Cannabis Activism in Japan—Yes, that’s a Thing

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Japan’s reputation as having some of the harshest marijuana laws in the developed world is well deserved. Less than a gram of pot can get you five years with hard labor. But it is important to understand that the Japanese don’t single out cannabis as being particularly loathsome. In fact, it has an important place at the heart of Japanese culture. So where does this animosity toward smokers come from? And what can be done about it?

The History of Hemp in Japan

To begin to answer these questions, it is perhaps best to look at the history of cannabis use in Japan, and the history of American influence in Japan’s government.

The Jōmon period of Japan’s earliest prehistory began about 16,000 years ago and gets its name from the patterns found in pottery from this time. The name means “cord-marked” and comes from the practice of pressing rope into wet clay as decoration. And yes, that rope was made from hemp.

Author and curator of the Taima-Hakubutsukan (Marijuana Museum), Junichi Takayasu, points out that in addition to being an important food source, the plant was used for cloth, paper, fishing line and the many other benefits its strong and straight fibers are renowned for. His own personal connection to the plant came from learning how ninja used it as a training tool. Jumping over the plant as part of a young warrior’s daily training regime would ensure the apprentices were being pushed to do their best, as the plant’s rapid growth forced them to jump higher and higher each day.

In order to spread the word about Japan’s history with hemp, Takayasu has published several books about cannabis. His most recent was crowd-funded, raising over 260 percent of his goal.

His new book is dedicated to the plant’s industrial uses, but the medicinal properties of cannabis have also been widely recognized as an integral part of traditional Asian medicine for as long as these arts have been practiced. As a result, Japan’s landrace strains have a THC content averaging around four percent—more than enough to be psychoactive and indicating a long history of cultivation for potency.

In fact, Japan’s relationship with cannabis is so deep the native Japanese religion, Shinto, requires it for the ceremonial ropes and paper seen at shrines throughout Japan. However, with the shortage of quality hemp, many local shrines are forced to use cotton or plastic rope and store-bought paper instead.

The War on Weed

So if Japan has such an intrinsic relationship with cannabis, why is it illegal, and why are the punishments so severe? The blame for Japan’s weed prohibition can be placed squarely, as is so often the case, on the shoulders of the American government. You see, no Japanese person ever voted or decided to make pot illegal. It was the occupying U.S. government that did that.

In 1948, while Gen. MacArthur was the head of the U.S. Occupation Forces in Japan, he forced prohibition onto the populace through the Cannabis Control Act. Before that, it was grown just about everywhere and was used by just about everyone. It was rarely smoked, but it was an important part of industry and commerce—which, some experts say, is exactly why it was targeted.

By denying the Japanese access to a cheap, renewable resource with so many uses, the U.S. military could crush Japan’s capability to make war. It is telling that no laws regarding cocaine or amphetamines were forced on the Japanese under this act. And now, Japan is the only country in the world where meth use tops weed use among illicit substances.

In the beginning, the Japanese did not take kindly to this strong arm tactic and fought hard against it, forcing the U.S. government to license some growers and allow hemp farming by those who had traditionally raised the plant as their main cash crop. Other small scale farms were shut down, and from that point on, the majority of hemp used in manufacturing and Shinto rites has been imported from China.

A Convenient Lie

The Japanese people, and the government, collectively forgot their own heritage due to the suppression campaign, and the issue was largely ignored for decades. But in the 1960s, the government found out just how much power prohibition had actually given them.

During the war, U.S. bombings in Vietnam and Cambodia raised public concerns and anti-war sentiments among the youth and academics in Japan’s universities. By using pot-busts as a weapon, the Japanese government had found the perfect way to silence the open minded, who had brought back a love of cannabis from the counter-cultures of the West and from India’s enlightened traditions. By branding the opposition criminals and drug users, the right-wing political elites were able to continue consolidating power, and the marijuana activist movement in Japan has been effectively powerless ever since. 

In Japan the Law is the Law

In Japan, the idea that weed itself is somehow an evil takes a backseat when meting out punishment. The fact that a law was broken is all that matters. In the West, civil disobedience campaigns propagated by outlaw growers and those willing to take the risk have allowed people to light up, share a toke and spread the word since the very beginning of the unconscionable War on Drugs. But in Japan, this was never really an option. Because in Japanese courts, the rule of law, and obedience to those above you, is put before all other considerations, including whether or not you have actually done anything morally wrong. The result has been an iron fisted approach to sentencing and a tyrannical invasion of privacy for anyone even suspected of supplying weed.

So what do the Japanese people think about the plant itself? The answer is simple: They don’t.

The vast majority of Japanese know next to nothing about the true nature of cannabis. They are taught it is an illegal drug while they are in school and very little else. Most do not even realize the hemp they use in their national religion is cannabis, nor that it must be imported because of the U.S. government’s global eradication campaign.

