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Cannabis in Japan
published in the July 1999 issue of New Observer, Tokyo

On January 16, 1980 Japanese customs officers at Haneda airport asked Paul McCartney to open his luggage. They found 219 g of dried cannabis (marijuana) that the ex-Beatle had brought from the USA for his personal use on a Japan tour of the "Wings". McCartney was arrested and handcuffed and spent 9 days being interrogated before he was released only after an intervention by US senator Edward Kennedy and immediately deported. [1]

18 years later the Canadian snowboarding olympic gold medal winner Ross Rebagliati was picked up by Japanese police in Nagano, his room was searched and he was questioned for several hours, all because a urine test indicated evidence of cannabis use several weeks earlier. [2]

These two events still largely dominate the image that Japanese drug policy enjoys abroad. One could be forgiven for believing that Japan was stuck in a pre-1960s time warp where there are no drugs (other than those brought in by those lawless foreigners...).

From the "Way of the Gods" to "Reefer Madness"

The truth is that, far from being a modern, foreign import, cannabis has been here all along. Cannabis plants have been cultivated on the Japanese archipelago since the neolithic Yayoi culture (10,000-300 BCE). Later, when rice farming arrived from China and Korea, cannabis hemp was still the primary fibre plant providing clothes, ropes, Japanese paper (washi), oil and medicine. The indigenous Shinto ("Way of the Gods") religion, whose supreme deity is sun goddess Amaterasu, considers hemp indispensable for ritual cleansing and for purity, a central concept of this religion. In many Shinto ceremonies (e.g. Shichigosan) a priest will use a "gohei", a stick with unprocessed hemp fibres at one end, to ward off evil. "Noren" hemp curtains found at the entrance of many restaurants serve the same purpose. Hemp seeds are used in Shinto weddings. Certain Shinto rituals did or still do involve the burning of cannabis leaves:

"To ward off ills caused by demons, especially the demons of disease, the ancient Japanese sought the protection of a particular group of gods, the Sahe no Kami, or "preventive deities"... (...) Standing as they did on the roadside and at cross-roads, these gods became the protectors of the wayfarers; travelers prayed to them before setting out on a journey and made a little offering of hemp leaves and rice to each one they passed."

"From the 13th to the 15th of July an All-Souls feast is kept, at which time it is believed that the souls are permitted to return to their kindred and be entertained by them. (...) On the first evening fires of hemp leaves are lighted before the entrance of the house, and incense strewed on the coals, as an invitation to the spirits." [3]

One of the main rituals in Ise Jingu, the family shrine of the Japanese emperors that is dedicated to sun goddess Amaterasu, is still called "taima", the Japanese term for cannabis or marijuana, for Amaterasu is the goddess of both rice and cannabis. When emperor Akihito ascended to the throne in 1989, he ceremonially planted both rice and cannabis, as had dozens of Japanese emperors before him.

While there is no doubt that the bulk of the cannabis grown in the "empire of the sun goddess" was for fibre production, the religious connections give us more than a hint that not all cannabis grown in medieval Japan was of the low-THC, industrial hemp-type variety that even today is legal to grow in Canada, Britain, Germany, France and Japan itself. Indeed, every autumn there are reports of people arrested in Hokkaido, who got caught harvesting the uncultivated offspring of hemp plants last raised there commercially during World War II, and the potency of that weedy cannabis, according to people who have sampled it, is "quite good".

As recently as 1965 farmers not far from Nagano used to cultivate "mountain hemp", which was famous for its fibre quality. In Miasa ("beautiful hemp") Village, only 20 km from the Olympic slopes, a hemp museum reminds tourists of the rich hemp heritage of the region. Mr Nakamura, the former village headman and founder of the museum regrets that today he is unable to show to visitors the plant that had been growing there for some 2000 years. While a low-THC variety from Tochigi is legal to grow with a special industrial hemp license, the noble "mountain hemp" is considered "mayaku" (literally "hemp drug", the Japanese term for all illicit drugs), and it may only be grown with a special research license usually only awarded to scientists doing medical research.

The Japanese police does take cannabis offences very seriously. Education material published by the police makes extreme claims about marijuana that were discredited in the west at least 30 years ago:

"Habitual users of cannabis suffer from illusion or hallucinations.

