How Marijuana Became Part of Thriving Cultures: Part 3 – Japan

If you happen to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, you’re likely to be awestruck by what is one of the world’s most beautiful countries. Although it has become ‘Westernized,’ its culture is still very different to what you’re used to. One thing you definitely won’t be able to do is consume marijuana without taking a serious risk.

Under the rules of the Cannabis Control Law in Japan, possession of a small amount of weed is punishable with five years in prison, with hard labor added for extra effect. The Japanese government, and seemingly the majority of the public, believe that all illicit drug use is an invitation to evil. Sadly, cannabis is included as one of these ‘evil’ drugs.

Therefore, if you’re busted for marijuana use, don’t expect public sympathy when you end up with a harsh prison sentence. Given Japan’s attitude towards Mary Jane, you wouldn’t believe that it has one of the longest and proudest histories of using the drug.

Marijuana Use in Ancient Japan

Although weed is illegal in modern Japan, the country is still home to cannabis experts such as Takayasu Junichi. He says that the earliest traces of cannabis in Japan can be dated as far back as the Jomon Period. The trouble is, this period of Japanese history spans almost 10 millennia (10,000 BC – 300 BC).

According to archaeologists, the ancient Japanese used fibers from the plant to make clothes, fishing lines, and bow strings. It is probable that they used the Cannabis sativa plant. There is evidence of this in the form of an old cave painting which depicts a tall, stringy plant complete with the famous cannabis leaves.

One of the reasons why Takayasu became obsessed with the herb was because of a book he read when he was a child. It consisted of ninjas being trained by jumping over marijuana plants. Each day, the ninjas had to leap higher because the plant grows rapidly. He was so amazed that he told his distraught mother that he wanted to be a marijuana grower when he grew up!

As it happens, the images of ninjas jumping cannabis plants were published in an ancient Japanese magazine named The Manyoshu. It published poetry, and according to the poems, ninjas used weed as hurdles to jump over.

Takayasu has been able to delve deep into Japanese history to discover how the country used the herb thousands of years ago. Hemp was actually the primary material used in Japanese clothes. It was common for clothing made from hemp fibers to be worn during religious and formal ceremonies; mainly because the plant was associated with purity. The seeds were also used as food.

It is fascinating how often the hemp plant was associated with religious ceremonies in the ancient world. I’ve previously written about its use in religious rites in ancient China, and also by the Scythians, and the ancient Japanese are no different. Cannabis played a significant role in Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism. The herb was revered because of its apparent ‘cleansing’ abilities.

Shinto priests used the plant to perform exorcisms or cleansings. It was also a feature of Shinto weddings because brides wore marijuana tiaras and veils as a symbol of purity before their husbands. Even today, despite the ban, there are a few Shinto shrines that hold annual ceremonies using weed.

Ise Shrine is the holiest in all of Japan, and once upon a time weed was used in the “jingu taima” (shrine cannabis) amulet. Today, the amulets are made from paper, but elderly visitors often touch the pure cannabis rope that’s on display and begin praying. Indeed, the publication ‘Shrine Cannabis and Nationalism’ (Jingu Taima to Kokuminsei), published in 1919 by the Ise Shrine Offering Association, said that weed should be seen as a symbol of God!

The Road to Prohibition

Marijuana continued to be used freely in Japan for thousands of years. Weed was regularly mentioned in Japanese literature and art. You can see depictions of the herb in the Wakoku Hyakujo, a book of woodblock prints created at some point during the Edo Period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868.

In the early 20th century, an American historian named George Foot Moore wrote about the practice of presenting small offerings of marijuana leaves at shrines by the roadside. It was popular amongst travelers who believed it helped to ensure a safe journey. Japanese families during the era also burned cannabis bunches in their doorways to welcome the spirits of the dead during the obon festival in the summer.

Marijuana was cultivated throughout Japan right up until the Cannabis Control Act in 1948. According to a 1914 publication by the USDA, hemp in Japan, known as asa, was cultivated in several districts including Iwate, Shimane, Aidzu, Hiroshima, and Tochigi. Hemp grown in Hiroshima was tall with a coarse fiber, while in Tochigi it was shorter but produced the finest quality fiber.

