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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Can Cannabis Once Again Become Big in Japan?


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The Japanese have been growing and harvesting cannabis for centuries.

The Japanese have been growing and harvesting cannabis for centuries.

Japan takes a hardline stance against drugs, and the country’s anti-marijuana laws are among the world’s most stringent. Even being caught with a single joint can land you in prison for five years, while illegally growing pot can earn you a seven-year sentence. But historically, the plant played a major cultural role in Japan, where its cultivation was once a thriving industry. It wasn’t until the US military occupation after WWII that cannabis was banned; today, the country’s once-booming industry is in danger of extinction.

But not if Junichi Takayasu can help it. Takayasu is one of the country’s leading cannabis experts, and curates the country’s sole marijuana museum—Taima Hakubutsukan—near Tokyo. He has devoted himself to restoring the plant’s image by teaching people about its important, often-forgotten role in his country’s history. “Most Japanese people see cannabis as a subculture of Japan, but they’re wrong,” he says. “Cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture for thousands of years.”

Though the ancient Japanese didn’t necessarily smoke marijuana to get high (historians aren’t sure), they had many uses for the plant, which Takayasu describes as the ”most important substance for prehistoric people in Japan.” It dates back to the Jomon period (10,000-200 BC), when its fibers were used to make clothing, bow strings and fishing lines. It was later used for spiritual purposes as part of the Shinto religion—priests would wave bundles of its leaves to exorcise evil spirits.

Until the mid-20th Century, cannabis was cultivated nationwide and was a common theme in literature and haiku poetry. Some historians believe it might have been a drug-of-choice of the lower classes—a cheaper alternative to sake wine. In the early 20th century, medical cannabis was available in many Japanese drug stores as treatment for pain and insomnia. Japanese weed is thought to be especially potent: According to a 1973 survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Japanese cannabis plants had THC levels more than twice as high as US-grown weed.

Junichi Takayasu wants to save cannabis by celebrating its past.

Junichi Takayasu wants to save cannabis by celebrating its past.

The US passed the Cannabis Control Act in Japan in 1948, and this act remains the foundation of the country’s anti-marijuana laws today. Under the act, obtaining a license to farm cannabis became expensive, and cultivation has steadily declined ever since—with fewer than 60 licensed farms left today.

Now, Takayasu fears Japanese cannabis is in danger of being wiped out entirely. But he hopes that educating people about its past can turn things around: “Japanese people have a negative view of cannabis but I want them to understand the truth and I want to protect its history,” he says. “The more we learn about the past, the more hints we might be able to get about how to live better in the future.”