Over the years and across the United State, attitudes and regulations regarding cannabis have been in what seems like an almost constant state of flux. Cannabis has gone from what many considered an illicit and harmful “drug” to a regulated, recreational substance in some states - with many more having implemented some type of medical program, giving people legal access to the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The landscape of American cannabis continues to almost constantly grow and change, sometimes making it hard to keep up. For me, this manifests in forgetting that the whole rest of the world exists, and that there are cannabis consumers and advocates all over it. When this happens, I like to pick a place and see what they’re up to; what is the cannabis history there, and what does the current legal situation look like? Up first in my “Remembering Other Places Exist” mini-series: Japan.
Despite having some of the most harsh penalties for cannabis possession and a strong social stigma, Japan has a long history with cannabis.
Early Prehistory and History
Discovered by archaeologists in the west of Japan, some of the earliest traces of cannabis can be dated back to the Jomon period, which began around 14,500 BCE and ended around 300 BCE. To give you an idea of just how long ago that was, the Jomon period is the earliest historical era in Japan, and the thousands of pottery remains discovered from this period “are the oldest pottery to be dated in the world”. It’s believed that cannabis was introduced to Japan around 18,000 years ago via the land bridge that connected Japan to the Asian continent. In 10,000 BCE the Ice Age ended, the land bridge receded and the island that would become Japan was revealed. Used for clothing, nets, rope, fishing line and later paper, cannabis was also cultivated as a food source, and with a history of cultivation that dates back 6,000-7,000 and possibly as much as 10,000 years ago, cannabis is one of the longest cultivated plants in Japan. Cannabis cultivation continued through the Yayoi period, which followed the Jomon period and ended during the Iron Age.
In Shintoism, a religion indigenous to Japan, cannabis was often associated with purity and regarded to have cleansing abilities. Bundles of leaves would be used to perform cleansing rituals or to exorcize evil spirits and brides would wear veils made of cannabis as a symbol of purity. I’m assuming this means cloth made from cannabis, but honestly my sources were a little unclear. One did mention “tiaras” made from cannabis plants so I’m imagining a cannabis-Midsommar-flower-crown hybrid possibly combined with a hemp cloth veil, but it could also have been a full on plant veil, which both sound very cool in my opinion.
Although shamanism was central to the Jomon culture, it’s unclear whether Jomon period shamans were ingesting cannabis intentionally for psychoactive purposes. There is some “circumstantial evidence” to suggest that they may have been collecting cannabis resin, or hash, to ingest for communicating with ancestors or used in divination rituals.
As history marched on, cannabis became a valuable commodity crop and by 645 CE, had become a taxable good. There are references to cannabis in the Manyoshu, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, as well as in early haiku. During the control of the feudal daimyos the wealthy had taken to wearing mostly silk, while hemp was used to make clothing for the common people, leisure kimonos for samurai, as well as military and martial arts uniforms. As cotton became the more valuable crop during the Edo period (1603-1868), cannabis cultivation for hemp began to slow down and became fewer and farther between operations in the northern parts of the country.
Just like the much earlier periods of cannabis cultivation, it’s unclear whether Japanese people of the time were taking advantage of the psychoactive properties of cannabis intentionally. What there is, however, is speculation that the lower classes were possibly indulging in a cannabis induced altered state because they had access, while the upper classes had easier access to rice-derived sake.
During the Meiji period (~1868-1912) cotton would replace hemp as Japan’s primary fiber crop, although the poorer and more rural folks would continue to wear hemp cloth clothing, often mixing it with pieces of cotton cloth. Cannabis based treatments for insomnia or pain were available in early 20th century Japanese drug stores and American historian George Foot Moore noted that Japanese travelers would leave cannabis leaves at roadside shrines in hopes of ensuring safe travels.
During World War II, cannabis was a key crop for Japan just like it was for the US and Europe, used for making ropes and parachute cords. The government considered it a crucial war-time supply, and there were slogans that war could not be waged without it.
Learning cannabis history that goes all the way back to prehistory is one of my favorite things to do, and I would consider myself pretty well versed when it comes to American cannabis history. I think it’s also fair to say that it can make me a little mad sometimes, when some shitty people did some pretty terrible things. That being said, I went into this piece about Japan virtually blind. I was aware that there was a pretty persistent stigma against cannabis consumption there, but beyond that I would consider myself pretty ignorant about the history and current facts and legal status. Now imagine my surprise when lo and behold who should show up in the cannabis history of Japan but the good ol US of A.
Japan surrendered in September of 1945 and thus began their occupation by the Allies. With the American led occupation came the Reefer Madness attitudes towards cannabis and by 1948 Japan had passed the Cannabis Control Law. It was strongly implied that this attitude shift towards cannabis was intended to be an altruistic move, designed to protect the Japanese people from the dangers of NARCOTICS. Some historians have “speculated that American petrochemical interests may have sought to restrict the hemp fiber industry in order to open Japan to foreign-made polyester and nylon”. Keep in mind that the sale of amphetamines was legal until 1951.
Cannabis Control Act and Modern Uses
The Cannabis Control Act was originally passed in 1948 and bans import, export, cultivation, sale, purchase, and research of cannabis buds and leaves. It has been modified several times since it was passed after WWII, but each modification has made penalties harsher. Possession of cannabis can get you up to fives years in prison, and possession “for the purpose of trafficking” carries a maximum penalty of 7 year imprisonment and a 2 million yen fine, equivalent to about $18,000. Cultivation and importation for the purpose of trafficking can cost up to 10 years in prison and 3 million yen, or about $27,000. These penalties make Japan one of the strictest place for cannabis in the world - but there’s technically no law against getting stoned.
Naoko Miki, co-founder of an pro-legalization advocacy group called Green Zone Japan, told TIME magazine earlier this year that if you were to consume all of your cannabis and none is found in your possession, police won’t be able to make an arrest. A similar example Miki gave is that if a joint was being passed around at a party and the police showed up, denying that it’s yours or that you know who it belongs to is enough to dodge an arrest. Even though this loophole exists, it’s not enough to keep the police from arresting you for possessing the tiniest amount, with a 21 year-old student arrested for possessing 0.019 grams of cannabis earlier this year.
Although Japan has some of the most strict cannabis laws, similar trends of defiance have popped up as were prevalent in the States - and likely still are in some places. Synthetic cannabinoids, popularly known as “loophole drugs”, are being banned almost as quickly as they’re popping up, and it reminds me very much of the early 2000’s days of finding anything “legal” that could simulate a cannabis high. There seems to be a kind of revolving door of THC synthetics, with one being banned and another replacing it just as quickly.
What I find striking are the parallels between the growing momentum towards more lenient cannabis laws in Japan. Although there seems to be growing support among the people, it appears as though Japan may be headed toward a further crackdown, not just on synthetics but also perhaps closing the consumption loophole entirely.
In a log cabin in Tochigi Prefecture is Taima Hakubutsukan, or The Cannabis Museum, curated by Junichi Takayasu. The only museum of its kind in Japan, Takayasu displays 17th century woodblock prints of women turning cannabis fibers into cloth and a working loom for weaving hemp. Takayasu gives tours of his Tochgishiro - the legal variety of hemp grown in Japan for it’s low THC content - farm and hopes to educate people about Japan’s long history with cannabis. “People need to learn the truth about the history of cannabis in Japan,” said Takayasu in a 2014 interview. “The more we learn about the past, the more hints we might be able to get about how to live better in the future. Cannabis can offer Japan a beacon of hope.”