US Cannabis Suppression in Japan
Cannabis cultivation came to a legal halt in Japan during the post WWII allied-forces occupation. Allied troops lived in Japan and helped to rebuild and reshape the nation which had been battered by the destruction and poverty of wartime. The foreign troops were certainly surprised at the abundance of cannabis, growing both wild and cultivated.
When American General Douglas MacArthur and his colleagues rewrote the Japanese constitution in 1948, they were sure to include the Taima Torishimari Ho, the Cannabis Control Act.
Western companies seized upon this new, tightly controlled post-war market, and offered new synthetic products to replace the traditional. The cannabis plant was almost completely eradicated, and thousands of years of growth and breeding were greatly diminished under an avalanche of post-war change.
Hemp for Victory
Ironically, it was the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of the Philippines a few years earlier that had acted as catalyst for the US “Hemp for Victory” campaign to replace the Manila-hemp used by the armed forces.
Japan had also relied on domestic and Southeast Asian cannabis crops to make their uniforms, helmet linings and other war accessories for their Imperialist campaigns, until WWII.
Despite the intentions of the centralized government and the Cannabis Control Act, cannabis was still cultivated and growing wild in cities, especially along railways, until the mid-50’s. As was the case in many other countries, most farmers had no idea that this outlawed plant “cannabis” was the familiar crop they still used for everything from bird seed to fine woven cloths.
Most Japanese believe that marijuana is a narcotic, and do not realize that it is the same plant as cannabis hemp, which was once as much a part of Japanese culture as rice. In a mere half century, MacArthur’s Cannabis Control Act managed to almost totally wipe away the memories of cannabis culture, which had endured for several thousand years after its beginnings in the Jomon Period.
The Japanese term for cannabis, asa, still has a familiar sound to the Japanese people, most of whom just assume that it has just been replaced by new, better fibres. Fortunately, much information survives in art, books and stories. Wild cannabis also continues to grow in abundance, now a weed in areas where it was once a valued crop.
Like other governments, the Japanese parliament continues to be hesitant and under-informed about the benefits of extensive cannabis cultivation. Yet the current legal status still allows cannabis to be grown, with a permit.
However, the permit application process is lengthy, frustrating and futile, as the government rarely issues permits. It has been so long that most civil servants respond simply with a blank look.
Hempen household accessories like washcloths and curtains continue to be sold in Japan, made from Chinese and Korean hemp. More recently, new hemp products from western manufacturers are taking off. Given Japan’s enthusiasm for traditional, rugged North American fashion, this will be a burgeoning industry should the restrictions relax.
There are now several stores carrying cannabis hemp products, including the Earth Shop and Cheeba Cheeba run by expatriate American Neil Hartman on the island of Hokkaido.
In Kyoto, a traditional hemp shop called Asakoji has continued to serve patrons since the 1600’s, surviving wars and prohibition. Perhaps more importantly, the store emphasizes the age-old connection of spirituality, art and agriculture, a vital example of cannabis in Japan. Their hemp noren sign boasts in Japanese “We only know about cannabis, but we know every detail.”
At Taimdo (cannabis shrine) in Tokyo, a hemp shop sells mostly imported hemp goods and is a centre for activism and research. Citizens are increasingly using political means, as well as spiritual, to restore cannabis cultivation in their homeland by distribution of information and products.
Changing the Laws
For two decades following the passage of the Cannabis Control Act, the law seemed to exist only on the books. Many farmers still grew hemp and the law was not enforced.
Outside pressures built up, and in 1967 the Cannabis Control Act was enforced for the first time, when 20 stalks were seized from a farmer’s collective in the Shinshu, Nagano region. The ensuing legal proceedings sparked the cannabis liberation movement in Japan.
Symposiums in the 70’s
In the early 1970s, the first modern cannabis symposium was held at Kyoto University and a court challenge was filed to argue that the ban was unconstitutional. The cannabis movement became a struggle not only against cannabis laws, but also against the pressing thumb of US influence, symbolized in the continuing occupation of Okinawa by US military forces.
Cannabis conferences are now attended by a diverse group of lawyers, doctors, students, and farmers who are lobbying the government and encouraging research.
In Iwate prefecture, an association of hemp farmers promotes a festival in which they invite the public to join in the harvest.
Tests and Research
Research and test cultivation of low-THC hemp has been going on at many Japanese universities for several years.
In Tochigi prefecture, a group has recently begun producing and marketing rugged, refined paper made from pure, domestic cannabis hemp. This handsome paper is available in limited supply and is being used for printing cards and book-covers.
Shinshu University in Nagano is also cultivating, and various projects are underway in Iwate and Fukui prefectures and on Hokkaido, showing cannabis’ potential in many latitudes and climates.