National Identity is a Dangerous Tool

Looking at this situation, it is easy to see how the Japanese far-right ended up on the same side of the fence as the left concerning hemp. But Nao Yamamoto, a professor of civics at Kyoto’s Bukkyo University, points out that this is a complicated relationship

“The nationalists want to bring back pre-war traditions, in this way they are similar to the West’s Evangelical Christians,” Yamamoto explained to HIGH TIMES. “While cannabis traditions are an obvious part of that pre-war culture, and therefore an important part of their platform, they also want to suppress ethnic, economic and sexual minorities. These positions make it hard for progressives to support their efforts, even while agreeing with their stance on cannabis.” 

Informing the Populace

Education is key to breaking through the wall of oppression—which is why the powers that be are doing everything they can to suppress information regarding the true role of cannabis as a powerful force for positive change. There are no documentaries and very little literature about pot in Japanese. The mainstream news outlets refuse to cover it, and even the wave of legalization going on around the world may as well not be happening, as far as Japanese media coverage goes. But Japan does not exist in a vacuum, and activists in the U.S. now have the perfect chance to help. Some American activists even feel it is their obligation, since the government that made it illegal here in the first place was America’s, not Japan’s.

Yamamoto says, “American and international activists can definitely help. Through sponsoring music events, youth groups and by funding articles and documentaries about cannabis aimed at the Japanese, real change can finally be pushed forward.”

And efforts to revitalize Japan’s reform movement are more possible now than ever before, thanks to the internet and the new-media revolution.

The pro-legalization group Cannabist-Kansai was founded in 1999 as an activist network focused on educating and informing the Japanese people. They sponsor events throughout the year, and organize an annual Marijuana March in Osaka.

In addition, Cannabist-Kansai collaborates with several other organizations, such as the Taima Houdou Center (Cannabis Press Center), the Japan Hemp Association and the Japan Medical Marijuana Association. According to Yamamoto, “The activities of the industrial, medical and pro-legalization groups overlap, and almost all the people working on reform are acquainted with each other. I think that the core group is only about several dozen people.”

While this seems like an incredibly small number, it is important to remember that many more contribute to crowd-funding campaigns, take part in marches and attend seminars on cannabis, but the government’s paranoia-inducing tactics make it hard for those who want to stand up. The movement in Japan is still struggling against this oppression, but the interest is there.

Medical Marijuana in Japan

Japan has a rapidly aging population, and all the public health issues that accompany this kind of demographic shift are exacerbated by its declining birthrate. There may be no other country on earth that needs a robust medical cannabis system as much as Japan. Currently, a record number of people in Japan are refusing treatment for cancer due to the complications that arise from chemotherapy. In other words, people are choosing to die instead of going through suffering that could easily be alleviated by weed.

This situation was challenged last year by a 58-year-old man with terminal liver cancer. Masamitsu Yamamoto, who never had any other legal troubles, was arrested with 200 grams of pot. He used cannabis as a last resort when all other treatments failed

“I want to be saved, that’s all,” he said. “I’ve tried everything else that modern medicine offers.”

According to Yamamoto, his outlook and condition improved remarkably when he began using cannabis, saying the levels of tumor markers in his blood fell by 95 percent. He also pointed out that he grew his own and never sold or distributed it, so who was his arrest supposed to protect? Yamamoto fought the charge and was forcing the government to address prohibition as the public health nightmare it is. Unfortunately, Yamamoto’s condition deteriorated drastically after his arrest, and he passed away before his trial ended—leaving the question of whether or not the sick deserve medicine for the courts to ignore.

But while his efforts have not yet borne fruit, he did plant seeds.

Hideo Nagayoshi is a medical marijuana activist and author of many books such as An Introduction to Cannabis and An Introduction to Medical Marijuana (both in Japanese). He worked with Yamamoto as a member of the Japan Medical Marijuana Association and is trying to change attitudes about the role of cannabis in traditional and western medicine.

“I was at the trial, and it was clear the prosecution was trapped. It is terrible the courts were able to close the case due to Mr. Yamamoto’s passing. However, he was able to put forth the necessity of medical marijuana to the populace,” he said. “I will continue to spread this message as far as possible.”

Nagayoshi feels that people who are in the same position as Yamamoto should press legislators for immediate reform.

“This is what our group was founded to undertake,” he continued. “It is also important for patients in the early stages of cancer to go to the U.S. and undergo treatment with medical marijuana. To this end, it is necessary for patients, their families and caregivers to know the truth about this plant.”

Currently, patients in Japan have no option but to suffer or face arrest.

The Steps We Need to Take

Ending the disastrous global war on weed will take an equally global response.

We need to stand with our brothers and sisters fighting for their rights, regardless of whether or not they speak the same language, live on the same continent or follow the same set of beliefs. The activists in Japan constantly face arrest, harassment and abuse by government officials determined to stop the truth about cannabis from getting out. But if there is anything America’s continually successful legalization efforts have taught us, it is that in the end, the truth will win.

Please contact Professor Nao Yamamoto for more information or details on how you can help at

You can keep up with all of HIGH TIMES’ marijuana news right here.

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