Sometimes they become over-excited, and lose control to the point of violence or provocation. (...) Marijuana abuse causes disorder of time concept, confusing past, present and future. Addicts see what can not be seen or be convinced that a happening of a few minutes duration has been going on for several years. (internal omission)

They, sometimes, see themselves as beautiful ladies, birds or animals. This kind of aberration deteriorates their judgment and confuses their thinking. (...) Their health deteriorates." [4]

How did this amazing change happen, from the herb of the gods to the "devil's weed"? The decisive event probably was the dropping of two atomic bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused emperor Hirohito to unconditionally surrender to the USA. Within weeks American troops under General McArthur had occupied the entire country and ruled the country supreme. It came as a surprise to McArthur to see fields full of hemp, the same weed banned in 1937 in the USA at the request of Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger who claimed its use caused violent crime and insanity. What if occupation troops were to smoke it? In 1948 the Allied occupation government passed the Cannabis Control Act, imposing severe penalties for unlicensed possession or cultivation of cannabis. Japan formally regained its sovereignty after the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty but McArthurís Cannabis Control Act is still in force today.

When McArthur left, at first nobody really took much notice of this law, the need for which had escaped most Japanese at the time of its passage. After alcohol and nicotine the major substance of abuse in Japan was and still is methamphetamine, also known as "shabu" or "speed", a powerful synthetic stimulant drug with effects similar to cocaine. During the war it was dispensed liberally by the government to keep factory workers and bomber pilots working in overdrive. When its use escalated in peace time it was made illegal in 1952, earning huge profits for the yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) who have been supplying the black market ever since. The reason "speed" had not been banned by McArthur was that it wasn't made illegal in the US until 1954.

By contrast to over 50,000 annual arrests for "shabu" in the 1950s the cannabis law was not taken seriously until during the Vietnam war the police found some hippies in a commune near Nagano growing cannabis plants without the required license. This is how almost 20 years after the Cannabis Control Law had been passed the first person was arrested for it. Since then the authorities have been going after cannabis users, even for less than 1g, even if they are musical geniuses or world champions. Furthermore, Japan will deny entry to any foreigner with a drug violation on his record.

History of Japanese drug prohibition

The hard line against marijuana users is strongly supported by the Japanese public, yet at the same time few people really understand the differences between cannabis and other illegal substances. Government officials questioned on the subject will sometimes mention the Opium War in China as the motivation for the strict anti-drug attitude, and indeed opium was first banned in Japan in 1846, shortly after China's defeat by Britain. Few people seem to be aware however that the first drug ever prohibited in Japan was not opium but tobacco, which was made illegal as early as 1603. The ban had to be revoked in 1639 because it had proven to be unenforceable and tobacco smoking became more and more widespread. Today about one third of Japanese smoke it and most of the 50,460 Japanese who died from lung cancer last year (up 40% from 1989) and many more who died from cardiovascular diseases were killed by cigarettes. Tobacco is illegal to sell to minors, yet it is available to anyone of any age from millions of public vending machines all over the country. By contrast, not a single death from marijuana has been documented in 5000 years of human use, yet possession of a single plant or joint is considered reason enough to lock someone up with violent criminals for years.

Since both cannabis and "speed" are highly illegal but the latter is 30 times more profitable per gram, the crime syndicates sell mostly "speed". Its chronic abuse can cause a type of psychosis similar to paranoid schizophrenia and it is often associated with violent behaviour and severe health problems. Despite the "drug-free" image that Japan likes to project, the over 2 million speed users estimated by the National Police Agency roughly match the percentage of Americans using cocaine, crack or speed. [5] Also, many Japanese youths inhale solvents such as paint thinner or glue because they are more cheaply and readily available than cannabis. "Shinna" is actually one of the most harmful drugs of abuse, leading to serious brain and other organ damage

Black markets and arrests

The use of cannabis as a drug is still quite taboo and even hemp activists tend to make little mention of it. There isnít much pressure in Japan for Dutch-style decriminalisation, partly because arrest figures are much smaller than in the west. While in 1997 some 695,200 people were arrested for marijuana in the USA, Japan with about half the population of the US only averaged 1,500-2,000 marijuana arrests per year over the last couple of years, almost half of those in Tokyo alone.

These figures reflect not only a prevalence of hard drugs such as amphetamines and toxic solvents, they are also indicative of a high incentive not to get caught. Japanese prisons are infamous for their tough conditions, and are regarded by some as a holdover from the days of the military dictatorship of the 1940s. Japan has yet to sign the UN convention against torture. The maximum penalty for cannabis is 5 years for simple possession and 7 years for cultivation or smuggling.

