Reflecting rising demand for herbal medicine, domestic cultivation of crops used to make such products is expanding.

The Nara Prefectural Government launched a project at the end of 2012 to promote the cultivation and processing of medicinal plants for herbal drugs to help revitalize communities in mountainous areas.

Farmers near the Kitora tomb in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, harvested “dong quai,” or female ginseng, on some 1,000 sq. meters of land in December.

“This year’s dong quai is good quality,” said Masayoshi Yamamoto, leader of Eino Kitora, a group of local farmers who have been cultivating the plant for medicine to make use of the increasingly idle farmland being caused by the village’s depopulation.

Dong quai cultivated in Nara is called Yamato Tohki and is a prefectural specialty. The roots of the plant, after being immersed in boiling water and dried, are used especially to treat female ailments because they are believed to improve blood circulation.

Demand for herbal medicines is growing in Japan because 90 percent of doctors now use them for treatment since related studies were added to medical school curricula in 2001.

The Toyama Prefectural Medical Plants Center is promoting the cultivation of “shakuyaku” (peonies) because its roots can be used to ease stomach and head pain.

“We provide shakuyaku seeds and those of other medicinal plants to farmers and teach them how to grow them,” said Isamu Ohe, head of the center.

Last fall, a record 8.1 tons of shakuyaku were shipped from Toyama Prefecture.

The Toyama Prefectural Government has launched a joint project with universities in the prefecture and neighboring Ishikawa Prefecture to develop natural drugs. Studies are underway to develop a cancer-fighting drug from a compound found in white birch trees.

In Tsuwano, Shimane Prefecture, a venture called Nichihara Research and Development Laboratories Inc. inoculates silkworm pupae with Cordyceps sinensis, a type of fungi parasitic, to produce a revitalizing, anti-fatigue agent.

The town government gets 5 percent of the sales generated by the agent as it holds patents on the culturing technique.

“We expect sales to increase in fiscal 2015 from the ¥40 million we saw in fiscal 2014,” Nichihara President Jun Saeki said.

Domestic production of herbal drugs has expanded 26 percent over the past five years due to their rising use by doctors, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

And yet, herbal drugs produced in Japan account for only 12 percent of those used in the country. Chinese imports account for 80 percent.

As China has limited exports of certain herbal plants on the grounds of environmental protection amid growing domestic demand for natural drugs, the ministry plans to increase the domestic production of medicinal crops from 2014 by 1.5 times in 2016.

In particular, the ministry will seek to boost the output of “kanzo” (licorice), which is used in 70 percent of Japanese herbal medicines, as it is said to be effective in easing cramps and pains while neutralizing poisons. While 1,267 tons of kanzo were consumed in Japan in 2008, the entire amount was imported from China.

Experimental cultivation of kanzo has started in Hidaka in Hokkaido and Tainai in Niigata Prefecture, among other places, to prepare for widespread production of the sweet root.

As part of the project, the farm ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry jointly began a matchmaking program in 2012 to help growers sell their produce to pharmaceutical companies.

In a related development, companies and local governments interested in herbal medicines established a study panel last May with an eye to creating a ¥10 trillion industry that will cultivate medicinal crops and process them into products for use by medical institutions as well as food and cosmetics makers.

Professor Kenji Watanabe of Keio University’s School of Medicine, who heads the panel, said, “Cultivation of medicinal crops offers a solution to the issue of increasing idle farmland.”

The panel aims to “make Japan a sustainable country through widespread use of herbal medicine,” he added.

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