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The Ancient History of Cannabis in Japan

2 minute Read

The use of cannabis dates back millennia, with the first record of cannabis seeds having been eaten as food in China in 6000 B.C. Now, prehistoric cannabis seeds have also been discovered in Japan.

While Japan has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the world, an article recently published in The Japan Times reveals the country nevertheless has a longstanding history with the cannabis plant.

Junichi Takayasu was three years old when he became captivated by a picture book about ninjas. It wasn’t so much the ninjas themselves that caught his attention, but how they used a specific plant — cannabis. “The book showed how ninjas trained by jumping over cannabis plants,” he says. “Every day they had to leap higher and higher because cannabis grows very quickly. I was so amazed that I told my mom I wanted to grow cannabis when I was older.”

Given Japan’s marijuana policy, Takayasu’s mother was worried about his aspirations to grow weed. Even simple possession of cannabis can earn you a five-year jail sentence. Nonetheless, Takayasu grew up to be one of the country’s leading experts on weed. In 2001, he opened Taima Hakubutsukan, Japan’s only museum dedicated to cannabis and teaching people about the country’s history with the plant, which Takayasu says had been denigrated and forgotten for much too long.

“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.”

The first record of cannabis in Japan dates back to the Jomon Period, between 10,000 and 200 B.C., Takayasu says, when pottery artifacts found in Fukui Prefecture, just north of Kyoto, contained cannabis seeds and pieces of woven cannabis fibers. “Cannabis was the most important substance for prehistoric people in Japan,” he says. “They wore clothes made from its fibers and they used it for bowstrings and fishing lines.” The cannabis used in the Jomon Period artifacts seems to have been cannabis sativa, which grows tall and is valued for having strong stems, according to Takayasu.

Cannabis stayed relevant in Japan for centuries to come. The Shinto religion esteems the cannabis plant for its cleansing powers. Priests used it to weave together bundles of pot leaves in order to bless the faithful and curse evil spirits. Regular people also used cannabis as a small offering to leave a roadside shrines in hopes of going on a safe journey, according to historian George Foot Moore. Families also burned cannabis bundles to welcome back the spirits of dead ancestors.

“Cannabis farming used to be a year-round cycle,” says Takayasu. “The seeds were planted in spring then harvested in the summer. Following this, the stalks were dried, then soaked and turned into fiber. Throughout the winter, these were then woven into cloth and made into clothes ready to wear for the next planting season.”

Even during World War II, cannabis was used as a war material for making ropes and air force parachute chords. Only in 1945 did Japan undergo a legal shift in its cannabis policy, under the occupation of American authorities. While the U.S. had essentially outlawed cannabis in 1937, Japan followed suit in 1948 with the Cannabis Control Act.

“The wartime cannabis industry had been so dominated by the military that the Cannabis Control Act was designed to strip away its power,” says Takayasu. Now to this day, Japan has fewer than 60 licensed cannabis farms, which must grow strains containing minimal amounts of THC, the plant’s main psychoactive compound. Takayasu hopes, however, that the more the Japanese public learns about the plant, the more they may be able to integrate it back into daily life.

The Ancient History of Cannabis in Japan