Cannabis: the fabric of Japan

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

An increasing number of states in the U.S. are easing policies on cannabis prohibition but little discussion has taken place in Japan on the potential benefits of adopting a similar approach. As various locations around the world celebrate annual April 20 marijuana festivals, we examine the country’s historical and cultural links to the much-maligned weed.


When Junichi Takayasu was 3 years old, a picture book about ninjas changed his life forever. What fascinated him most, however, wasn’t the assassins’ stealthy skills or secret gadgets but their usage of a very special plant.

“The book showed how ninjas trained by jumping over cannabis plants,” Takayasu says. “Every day they had to leap higher and higher because cannabis grows very quickly. I was so amazed that I told my mom I wanted to grow cannabis when I was older.”

Understandably, Takayasu’s mother was rather distressed by her son’s aspiration. Japan’s anti-cannabis laws are among the strictest in the world, with possession of even small amounts punished by five-year prison sentences and illicit cultivation earning growers seven years behind bars.

However, Takayasu refused to let this put a damper on his dreams. Today, more than 40 years later, he is one of Japan’s leading experts on cannabis and the curator of Taima Hakubutsukan — the nation’s only museum dedicated to the much-maligned weed. Opened in 2001 in the town of Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, approximately 160 km north of Tokyo, the museum’s mission is to teach people about the history of cannabis in Japan — a past that, Takayasu believes, has been denigrated and forgotten for far too long.

“Most Japanese people see cannabis as a subculture of Japan but they’re wrong,” Takayasu says. “Cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture for thousands of years.”

According to Takayasu, the earliest evidence of cannabis in Japan dates back to the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.), with pottery relics recovered in Fukui Prefecture containing seeds and scraps of woven cannabis fibers. “Cannabis was the most important substance for prehistoric people in Japan,” he says. “They wore clothes made from its fibers and they used it for bow strings and fishing lines.”

It is likely that the variety of cannabis from which these Jomon Period fibers originated was cannabis sativa. Tall-growing and valued for its strong stems, it is from sativa strains that today’s specially bred industrial hemp is derived.

In the following centuries, cannabis continued to play a key role in Japan — particularly in Shintoism, the country’s indigenous religion. Cannabis was revered for its cleansing abilities so priests used to wave bundles of its leaves to bless believers and exorcise evil spirits. This significance survives today with the thick ceremonial ropes woven from cannabis fibers that are displayed at shrines. Shinto priests are also known to decorate their wands with strips of the gold-colored rind of cannabis stalks.

Cannabis was also important in the lives of ordinary people. According to early 20th-century historian George Foot Moore, Japanese travelers historically used to present small offerings of cannabis leaves at roadside shrines to ensure safe journeys. He also noted how, during the summer Bon festival, families burned bundles of cannabis in their doorways to welcome back the spirits of the dead.

Until the mid-20th century, cannabis was cultivated all over Japan, particularly in Tohoku and Hokkaido, and it frequently cropped up in literature. As well as references to cannabis plants in ninja training, they also feature in the “Manyoshu” — Japan’s oldest collection of poems — and the Edo Period (1603-1868) book of woodblock prints, “Wakoku Hyakujo.” In haiku poetry, too, key words describing the stages of cannabis cultivation denoted the season when the poem is set.

“Cannabis farming used to be a year-round cycle,” Takayasu says. “The seeds were planted in spring then harvested in the summer. Following this, the stalks were dried then soaked and turned into fiber. Throughout the winter, these were then woven into cloth and made into clothes ready to wear for the next planting season.”

With cannabis playing such an important material and spiritual role in the lives of Japanese people, one obvious question arises: Did people smoke it?

Takayasu, along with other Japanese cannabis experts, isn’t sure. Although historical records make no mention of the practice, some historians have speculated that cannabis may have been the drug of choice for commoners. Whereas rice — and the sake brewed from it — was monopolized by the upper classes, cannabis was grown widely and was freely available.

Some scientific studies also suggest high levels of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis plants in Japan. According to one survey published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 1973, cannabis plants from Tochigi and Hokkaido clocked THC levels of 3.9 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively. As a comparison, the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project revealed that average THC levels in marijuana seized by U.S. police in the 1970s were only around 1.5 percent.

Nor are Japanese people averse to taking advantage of the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Long an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, cannabis-based cures were available from Japanese drug stores to treat insomnia and relieve pain in the early 20th century.

However, the 1940s — in particular, World War II — marked a major turning point in the story of Japanese cannabis production.

At first, the decade started well for farmers. “During World War II, there was a saying among the military that without cannabis, the war couldn’t be waged,” Takayasu says. “Cannabis was classified as a war material, used by the navy for ropes and the air force for parachute cords. Here in Tochigi Prefecture, for example, half of the cannabis crop was set aside for the military.”