Shizuoka lawyer Hidehiro Marui has been representing marijuana arrestees for much of his 20 year career, and also owns a coveted permit to cultivate cannabis for personal research. He and his colleagues are blitzing the mass media, publishing research and dissertations in popular magazines to encourage public education about cannabis and its potential products.
Cannabis’ potential as a building material is especially intriguing to this group, who plan to construct hempen houses throughout Japan, reducing their massive importation of wood as well as showing a useful application of hemp.
Before 2000, Marui’s group plans to challenge the Cannabis Control Act and test its constitutionality. This could have a resounding impact on this island nation, and will certainly call the Japanese people to debate at many levels.
Pot Prices in Japan
Pot is more expensive in Japan than North America, but so is everything else, with a cup of coffee going for as much as $7cdn.
Police always quote a “street price” of 6000 yen ($65cdn) for a gram of marijuana, but the actual price is usually about half that. An ounce sold to a friend goes for $600 to $900cdn.
On the northern island of Hokkaido marijuana grows wild, so it is very rare that anyone spends money to get it. People there are very friendly and will often give big bags full to their friends. Since it is wild the quality is not world class, but it is free.
Cannabis Smokers in today’s Japan
While smoking marijuana is not as wide-spread in Japan as it is in Canada, Japanese cannabis culture is certainly alive and well.
The most popular drugs in fast-paced Japanese society are nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, followed by amphetamines. In 1995, there were almost 20,000 arrests for speed, compared to about 1,500 for pot.
In the big cities, it isn’t hard to find buds or hash in small quantities. It is nonchalantly viewed as a trendy western drug by many casual urban users. Something you do a couple times before you “get serious” with your life. The chunks of hash are primarily sold by Iranians in the parks or train stations, but the police are rounding up many of these people and deporting them for visa violations and minor infractions, in actions that often seem racially motivated.
The commercial product comes mostly from the Phillipines and Thailand, smuggled in by boats, the packages tied to off-shore buoys and passed off to the locals. It also comes in from Hawaii, brought in by smugglers posing as tourists.
The 1998 Winter Olympic games are over and done, but their effect is still being felt in Japan and around the world. After snowboarding for ten years, hosting my own TV program on snowboarding, and learning to speak fluent Japanese, I was given the honour of having the best possible seat for the first ever Olympic Snowboard Halfpipe competition.
The competition began on February 8, with minimal presence from Japanese media, who are known for only covering events with Japanese competitors. Since there were no Japanese snowboarders, their media turnout was rather weak for Ross Rebagliati’s gold medal performance.
That all changed on February 9 however, when it was announced that Rebagliati would lose his medal due to a pot-positive pee test. The Japanese media had finally found something they could cover, and for the next two days the papers were filled with articles concerning the decision. Debates were held on TV with panels ranging from professors to actors. One of the most common wrap-up comments heard from reporters was something to the effect of “loose morals in other countries can lead to problems like this.”
The overall opinion of the Japanese media? Marijuana is bad and Rebagliati should have his medal taken away. Even after his medal was reinstated, TV shows rambled on endlessly about how the Olympic Committee had made a big mistake and the medal should definitely be taken away. Many argued that Rebagliati should face charges in a Japanese court.
It is unfortunate that such uninformed people should be in a position to create and influence public opinion, but in Japan it is very difficult to voice an opinion that goes against the laws.
During the two days before the medal was returned, I spoke to many of the Japanese staff involved in the snowboard competitions. Not once did anyone question why marijuana was even being tested for. The only thing anyone ever said was “mottainai” (what a waste) or “Taima suttei baka da ne” (he’s a fool for smoking marijuana). The most common comment was “snowboard ga image warukunaru ne” (now snowboarding will have a bad image). Again and again I was reminded how far Japan has to go towards proper marijuana education.
Yet all in all what happened was not only good for Japan but for the hemp/marijuana movement world wide. Thanks to Ross Rebagliati, the movement to legalize cannabis got a big boost and some great press. He proved to Japan and to the world that you can smoke marijuana and still win a Gold Medal and be a hero for your country.
In the mountains and countryside, the situation is somewhat better as the skills of growing are still practiced. Unfortunately, it’s hard to meet growers and smokers out in the countryside (that’s why they live there). Several people I met there had moved from the big cities to homestead and grow in the rural areas.
Due to the scarcity of equipment and the high cost of electricity, most crops are outdoors in clearings on steep hillsides in the dense forests. The genetics come from various seeds brought back from vacations to Thailand, Jamaica, Amsterdam or BC, and then worked into the Japanese soil.
Some growers in villages use small greenhouses alongside their house, hoping no one stops by to see what’s growing.
