Cannabis has been an integral part of Japanese culture since the beginnings of its history. Cannabis is a sacred herb to the religion of Shinto, and was also used and praised by ancient Zen poets and Buddhist monks.
Cannabis culture was suppressed and banned by US occupying forces after World War II, and today most Japanese don’t realize that “marijuana” is the same plant as cannabis, which was once as much a part of Japanese culture as rice.
Yet now Japanese cannabis culture is making a comeback. Many Japanese youths have learned to enjoy cannabis while travelling overseas, while farmers and universities are researching and experimenting with industrial hemp. Activists and scholars are educating the Japanese people about cannabis’ history and beneficial uses, and more Japanese are seeing the prohibition of cannabis as part of unwelcome American influence.
With the burgeoning growth of cannabis culture in Japan and around the world, perhaps Japan will lead Asia in shaking off prohibitionist dogma, and once again honouring cannabis as a sacred and beneficial plant.
Japan’s Ancient Hempen History
Hemp since the Jomon
Cannabis has grown in Japan since the Neolithic Jomon period (10,000 to 300 BC). The term “Jomon” itself means “pattern of ropes”, which were certainly made of cannabis hemp. These ancient people lived a civilized, comfortable existence, and used cannabis for weaving clothing and basket making, as well as using the seeds as a food source. What isn’t clear however, is when and how the seeds arrived in Japan.
Some scholars insist that cannabis was abundant in Japan before contact with China or Korea. However, impartial analysis suggests that, like much of its culture, cannabis was almost certainly imported and adapted from China.
Seeds from Korea
The Japanese staple of wet-field rice made its way from China to Japan around 300 BC. The seed stock first went to Korea, then was brought by traders across the narrow but rough channel to Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, which is the closest point to the Asian mainland. It is likely that cannabis seeds made the same voyage before or around the same time.
In support of this theory, a cave painting found in coastal Kyushuu depicts tall stalks and cannabis leaves. It too is from the Jomon period, and is one of the earliest Japanese artworks in existence.
The richly coloured painting depicts several somewhat strangely dressed people in baggy short-pants and tall curved hats. Horses and ocean waves are also clearly rendered.
The picture apparently depicts Korean traders bringing a plant by boat. Along the stem of the plant are small pairs of budding leaves or branches. The plants themselves are tall and at the top bear large, distinctive, seven-fingered cannabis leaves.
Surrounding the top of this cannabis plant figure is a sun-like aura, suggesting the continuing connection between the sun and cannabis in Shinto. This is strikingly similar to the hieroglyphic carvings from Mediterranean cultures, which show a similar sun/cannabis motif.
Feudal hempen cultivation
During the fuedal era of Japan (c. 14th-15th Century) hemp fibre cultivation was encouraged by the fuedal lords (Daimyo), cannabis cultivation was encouraged by the feudal lords (Daimyo), wanting hempen-ware’s high resale value from the wealthy city merchants, who favoured cannabis hemp for making fine clothing.
Japanese merchants dealt in coins which had square holes in the centre, and were carried on strings of hemp. The Japanese five yen coin still has a hole in it, left over from this practice.
Cannabis was a major crop and the primary source of clothing fibre until the 17th century, when cotton was introduced. Cotton began to replace cannabis as a fibre crop because of high yields by heavy fertilizer use and the development of mass processing methods.
Yet sturdy cannabis hemp continued to be used for a variety of specialized purposes, including long-line eel fishing lines and packaging ropes to name a couple.
The Emperor’s Hemp Clothes
When Emperor Hirohito passed on in 1989, a coronation was held for his heir. The Emperor himself is regarded as a direct descendant of the gods and acts as a sort of high priest in the pagan Shinto belief.
Since Hirohito’s son was becoming the “living entity of God”, there had to be a special Shinto ritual. In Shinto, cannabis is the symbol of purity, so the new Emperor had to wear cannabis hemp garments, which had become unavailable over the course of his father’s long rule.
A group of Shinto farmers in Tokushima-ken had thought ahead and planted a symbolic yet subversive crop, and presented the Emperor with his new clothes made of pure local hemp They are still producing this crop for the exclusive use of the Imperial family.
Purity and fertility are paramount shinto concepts, and cannabis is an essential symbol of both.
In the long journey from India to China, the teachings of the Buddha were considerably altered. The Japanese further adapted and intertwined Buddhism with their traditional mythological religion of Shinto.
Shinto is the ancient “way of the gods”, a ritualistic expression of profound respect for the kami (the intrinsic god-like spirit) in nature. Plants, animals, rocks and trees all possess a sort of spirit or reverence which can be terrifying or peaceful. Purity and fertility are paramount Shinto concepts, and cannabis is an essential symbol of both.
The Cannabis Goddess
Shinto creation stories tell of the Japanese islands rising from volcanoes and hot springs. A Goddess and God figure descended to people the country with their direct descendants.
This first pair then begat the founding goddess-figure, Amaterasu Omi Kami (Sun Goddess). She is enshrined at the holiest of places, the Ise Shrine (Ise Jinja).
