A love-hate relationship: the story of hemp and cannabis in Japan.

It can be no understatement to say that 21st century Japan currently has something of a troubled relationship with the cannabis plant. 

An article published in June of this year noted the ongoing police crackdown on recreational cannabis use – even as the country approved trials of a CBD-derived oral solution for treating epilepsy. Notoriously, several high-profile figures have been arrested for the possession of marijuana, such a Junnosuke Taguchi and his partner, actress Rena Komie, and, in general, marijuana-related drug cases have increased, with 2018 seeing an increase of cases of 570 compared to the previous year. 

However, when it comes to hemp, a specific strain of the Cannabis plant which is grown for industrial uses, Japan has a long legacy of production and usage, dating all the way back to the Neolithic, as explained by Dave Olson, writing for the International Hemp Association. 

In fact, the historic record reveals that even cannabis itself has not always been viewed with such suspicion as it is in modern times, once occupying a key position in Japanese culture. 

A plant of many uses

In the Jomon period, hemp – thought to be imported from China – was used to weave baskets and clothing, and became such an ingrained part of the local culture that it even appears in cave paintings and grew to be revered as a symbol of purity and fertility. The plant was even incorporated into religious ceremonies by Shinto priests, and came to be used by Japanese physicians to treat a variety of ailments, including constipation, poisonous bites and asthma. 

Cannabis itself was also once held in high esteem by none other than the Samurai, Japan’s notorious warrior class. Warlords, known as daimyo, actively encouraged their vassals to produce the plant. In addition, hemp was used to line Samurai helmets and create their sleeves and shoulder and thigh protectors, as explained by the Hash Museum, which is home to Japanese military equipment dating from the Edo Period. 

So important was the plant to the Japanese that cannabis even appears in ancient poetry and woodblock prints, and was burned during festivals as an offering to the dead, or left at roadside shrines in order to ensure a safe journey.  

However, centuries of reliance on – and reverence for – both cannabis and its derivative, hemp, came to an end following the end of the Second World War, as U.S. authorities instituted a cannabis ban, both in their own country and in Japan. Simultaneously, Western businesses rushed to set down roots in the East, introducing a welter of synthetic products to Japan, thereby eradicating the market for hemp on an industrial level. 

A few years later, the Hemp Control Act was implemented in 1967, triggering a “hemp liberation movement” which rumbled on for years, fighting against the ban. However, with the dawn of the 1990’s, attitudes toward the plant began to undergo a shift, with a number of Japanese universities undergoing tests and cultivation of low-THC hemp and its various useful applications. Hemp was making a comeback, albeit on a much lesser scale and with far less prominence than it once had in the country. 

Cannabis in Japan: could reform be coming?

When it comes to cannabis, however, the waters still remain somewhat murky. On the one hand, recreational marijuana use in Japan is punishable by five years in jail and a hefty fine of the equivalent of US$17,000. However, with other Asian nations – most notably, South Korea and Thailand – opting to legalise medical cannabis, in recent months Japan has also been making its own investigations into the healthcare applications of the plant. 

The seeds of change were first planted 3 years ago, in 2016, when the New Renaissance Party expressed a desire to legalise cannabis so that it could be used for medical purposes. In the same year, the inaugural Kyoto Hemp Forum was held, where “a great range of advocates” discussed various issues, including sustainability and the requirement for the hemp ban to be lifted. Meanwhile, cancer sufferer Masamitsu Yamamoto was also campaigning for medical cannabis to be made legal in the country; he was using the drug to alleviate the symptoms of advanced liver cancer, and had experienced a marked improvement in his condition as a result.

Cannabis also has a firm supporter in the form of Junichi Takayasu, cited as a leading expert on cannabis in the country, as well as the founder of Taima Hakubutsukan, a museum dedicated to the plant. Speaking to the Japan Times in 2014, Takayasu stated, “Cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture for thousands of years.”

Determined to maintain this cannabis culture, Takayasu organises yearly tours to the few legal cannabis farms still operating in the country, as well as hosting workshops on the art of weaving using cannabis fibres. 

A significant step

Despite the decades of negativity and strict policing of cannabis and hemp, this year, Japan made headlines with its approval of drug trials of Epidiolex – a marked exemption to the nation’s Cannabis Control Act. 

This CBD-derived oral solution has been designed for the treatment of epileptic patients, and, if approved, could have a positive impact on legislation regarding the use of medical cannabis – not just in Japan, but across the region. 

Though it is still too early to say for certain, Japan’s relationship with hemp and, more controversially, cannabis, seems to be undergoing a resurrection of sorts, however tentative. 

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