Following the country’s defeat in 1945, however, the U.S. authorities occupying Japan brought with them American attitudes toward cannabis. Washington had effectively outlawed cannabis in the United States in 1937 and now it moved to ban it in Japan. In July 1948, with the nation still under U.S. occupation, it passed the Cannabis Control Act — the law that remains the basis of anti-cannabis policy in Japan today.

There are a number of different theories as to why the U.S. outlawed cannabis in Japan. Some believe it was based upon a genuine desire to protect Japanese people from the evils of narcotics, while others point out that the U.S. allowed the sale of over-the-counter amphetamines to continue until 1951. Several cannabis experts argue that the ban was instigated by U.S. petrochemical interests in a bid to shut down the Japanese cannabis fiber industry, opening the market to man-made materials such as polyester and nylon.

Takayasu locates the cannabis ban within the wider context of U.S. attempts to reduce the power of the Japanese military.

“In the same way that U.S. authorities discouraged kendo and judo, the 1948 Cannabis Control Act was a way to undermine militarism in Japan,” he says. “The wartime cannabis industry had been so dominated by the military that the Cannabis Control Act was designed to strip away its power.”

Whatever the motivation, the U.S. decision to prohibit cannabis created panic among Japanese farmers. In an effort to calm their fears, Emperor Hirohito visited Tochigi Prefecture in the months prior to the ban to reassure farmers they would be able to continue to grow in defiance of the new law — a surprisingly subversive statement.

For several years, the Emperor’s reassurances proved true and cannabis cultivation continued unabated. In 1950, for example, there were approximately 25,000 cannabis farms nationwide. In the following decades, however, this number plummeted. Takayasu attributes this to a slump in demand caused by the popularity of artificial fibers and the costs of the new licenses cannabis farmers were required to possess under the 1948 act.

Nowadays, Takayasu said, there are fewer than 60 licensed cannabis farms in Japan — all of which are required to grow strains of cannabis containing minimal levels of THC. With the number of farmers so low, Takayasu fears for the future of cannabis in the country. As far as he knows, there is only one person left in the nation versed in the full cycle of seed-to-loom. That person is 84 years old and when she dies, Takayasu fears, her wisdom will disappear with her.

Faced with this danger of extinction, Takayasu is determined to preserve Japanese cannabis culture. He organizes annual tours to the legal farms near his museum to show visitors how space-intensive cannabis cultivation is and how it requires few — if any — agricultural chemicals. Additionally, Takayasu runs monthly workshops to teach people about weaving cannabis fibers. On display in the museum are a variety of clothes made from cannabis; the soft cream-colored material is warm in winter and cool in summer — perfectly suited to the Japanese climate.

Among the museum’s fans are members of the local police department, who praise his efforts to revitalize the rural economy and sometimes visit to learn more about the outlawed weed.

All of this is testament to Takayasu’s ongoing enthusiasm for the special plant he first encountered as a 3-year-old boy.

“Japanese people have a negative view of cannabis but I want them to understand the truth and I want to protect its history,” he said. “The more we learn about the past, the more hints we might be able to get about how to live better in the future.”

Information on Taima Hakubutsukan, including driving directions and opening hours, is available at www.facebook.com/taimamuseum.


What’s in a name?

Botanists usually divide the cannabis family into three broad categories: tall cannabis sativa, bushy cannabis indica and small cannabis ruderalis.

However, this simple taxonomy is often frustrated by the interfertility of these three types that allows them to be crossbred into limitless new varieties.

The desired properties of these hybrids tend to determine the name by which they are commonly known.

Marijuana, for example, usually refers to cannabis plants that are grown to be ingested for medical or recreational uses. Cannabis sativa is said to give users a feeling of energetic euphoria and can be prescribed for depression, whereas cannabis indica is apparently more sedating so can be used as a muscle relaxant or to treat chronic pain.

Hemp is the name often applied to tall plants from the cannabis sativa category that are primarily grown for their strong fibers — but may also contain significant levels of THC.

Most recently, the term industrial hemp has been coined in the U.S. to refer to cannabis plants that have been specially bred to contain very low levels of THC (less than 1 percent) in order to conform to current drug laws.

Today, many of Japan’s licensed cannabis farms grow a low-THC strain called Tochigi shiro that was first developed in the postwar period.

  • Noam Larose

    Very interesting article, thank you.

