as a symbol of the sun, the inspiration for the Japanese flag.”

The relation between cannabis and Shinto can be found in the history of Japan’s holiest shrine, Ise Shrine, where cannabis was once used in an amulet called “jingu taima,” or shrine cannabis.

“Today those amulets are made of a paper instead of cannabis,” says Junichiro Takayasu, director of Japan’s only cannabis museum, Taima Hakubutsukan, in Tochigi Prefecture. “One day, I was surprised to see some elder visitors touch the pure cannabis rope that we have on display, put their hands together and start praying. I thought, ‘now that is how the Japanese used to treat cannabis.’”

In fact, according to “Jingu Taima to Kokuminsei” (Shrine Cannabis and Nationalism), published by the Ise Shrine Offering Association in 1916, cannabis should be respected as a symbol of god.

Takayasu opened his log-house museum in 2001 in homage to the history of cannabis and its traditional production in Tochigi Prefecture. Handmade cannabis artifacts, cannabis products and related historical documents are displayed in the museum. He also organizes workshops to teach people how to weave hemp cloth and a tour of some of the prefecture’s licensed cannabis fields to promote and preserve the tradition.

“The cannabis-fiber weaving technique used by Japanese craftsmen is very conscientious handwork, and I think it is important to carry on the tradition,” Takayasu says. “The clothes from genuine cannabis fiber are cool in summer and warm in the winter, which is perfect for the Japanese climate.”

There are only 50 licensed farmers that produce cannabis, which has minimal traces of THC, in Japan today. Before the ban was enacted in 1948, there were more than 25,000 cannabis farms, according to Takayasu who prominently displays a 1947 photo of Emperor Hirohito visiting Tochigi’s cannabis farms.

“It is said that this picture was taken when Emperor Hirohito visited cannabis farmers in Tochigi to assure them that they and their livelihood would be protected from the cannabis ban,” says Takayasu.

Nonetheless, the industry plummeted rapidly soon after the Cannabis Control Act.

“Textile manufacturing took off in Japan after 1948,” Takayasu says. “People started to use more chemical fibers because they are easier to manufacture and cheaper than hand-woven cannabis fiber.”

Marui suggests that it may be more than mere market chance that downgraded a once scared Shinto plant to an evil weed in postwar Japan.

“It is said that one of the main reasons for banning cannabis in 1948 was to bring industries such as artificial fiber textiles like nylon and wood-pulp manufacturing from the U.S. to Japan,” he says. “It is also said that cannabis played a major role in garnering pro-military sentiments through Shintoism, and it was banned to help prevent Japan from militarizing again.”

These are just a few arguments in a dispute over Japan’s cannabis ban that has been going on for a long time. Some say it should be respected as a part of Japanese culture. Others advocate it should be used in medical treatment. And, of course, there are some demands for recreational use as well.

As matter of fact, about 2,000 people are arrested for possession or cultivation of cannabis every year in Japan, according to Marui.

So after nearly 70 years of the Cannabis Control Act, unlike in the U.S. where some states have legalized it even for recreational use, the future for cannabis use in Japan is still up in smoke.

Did you know?

The kind of cannabis cultivated by licensed farmers in Tochigi today is called “Tochigishiro,” which contains 0.2 percent THC. It will not get you high if you smoke it. In Europe, the standard of THC level of industrial cannabis is below 0.3 percent.

According to Junichiro Takayasu, director of Taima Museum, farmers in Tochigi Prefecture successfully bred this cannabis to its current minimum THC level in the early 1980s. Farmers did this to protect their crops from being stolen by many Japanese hippies and some of American service members during the 1970s.

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