Growing weed was a full-year cycle in Japan. Farmers planted the seeds in spring and harvested them during the summer. During autumn, the stalks were dried, soaked, and turned into fiber. In winter, the fibers were woven into clothing which was ready by the beginning of the following planting season.

Although the Cannabis Control Act was initially introduced in 1930, the Government urged farmers to grow the plant during World War II. The navy needed it for ropes, while the fiber also proved useful as parachute cords for the air force. In fact, the Japanese military classified weed as a ‘war material,’ and there were even patriotic war songs praising Mary Jane!

Cannabis is Outlawed

How did the Japanese go from signing songs about weed to banning it outright in a matter of years? We can ‘thank’ the United States for that. As you know, Japan came under American control after being defeated in World War II. As the U.S. government had successfully banned weed at home in 1937, it decided to extend prohibition overseas.

You won’t be shocked to learn that the ban on weed in Japan was not a rare case of America engaging in altruism. First of all, if America was so interested in the wellbeing of the Japanese, why did it allow the sale of over-the-counter amphetamines to continue for another three years?

The real reason probably has to do with U.S. petrochemical interests. These organizations wanted the Japanese hemp fiber industry shut down so they could open the market for manmade materials like nylon and polyester. According to Takayasu, it was also a way of keeping Japanese military power in check. Remember, the wartime weed industry was dominated by the military. Introducing the Cannabis Control Act was an effective means of stripping away power.

Naturally, the prohibition of cannabis caused panic amongst Japanese farmers. Rather than bend the knee, Emperor Hirohito visited Tochigi a few months before the ban to reassure farmers that they would still be able to grow weed, regardless of the ban. He remained true to his word; two years after the enforcement of the ban, Japan still had 25,000 cannabis farms!

However, the high cost of licenses needed after 1948 coupled with the popularity of manmade fibers caused the industry to go into decline. For reference, there are now less than 60 licensed cannabis farms in the whole of Japan today. All of them are legally required to grow stains with low THC levels.

Even so, weed was relatively potent in Japan until about 30 years ago. A 1973 survey by the University of Mississippi showed that cannabis grown in Tochigi had a THC content of 4%. By comparison, the average THC level of weed confiscated in America at the time was 1.5%. As marijuana began to become legal in American states, breeders found ways to boost THC levels. As a result, the weed grown in Japan is low-grade in comparison.

Takayasu is concerned about the possible extinction of Japanese cannabis culture. As far as he knows, there is only one woman in the country who has complete knowledge of the full cycle of seed-to-loom. She is 84 years old, and when she passes away her wisdom will die with her. For the record, Takayasu organizes annual tours to legal cannabis farms in Japan in a bid to keep weed culture alive.

Final Thoughts on Cannabis in Japan

Despite its importance in Japanese history, there is doubt as to whether marijuana was ever smoked by the public. The most likely scenario is that the wealthy elite preferred sake while the proles consumed weed. The type of weed grown by licensed farmers in the Tochigi region contains just 0.2% THC, even lower than the European hemp level of 0.3%, meaning it would be pretty hard to get high.

It is sad that Japan now has such a strict anti-marijuana outlook. The herb had a brief resurgence in the 1970s as incomes increased, but amphetamines were more popular and interest in Mary Jane soon waned once more. Today, approximately 2,000 people are arrested for weed possession or cultivation each year. All of them will be sentenced to a lengthy spell behind bars unless they can afford good attorneys who may help get any prison sentence cut to a few months.

Prohibition has done nothing to help Japanese society. Japan has fallen back a little and has been replaced as the world’s second biggest economy by China. It also has an extremely high suicide rate (30,000 per annum), and there are an estimated 6.5 million alcoholics. Cannabis could be a ‘golden egg’, because removing prohibition would boost the economy to the tune of $300 billion a year due to income from taxation, as well as through the money saved by reducing policing and the prison population. Cannabis helped Japan become great once; maybe it could do so again.

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