Many of the arrested are reported to the police by concerned family members. Others are couriers from Southeast Asia or people who mail themselves drugs from abroad caught by customs. Most smugglers caught do go to prison for several years. Some foreigners from Asia or Africa who have overstayed their visas finance their stay selling hashish or marijuana. There has been some evidence of large scale smuggling involving hundreds of kg of cannabis but hardly any arrests on that scale. Black market prices appear to range between 2000-3000 yen per gram, about half of the price usually quoted by police in arrest reports.

Many Japanese pot smokers avoid the risky black market and its high prices by growing their own, starting from seeds obtained from Holland, Canada or Thailand. The Japanese climate is ideal for cannabis and Tokyo is on the same latitude as Afghanistan or Morocco. Most illicit cultivation takes place in rural areas, in people's gardens or in the mountains, though indoor cultivation under lamps is becoming more common in cities too. Little of this domestic marijuana is ever sold on the black market.

Growing hemp activism

Despite the strict marijuana prohibition, the legal cultivation of hemp has been allowed to continue, albeit at a very small scale. While no new hemp licenses had been issued to prospective growers by prefectural governments for many years, there have been some recent developments. When emperor Hirohito died in January 1989 his son was supposed to be crowned and since the emperor is the highest priest of Shinto, special hemp garments were needed for a ceremony last performed in 1926. It was then that farmers from Shikoku offered a gift of illegally cultivated hemp to the new emperor and they were rewarded with a hemp license for the following year. Around Nagano there's still limited cultivation of hemp for bell ropes, priests' garments and hemp paper for Shinto shrines.

In 1997 hemp shop owner Yasunao Nakayama from Shizuoka received a much coveted license and reaped his first harvest later that year. He won the license with the help of lawyer Hidehiro Marui, [6] who leads a small activist group called "Asa no Kai" ("Hemp Club"). Mr Marui himself was awarded a research license for cannabis. Many environmental activists embrace the plant for its ecological potential and would like to obtain licenses to grow trial crops. Various regional hemp festivals attract tourists and try to educate the public. The successes of the medical marijuana movement in several US states and recent reports by both the British House of Lords and the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) have re-awakened interest in the medical use of this herb. Cannabis was commonly prescribed for various ailments in Japan until the 1948 law made it unavailable.

There are many hemp shops all over the country, some of which also function as head shops selling pipes and water pipes. Most customers are Japanese, naturally. One of these shops is "Taimado" in Tokyo, which sells not only hemp clothes but also smoking accessories, books and other marijuana literature. Owner Koichi Maeda estimates that more than 2 million Japanese may have smoked cannabis at one time, many while staying abroad in Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand. Last year Maeda opened a restaurant called "Asa" (Japanese: hemp, linen) which doubles up as a meeting place for the young hemp movement. Not only are hemp seeds used in the food served there, even the furniture is made from fibre board manufactured from legally grown Japanese hemp, demonstrating its unmatched versatility.

Activists such as Mr Maeda and Mr Marui are using the Internet to spread Japanese language information about cannabis, to counter the prejudice and ignorance facing cannabis in Japan after half a century of prohibition. The task they have set themselves is not an easy one, in a society with confucianist values that treats all illicit drugs as highly taboo while it virtually ignores the arguably greater harm from legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

Today, Japan is in the middle of its third amphetamine wave since the war, with almost half as many people arrested for speed every year as there are people in prison in the whole country. This year about as much "speed" was confiscated by June 16 as in all of 1987 and 1996 taken together, years which held the previous confiscation records, yet prices have not gone up. Though there has not been any official shift in policy yet, there are some signs that authorities are starting to recognize that the current policy is not working very well and that not all illicit drugs are the same.

The free availability of almost forgotten knowledge about cannabis in Japan to anyone with an Internet connection will certainly accelerate this trend, even though it will probably take a long time until cannabis will be formally decriminalised in this country.


[1] High Times, July 1980

[2] Cannabis Culture, August 1998

[3] "Religions Of Japan" by George Foot Moore (1913)

[4] Website of Shizuoka police

[5] About 2.18 million amphetamine users (National Police Agency); about 4 million cocaine and amphetamine users (National Institute on Drug Abuse surveys)


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