By Mary Veksler
Japan has some of the strictest anti-cannabis policies in the world. Possessing even a small amount of marijuana warrants a five-year prison sentence, and unapproved growing earns cultivators seven years in jail. In Japan, marijuana seems like a part of subculture, but it has been part of the fabric of the country for centuries.
As a toddler, Junichi Takayasu read a picture book that revealed how ninjas used a special plant to train and hone their impressive skill set by jumping the rapidly growing plant every day. Takayasu says:
“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.”
Four decades later, Takayasu is now the curator of Taima Hakubutsukan, Japan’s only marijuana museum. He’s dedicated his life to teaching people about the country’s rich history of using and growing cannabis.
The use of cannabis in Japan dates to the Jomon Period, around 10,000 to 200 B.C.E. Pottery pieces have been found to contain seeds and woven cannabis fibers. While there is little evidence, other than scriptures, to indicate that past generations consumed cannabis, there is plenty of documentation that plant fibers were utilized to make clothing, bow strings and fishing lines. In this distant past, it is likely growers, potters and weavers favored cannabis sativa, which is a particularly tall and sturdy strain. Modern industrial hemp is derived from this strain. Sativa is known for its strong stems that lend themselves to the creation of durable fabrics.
Following the Jomon Period, cannabis played a key role in Shintoism, a religion indigenous to Japan. The plant was thought to have cleansing abilities, and was a key element in exorcising evil spirits and blessing believers. Additionally, travelers would leave cannabis offerings at roadside shrines to ensure safe travels. During the Bon festival, families would burn marijuana bundles to welcome the spirits of the dead. Today, ceremonial ropes made from cannabis fibers are displayed at shrines, and priests decorate their wands with the golden rind of the plant’s stems.
Until the mid 1900s, marijuana was grown all over the country and was frequently documented in literature. Farming the plant involved a year-long cycle where seeds were planted during spring and the flowers were harvested in the summer. Afterwards, the stalks and stems were turned into fiber. Many locals spent the winter weaving cloth that would be ready for use in the next planting season. The fabric created was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It fit perfectly into Japan’s climate.
While there is little evidence that Japanese people consumed cannabis for its psychoactive qualities, scientific studies suggest older plant generations had high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive cannabinoid credited for producing the feeling of being high. Regardless, the country’s locals were not averse to exploiting the medical benefits of cannabis. The plant was often the basis for insomnia and pain relief treatments.
After World War II, US occupation led to the adoption of American attitudes toward marijuana. As a result, the Cannabis Control Act was passed in 1948, and it is still the root of anti-cannabis policy in Japan. Farmers can apply for a license to grow cannabis in Japan, but they are limited to growing strains with a low THC content.
Takayasu has made it his mission to preserve the cannabis culture in Japan. He says:
“Japanese people have a negative view of cannabis but I want them to understand the truth and I want to protect its history.”