Expansive wild and semi-cultivated crops of cannabis grow in the vast rolling hills on the cold northern island of Hokkaido. Young city folk often try to harvest the rugged fibre for personal smoking use, with little success and often legal problems. The police know this trick and station roadblocks during harvest season, often catching people with their trunk full of plants.
The government’s gold medal crops
In February of 1998, the Nagano region of Japan hosted the Winter Olympic Games. Yet despite all the media frenzy around Canadian pot-puffing gold-medal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, the local hempen heritage received no exposure.
The best example of local Japanese cannabis culture is the town of Miasa-mura (beautiful hemp town), located in Nagano-prefecture, amongst the foothills of Japan’s Northern Alps.
When asked how much cannabis used to grow in this region, one farmer responded by asking “Do you see these rice fields?” He pointed to the vast checkerboard of rice fields he’d been cutting and bundling. “Before the war, we didn’t grow rice here, we grew cannabis.”
Miasa-mura’s town brochure even features a distinctive cannabis leaf. The town educates visitors with a hemp and flax museum and spinning equipment on display.
Many residents are anxious to resume legal hemp cultivation, and are frustrated by the long and always unsuccessful application process.
The Nagano government administers the growth of one or two closely monitored hemp fields, of exactly one thousand plants each. They are grown at different locations in rotating country villages. The local authorities count the plants at the beginning, middle and end of the growing season, to ensure that none have been taken.
The hemp fibre isn’t used at all, but the seeds are harvested to maintain a fresh seed stock in the town coffers. The hemp crop is then completely burned in the field. Although a waste, at least Japan’s acclimatized strains aren’t extinct, as has happened in many other countries.
The feds’ private stash
The federal government also continues to maintain its own private stash of cannabis seed and plants for posterity and experimentation.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Medicinal Plant Garden has maintained a seed stock and bred varieties of “asa” for research since 1946, when cannabis hemp was in short supply due to the war. Given the Japanese knack for detail and research, their large, secure complex in suburban Tokyo is likely a valuable cache of information and genetics.
While the original intent of the compound seems to have been to advance the medicinal use of cannabis, this motive has been lost under a cloud of paranoia, even though the use of seeds for health and medicine is common information.
The director, Torao Shimizu, maintains that the plants are just to teach people what cannabis looks like, so they can destroy it should it be found growing in their area.
International Cannabis Culture
In these rural areas, cannabis culture grooves on with an international twist. It is wonderful to pass a bong around in a foreign land, knowing that you are among folks with the same understanding of the plant as you. This is especially true in Japan, which is so often seen as a crowded, neon, worker hive. It feels great to meet people living a life like yours in so many ways: same tunes, same thoughts, same ganja.
One friend told me about Bob Marley’s visit to Japan about two years before he died. Bob’s entourage hadn’t brought any weed with them to Japan, so Bob was excited to meet this friend who was able to provide Bob with buds from his apartment closet grow system. Bob stayed at his apartment for a couple of days and gave him a percussive gourd as a gift.
Japanese strains of hemp
According to a 1912 US Department of Agriculture comparison study, Japanese strains of hemp were taller and bigger than European and Chinese strains.
“…Japanese Hemp is beginning to be cultivated, particularly in California, where it reaches a height of 15 feet. Russian and Italian seed have been experimented with, but the former produces a short stalk, while the latter only grows to a medium height.”
The USDA continued experimenting with Japanese strains with remarkable success. A strain from Tochigi-prefecture grown in Virginia even broke the USDA height record.
Since definitive research on Japan’s crop volume was destroyed in WW2 fire storms it is difficult to arrive at a clear estimate of how well these strains grew in their native soils.
Japanese Pot Cops
Japanese police still work hard at catching pot people, especially importers. Police literature quotes from a book called “What is Marijuana”:
“Marijuana abuse causes disorder of time concepts, confusing past, present and future. Addicts sometimes see what can not be seen, or sometimes see themselves as beautiful ladies, birds or animals. Sometimes they fall into a state of lethargy.”
Japan’s anti-pot establishment also targets famous people to publicly defame. In 1995, one of Japan’s most popular rock singers, Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, was caught with under 2 grams of grass. He was jailed, fined millions, had his concerts canceled and had to publicly apologize.
Remember that the Japanese jailed Paul McCartney for two ounces in the early seventies, and it was only with great diplomatic pressure that he was released.
Japanese have also been at the other end of the rope, as the Phillipines hanged a Japanese convicted of smuggling several ounces of pot in the early 1990’s.
In Japan’s beautiful and bewildering language, cannabis is expressed by an ideogram character, adapted from Chinese, and pronounced “asa”. This character is read “ma” in Chinese and represents two plants hanging upside down from the rafters of a drying shed. Note that only marijuana plants would be hung to dry in thus fashion, as cannabis grown for fibre is field-retted after harvest.