  • HK_EXPAT_IN_NEW_ZEALAND

    I forgot to mention Cannabis use also has it roots in China and Japan as well, I think it should be teached in schools

  • itoshima2012

    Interesting article on the history of this plant in Japan. Use for medical purposes is surely a good thing. Legalize its use for recreational purposes? very good recent research strongly concludes that cannabis even in small doses and smoked (even) rarely damages heavily certain parts of the brain. I would strongly push for an extensive medical use but at the same time very though laws on its recreational use. Alcohol is already a terrible problem and cannabis would just cause many more problems. Japan is except for some synthetic drugs and of course alcohol (a terrible problems in this country) comparably drug free and it should stay like this for the sake of its young generation.

    • HelloFeds

      That is complete nonsense. There is zero research concluding anything of the kind. The most recent study merely showed MRIs exhibiting some different brain patterns. Confounding variables weren’t ruled out, and no behavioral measures were taken to determine whether there were any actual changes associated with the changes noted on the MRIs. It was an incredibly shoddy piece of research, even by prohibitionist standards. Cannabis is not only safe, it is neuroprotective. It is also protective against binge drinking. Japan needs it badly.

      • itoshima2012

        Canabis, as all drugs is obviously not safe. Saying it protects against binge drinking is like saying being high on one drug doesn’t necessarily want you to be high on another. I strongly agree that it has it’s place in medicine. You say that my remarks are nonsense, that’s very ignorant of you. Research on both sides of ten argument is not clear cut and more research needs to be done. Alcohol is legally available and causes many problems, I do not think canabis should be made legal. More effort should be out into educating our children of ten dangers of drugs, all drugs. Drugs destroy lives, partnerships, societies. Japan has one of the lowest drug usage rate in the world and that should stay this way!

      • HK_EXPAT_IN_NEW_ZEALAND

        Cannabis is not safe, I disagree with that, tell me how do you feel about people that just want to get high on the odd weekend?

      • Ryan Borger

        Cannabis is the LEAST toxic substance on the planet. And the most beneficial to the world. You can die drinking less than 5 gallons of water in a few hours time. It is called water toxicity. Cannabis would take 1500lbs ingested in less than 20 minutes to reach a fatal dose. Cannabis does not affect hand eye coordination like Alcohol. Stop putting them in that same box. I’m a daily cannabis user to treat Graves disease. There is so much people are us utterly ignorant about when it comes to cannabis.

      • pkr8ch

        Tell me how do you feel about people that just want to get drunk on the odd weekend?
        I would consider the weekend cannabis consumers more intelligent since they picked the safer of the two drugs.

      • HK_EXPAT_IN_NEW_ZEALAND

        Correct over in New Zealand where I live, the youth Binge Drink so badly that a lot of them end up in Hospital

      • Ryan Borger

        You need to take some time and research. You are utterly and completely wrong about Cannabis other than it being good for medical use.

      • FreddyBB

        Your the ignorant one. Why do Japanese people so easily believe in propaganda? During the war it was from your own government. After the war you all just accepted everything the occupation forces said about cannabis. You just parroted all the old US prohibitionist lies about cannabis.

      • HK_EXPAT_IN_NEW_ZEALAND

        Let me laugh at that statement, maybe I should do a live TV show called life of a Cannabis user

  • Willoughby Spitt

    Cannabis costs $50 per GRAM in Japan for schwag with seeds AND stems!! I lived there & dealt with that dilemma for over 11 years!!!! NEVER again, I say, NEVER again!!! ameriKKKa is good for SOMETHING these days @ least!!!!!!!! Midori happa mainichi suimasu dayo!!!!!

  • ab

    CANNABIS OIL [The ESSENTIAL OIL extracted from the cannabis plant using a
    solvent such as 91% isopropyl alcohol or 190 proof Everclear] cures
    most
    internal cancers within 3 months, and skin cancers in weeks–on
    record–as well as successfully treats a host of other ailments. This
    is not a tincture! Please YouTube Rick Simpson’s video “Run from
    the Cure.” Also, check out videos by David Triplett [skin cancer cured
    in 3 weeks] and Dennis Hill [stage 4 prostate cancer cured in 6
    months]. For medical/scientific analysis, please search: Dr. Robert
    Melamede [U. of Colorado-Colorado Springs]; Dr. Manuel Guzman
    [Complutense U. of
    Madrid]; Dr. Sean McAllister [CA Pacific Medical Research Institute];
    Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti [U. of South Carolina]; Dennis Hill [MD
    Anderson Cancer Center in Houston]; Dr. Mark Ware [McGill University].
    Also, YouTube Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s
    CNN Special called “Weed.” In it, he documented a 5-year old girl
    [Charlotte Figi] successfully treating her Dravet syndrome [severe
    epileptic seizures]
    with CANNABIS OIL which is then diluted with olive oil. Nobody is
    selling anything. With a good strain of
    cannabis [especially one with a high CBD to THC ratio], you can make
    your own CANNABIS OIL MEDICINE and cure yourself
    and your loved ones.