At that shrine on the Ise peninsula, the special prayer given for the founding Goddess of Japan is called “taima”, which literally means “cannabis”. Cannabis, salt and rice are the sacred staples that are used as part of all the rites at the shrine.
In fact, cannabis, mulberry fibre, and cloth and paper made from them are offered to the gods at all Shinto shrines, along with salt, sake and rice.
In olden times, wandering pilgrims were obliged to leave an offering of cannabis leaves and rice to the pathside phallic-fertility statues of the Sahe no Kami (protective deities) before embarking on a journey.
At Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, certain objects are symbolically made from hemp. For example, the thick bell-ropes must be hempen, as is the noren, a short curtain which acts as a symbolic purification “veil”, meant to cause evil spirits to flee from the body as the head brushes lightly beneath it.
In another old tradition, rooms of worship were purified by burning cannabis leaves by the entrance. This would invite the spirits of the departed, purify the room and encourage people to dance.
The element of purity is stressed again as undyed hemp fabric was an important part for the household of the new bride. This undyed hemp came to symbolize the “womanly virtues” of faithfulness, chastity and obedience. Like the undyed cloth, an old saying goes, the woman must allow herself to be dyed any color her husband chooses.
Hemp Seed for Food
While soy and rice have long been Japan?s nutritional staples, cannabis seed was also an important part of the diet, used mostly as addition to vegetables or else as gruel.
When the armies of the fuedal age went to war, they subsisted on balls of ground cannabis seed and brown rice gluten to keep them strong.
In contemporary Japan, ground cannabis seed remains in the diet in Shichimi (seven spices) used for flavoring Udon noodles. Unsterilized cannabis seed bird food is readily available as well.
The Gods’ Harvest Party
Another Shinto tale tells that every October, all the dieties from around Japan gather at a sacred site in rural Shimane prefecture, at Japan’s largest shrine called Iizumo Taisha.
Shimane is far out of the way of any urban center, and besides being “Home of the Gods”, it was home to bounteous cannabis harvests up until about 50 years ago. During this month, the rest of the nation is left unprotected from calamity while the gods hold a harvest festival and match-making celebration.
Zen Hemp Haiku
Zen, the meditative, Taoist influenced branch of Buddhism, was also influenced by cannabis, in the forms of herb and hemp. Samurai and scholars who followed Zen’s subtle tenets express cannabis’ inspiration in arts like Haiku (short poems).
In the following Haikus, the feeling of cannabis is clear. The wandering Zen poet Issa Kobayashi writes:
The cannabis around my hut
also has suffered
From summer thinness.
Just when I hear
The sundown bell,
The flower of this weed.
Basho the Haiku Master writes:
The cannabis- How wonderful it is!
The summer drawing room.
Trees and stones, just as they are.
Ah, how glorious!
The young leaves, the green leaves,
Glittering in the sunshine!
And one more, author unknown:
When all things are hushed,
suddenly a bird’s song
arouses a deep sense of stillness.
When all the flowers are departed,
suddenly a single flower is seen,
and we feel the infinity of life.
(All haikus quoted from Drake)
The Hempen Arts
A common pattern in fabric is the traditional “asa no ha” (cannabis leaf), where the seven blades of the leaf intersect to form a mandala-like pattern. This pattern is often seen in curtains, quilts and kimono (seen on background)
This pattern is also commonly seen in paintings depicting the “floating world” of Geisha. These colourful art prints often depict the subject’s kimono with this geometric leaf pattern, as well as relaxing and smoking a long slender pipe while between customers (opposite page). Another interesting artifact from that world is a hair comb, detailed with cannabis and what are likely Japanese maple leaves (below).
A widely celebrated painting from 1929, Shimizu’s Taima Shukaku (Hemp Harvest), depicts farmers cutting down thick, dense hemp fields, surrounded by a vibrant valley. This painting was a finalist for a kind of national “painting of the year” award from the government.
Wood-cut prints from a 1979 artistic agriculture grow book show the same dense fields. One caption explains how one must walk through the fields to “ventilate” the plants. Other captions include a three-step water-retting technique, and a means of bleaching with potash and lime.
The bowstring used by Zen Archers is specifically made of cannabis, which reflects a connection with the meditative practice of Zen as well as verifying hemp’s toughness as a fibre.
Sumo wrestling involves an elaborate pre-bout ceremony called dohyo-iri, in which the reigning champion carries a giant hempen rope around his ample girth to purify the ring and exorcise the evil spirits. This purification ritual continues even to this day, with the approximately 30 pound hempen belt being worn by Hawaiian-born sumo champion, Akebono.
A well-known folk story tells of a technique used by elite ninja assassins to improve their jumping skills.
The learning ninja plants a batch of cannabis when he begins training, and endeavors to leap over it every day. At first this is no challenge, but the plants grow quickly, and so must the diligent ninja’s jumping ability. By the end of the season, the warrior can alledgedly clear the full grown stand of cannabis. This certainly attests as much for the plant’s vitality as to the ninja’s leaping ability.