Since the decline of cannabis cultivation, “asa” has become a sort-of catch-all term for replacement crops such as jute, sisal, flax linen, as well as cannabis, making it a bit confusing. However in any dictionary or other languge resource, it is unmistakable that the asa character means cannabis.
A character which refers to cannabis more specifically is “taima”. “Tai” (or “Dai”) means “tall” or “big”, while “ma” is the original Chinese reading of the “asa” character. This is the “official” word for the plant used in the law that prohibits its cultivation.
There is an amazing piece of linguistic proof that the ancient japanese were very aware of cannabis’ enlightening uses. The japanese character for “to rub” consists of “cannabis” and “hand”. Of course, you rub cannabis only to get hashish.
Cannabis culture also lives on through family names such as Asada or Asahara (hemp field) and given names like Asako (little hemp child) or Mamiko (hemp flower).
Other Cannabis Culture terms used in Japan
marifana ? Common slang adaptation of the Mexican/American word for cannabis.
choko ? A modern Japanese slang for weed. Similar to ganja, which is also used.
kusa ? “Grass” as in “You got any grass?”
dozo ? This is the way to say “here, take this” as you pass the joint.
happa ? “Leaf” A common term used the same way as “weed”.
maku ? The verb “to roll.” Try “happu o maku” for “roll up some weed.”
happachu / happaboke ? “Weed junkie”, used a bit lightheartedly sometimes, as the suffix also refers to harder drugs.
Social Stigma & Good Bud
To be caught smoking weed in Japan is a very big deal. Their justice system is efficient and precise at measuring out your sentence, no matter how much influence you may have in another country. There are many foreigners languishing in Japanese jails who were caught bringing in a stash to get them by while they were living and working in Japan.
It is a social stigma to be caught and many Japanese parents fret that if their child goes overseas to visit or study they will become either pregnant or start smoking pot and then not be a proper worker/citizen. Marijuana is considered by many to be as bad as any other drug, and smokers are referred to as “happachuu” (leaf addict) the same as a junkie.
For several years, Japan has had a working holiday visa arrangement with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, so it has given many young Japanese a chance to explore the world and try many new things, and then take their new foreign habits back home to share with their friends. To many young Japanese who feel stifled by the rigors of their society, Vancouver is known for snowboarding, good music and good bud.
Emerging from the Shadows
With total dependence on foreign oil, crowded cities, toxic-patches of oceans, hazardous nuclear reactors, aging population, exessive golf courses and little farmland, Japan will quickly have to look for new options to carry itself into the next generation.
Japan is starting to realize this and has begun to take steps towards meaningful alternatives such as recycling and reducing consumption, especially with wood products.
With Japan’s traditional skill at arts of the land and soul, combined with their modern prowess in manufacturing and mass-marketing, it will be exciting to see what impact the resurgence of the cannabis plant will have upon the nation’s economy and culture.
As Japan realizes its role as a global leader, Shinto’s sacred herb can help reconnect them with their past, and guide them towards a clean and sustainable future.
Woodcuts of Hemp (asa) from Nômin Seikatsushi Jiten (Historic Encyclopedia of Farmer’s Lives)
“Hemp: for thread, rope, nets, sails and clothes.”
Hemp has been farmed in Japan since the prehistoric Jomon era. Many old prints bear witness of its significance to traditional Japanese culture.
The Nômin Seikatsushi Jiten (Historic Encyclopedia of Farmer’s Lives) where these old prints here were found had the following to say about hemp and its applications:
“Asa (hemp) is a fibre plant that has been used since old times and used to be called kingusa [lit.: clothes herb]. Before cotton it was the main source of material for clothes for people. Already in the Middle Ages it was a commercial product. The Hokuriku [Northwestern] area was the major growing area. In modern days it was gradually overtaken by cotton, but since its fibre was very strong it continued to be used for nets, ropes, tatami (straw floor mats), kaya (mosquito nets) and summer clothes. Major growing areas were Yamato (around Nara), Omi [around Osaka] and Echigo [around Niigata].”
The process described in the following prints is far more sophisticated than the dew or water retting processes commonly employed in Europe or the U.S. at the time and should have produced an almost colourless fibre of very high quality.
- “Ventilating: Entering hemp field to admit air.”
This is an unusual picture and a puzzling explanation: Hemp fields are not normally ventilated as suggested in this print. It could be that Japan’s humid climate that easily causes mold could be behind this procedure. The only other reason people walked into hemp fields other than to extract male plants that matured before female plants (and no harvesting is shown here yet) is to collect resin from the plant tops and leaves for hashish, but that would suggest cultivars that are rich in psychoactive cannabinoids.