Recovering the lost legacy of cannabis in Japan

Posted on April 12th, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , .

JapanCannabis is completely verboten n Japan—rare, expensive and very illegal. First Lady Akie Abe broke taboo by advocating a medical marijuana program from the country—but she's now embroiled in scandal, nipping the proposal in the proverbial bud. Yet more grassroots advocates have also emerged. One local historian in agricultural Tochigi Prefecture has opened a "cannabis museum," documenting millennia of use of the plant for medicine, sacrament and fiber in the archipelago.

With cannabis harshly prohibited in Japan, the stuff is practically unheard-of there. In the past couple of years, an unlikely spokesperson for the herb emerged in the figure of Akie Abe, the wife of conservative Prime Mnister Shinzo Abe. Her support for liberal causes has won her the wry sobriquet of the "domestic opposition." In addition to opposing nuclear power and free-trade deals, and speaking out for gay rights (all positions contrary to her husband's), she's also advocated both a medical marijuana program for Japan and wider legalization of industrial hemp farming. 

As a Quartz profile notes, she even runs an "organic gastropub" in downtown Tokyo—practically a hipster.

However, her star is plunging precipitously at the moment, due to her involvement in a political scandal which is particularly counter-intuitive given her progressive politics. Opposition parties are demanding she testify in parliament about her ties to the government's cut-rate sale of lands to Moritomo Gakuen, a private school operator of ultra-nationalist bent—more in line with Shinzo's politics. The government admits documents related to the sale were altered to delete references to both the prime minister and his gadfly First Lady, as Reuters reported last month.

Other voices for cannabis from outside the political establishment are coming to the fore, however. A report last October on pop-culture website NextShark noted the 2016 candidacy for a Diet (parliament) seat by popular TV and film actress Saya Takagi—an open advocate for overturning Japan's harsh marijuana law. She didn't win the seat, but her campaign brought mainstream exposure to the legalization question for the first time. Then, in April of last year, she was arrested for possession of 55 grams of cannabis at her home in Okinawa. Her one-year prison sentence was suspended, probably due to her celebrity.

The report also notes the recent opening of Japan's first Taima Hakubutsukan—Cannabis Museum.

The Taima Hakubutsukan and its founder Junichi Takayasu were the subject of an in-depth feature in Japan Times in 2014. It opens with the amusing anecdote of how Takayasu's interest in cannabis began. When he was but three years old, he saw a picture in a book about ninjas that would change his life. "The book showed how ninjas trained by jumping over cannabis plants," Takayasu said. "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."

After years of research, the museum opened in 2001 in the town of Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, about 160 kilometers north of Tokyo—one of the few parts of the country where the plant is still grown under government license, albeit only low-THC varieties for industrial purposes. Takayasu sees this local production as a survival of a long legacy once deeply rooted in Japan. “Cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture for thousands of years,” he told Japan Times,

The earliest evidence of cannabis in Japan dates back to the Jomon Period (10,000-200 BCE), with pottery relics unearthed in Fukui Prefecture containing seeds and scraps of woven hemp fibers. “Cannabis was the most important substance for prehistoric people in Japan,” Takayasu asserted. “They wore clothes made from its fibers and they used it for bow strings and fishing lines." He also notes culinary and medicinal uses.

Cannabis also had a revered place in Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion. Priests would wave bundles of leaves to bless worshippers and cast out evil spirits. Early 20th-century American scholar George Foot Moore wrote about traditional use of cannabis-leaf bundles during the summer Bon (or Obon) festival.

Takayasu points to cannabis references in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of poems (written in the Nara Period cerca 700 CE), and in the famous book of woodblock prints, the Wakoku Hyakujo (from the Edo Period, cerca 1694).

And in World War II, industrial hemp was grown under contract by the military for the war effort—and especially in Takayasu's Tochigi Prefecture—mirroring the simultaneous "Hemp for Victory" campaign in the United States. 

Ironically, it was this military association that led to cannabis finally being suppressed under the US occupation after World War II. American anti-drug orthodoxy was wedded to the campaign to demilitarize Japan. In July 1948, occupied Japan passed the Cannabis Control Act—the harsh law that remains in force today.

Today, there are fewer than 60 licensed cannabis farms in Japan—all growing industrial hemp. The industry is danger of extinction.

But Takayasu is trying to reverse this trajectory. “Japanese people have a negative view of cannabis but I want them to understand the truth and I want to protect its history,” he summed up to Japan Times. “The more we learn about the past, the more hints we might be able to get about how to live better in the future.”

Another effort worth noting is the website—from the word for the cannabis plant in the Japanese language. It contains a wealth of information about use of the plant in the archipelago nation over the centuries, but its homepage mission statement reads: "As a taboo subject, little information is available about hemp in Japan, or about Japanese hemp outside of Japan." Now, there are hopeful signs that this is changing.

Cross-post to
Cannabis Now

Graphic: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection 


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