  • ab

    This is the basic SCIENCE of the medicinal value of CANNABIS OIL
    [the ESSENTIAL OIL] as it relates to cancer: The CANNABINOIDs [the main
    constituents in cannabis, e.g. THC and CBD] are the counterparts to the
    ENDOCANNABINOIDs [just like morphine is the counterpart to our
    endorphins] produced naturally in our bodies [such as ANANDOMIDE]. When
    these cannabinoids link up with the CB1 and CB2 receptors in our body’s
    ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM, a substance called CERAMIDE is released. It is
    the CERAMIDE that seeks out cancerous cells, destroys the mitochondria
    [the energy-producing organelles], and thus kills the malignant cells,
    while leaving healthy cells intact. There has been plenty of research
    on the relationship between CANNABINOIDs and CANCER. These studies show
    that not only do CANNABINOIDS inhibit tumor growth, but also that they
    INDUCE CELL APOPTOSIS [programmed cell death]. Dr. Manuel Guzman
    [Complutense U. of Madrid] conducted a landmark study that showed:
    “Cannabinoids are selective antitumour compounds, as they can KILL
    TUMOUR CELLS without affecting their non-transformed counterparts.”
    Also, research shows that CANNABINOIDs PROTECT the brain against
    neurodegeneration. We all know how SMOKING cannabis is therapeutic in
    certain ways, but the HIDDEN SECRET is that the REAL MEDICINE is in
    extracting the ESSENTIAL OIL and using it topically on skin cancer,
    burns, rashes,… or ingesting it for internal cancers and other
    ailments. Check out the links to the scientific research. Also, check
    out the clip of the PBS special “Clearing the Smoke.” In it, Dr. Donald
    Abrams [professor at UCSF & oncologist at SF Gen. Hosptital] &
    Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti [U. of South Carolina] explain the human body’s
    ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM and a study that shows that CANNABINOIDs KILL
    CANCER CELLS in test tubes and in mice. Lastly, Dr. Dennis Hill
    [biochemist, formerly of MD Anderson Cancer Center-Houston--one of the
    top-ranked cancer facilities in the world] most eloquently explains for
    the layperson HOW CANNABINOIDS KILL CANCER CELLS, and how he cured his
    STAGE 4 prostate cancer in 6 months, without chemo or radiation therapy.

    collective-evolutionDOTcom/2013/08/23/20-medical-studies-that-prove-cannabis-can-cure-cancer/

    americanmarijuanaDOTorg/Guzman-CancerDOTpdf

    youtubeDOTcom/watch?v=jVVRQK53wYsyoutubeDOTcom/watch?v=wLoRFTbIakk

  • http://www.sunsetreflector.blogspot.com WufanGohan

    I think people should learn to live life independently of all drugs outside medical use. As if alcohol and tobacco aren’t bad enough.

    In the West it is normal culture to be weak and depend on these – even openly – but in the East it is very much the opposite. If so many people can survive and even do well without these – some of them have even bigger and graver problems too – then I don’t see why the others can’t. They need excuses for their addiction and find the lower, easier way out by doing these that they do.

    • sub-j

      Yes maybe we should all just deal with our problems “under a train” like so many do… or a one way trip to Mt Fuji…

  • Ross West

    For quite understandable reasons, Japan adopted (under force) American laws after WWII. Sometimes since they broke away from the US for good reasons (e.g. gun control laws) and sometimes they are behind the curve (e.g. drug-control laws, female-equality). And to back the US in federal drug-control laws is a little embarrassing, given even Latin-American is going its own way against the northern bully. I would prefer stoned salary-men oven drunk ones, if only for the sake of the poor buggers than have to clean up the puke. Actually, for so many more reasons than just that (domestic violence for one). I don’t see Abe hanging that way, but his wife might! Japan has an unhealthy and weird semi-legal drug scene that is way more dangerous than the traditional drug-scene. It is just another case of criminalization pushing ‘deviant’ (notice the scare quotes) behavior into even more unhealthy behavior.

  • HK_EXPAT_IN_NEW_ZEALAND

    If anyone is interested in Cannabis reform, I am proposing a protest in Hong Kong outside LEGCO (Legislative Council) Building in Central and also I would love to see Chinese and Japanese Cannabis reformers or activists protest the Hong Kong Government’s iron stand against Cannabis, that will also depend if I am in Hong Kong at the end of 2015 as well, Cannabis Legalization should now be a issue in Hong Kong, Japan and parts of Asia as well