Hempen culture in Japan

Cannabis has been an integral part of Japanese culture since the beginnings of its history. Cannabis is a sacred herb to the religion of Shinto, and was also used and praised by ancient Zen poets and Buddhist monks.
Cannabis culture was suppressed and banned by US occupying forces after World War II, and today most Japanese don’t realize that “marijuana” is the same plant as cannabis, which was once as much a part of Japanese culture as rice.

Yet now Japanese cannabis culture is making a comeback. Many Japanese youths have learned to enjoy marijuana while travelling overseas, while farmers and universities are researching and experimenting with industrial hemp. Activists and scholars are educating the Japanese people about cannabis’ history and beneficial uses, and more Japanese are seeing the prohibition of cannabis as part of unwelcome American influence.

With the burgeoning growth of cannabis culture in Japan and around the world, perhaps Japan will lead Asia in shaking off prohibitionist dogma, and once again honouring cannabis as a sacred and beneficial plant.


Japan’s Ancient Hempen History

Hemp since the Jomon

Cannabis has grown in Japan since the Neolithic Jomon period (10,000 to 300 BC). The term “Jomon” itself means “pattern of ropes”, which were certainly made of cannabis hemp. These ancient people lived a civilized, comfortable existence, and used cannabis for weaving clothing and basket making, as well as using the seeds as a food source. What isn’t clear however, is when and how the seeds arrived in Japan.

Some scholars insist that cannabis was abundant in Japan before contact with China or Korea. However, impartial analysis suggests that, like much of its culture, cannabis was almost certainly imported and adapted from China.

Seeds from Korea

The Japanese staple of wet-field rice made its way from China to Japan around 300 BC. The seed stock first went to Korea, then was brought by traders across the narrow but rough channel to Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, which is the closest point to the Asian mainland. It is likely that cannabis seeds made the same voyage before or around the same time.

In support of this theory, a cave painting found in coastal Kyushuu depicts tall stalks and cannabis leaves. It too is from the Jomon period, and is one of the earliest Japanese artworks in existence.

Ancient pot graffiti: Korean traders bringing cannabis to Japan.Ancient pot graffiti: Korean traders bringing cannabis to Japan.The richly coloured painting depicts several somewhat strangely dressed people in baggy short-pants and tall curved hats. Horses and ocean waves are also clearly rendered.

The picture apparently depicts Korean traders bringing a plant by boat. Along the stem of the plant are small pairs of budding leaves or branches. The plants themselves are tall and at the top bear large, distinctive, seven-fingered cannabis leaves.

Surrounding the top of this cannabis plant figure is a sun-like aura, suggesting the continuing connection between the sun and cannabis in Shinto. This is strikingly similar to the hieroglyphic carvings from Mediterranean cultures, which show a similar sun/cannabis motif.

Feudal hempen cultivation

During the fuedal era of Japan (c. 14th-15th Century) hemp fibre cultivation was encouraged by the fuedal lords (Daimyo), cannabis cultivation was encouraged by the feudal lords (Daimyo), wanting hempen-ware’s high resale value from the wealthy city merchants, who favoured cannabis hemp for making fine clothing.

Japanese merchants dealt in coins which had square holes in the centre, and were carried on strings of hemp. The Japanese five yen coin still has a hole in it, left over from this practice.

Cannabis was a major crop and the primary source of clothing fibre until the 17th century, when cotton was introduced. Cotton began to replace cannabis as a fibre crop because of high yields by heavy fertilizer use and the development of mass processing methods.

Yet sturdy cannabis hemp continued to be used for a variety of specialized purposes, including long-line eel fishing lines and packaging ropes to name a couple.


The Emperor’s Hemp Clothes

When Emperor Hirohito passed on in 1989, a coronation was held for his heir. The Emperor himself is regarded as a direct descendant of the gods and acts as a sort of high priest in the pagan Shinto belief.

Since Hirohito’s son was becoming the “living entity of God”, there had to be a special Shinto ritual. In Shinto, cannabis is the symbol of purity, so the new Emperor had to wear cannabis hemp garments, which had become unavailable over the course of his father’s long rule.

A group of Shinto farmers in Tokushima-ken had thought ahead and planted a symbolic yet subversive crop, and presented the Emperor with his new clothes made of pure local hemp They are still producing this crop for the exclusive use of the Imperial family.


Cannabis in Shinto & Zen

Purity and fertility are paramount shinto concepts, and cannabis is an essential symbol of both.

In the long journey from India to China, the teachings of the Buddha were considerably altered. The Japanese further adapted and intertwined Buddhism with their traditional mythological religion of Shinto.

Shinto is the ancient “way of the gods”, a ritualistic expression of profound respect for the kami (the intrinsic god-like spirit) in nature. Plants, animals, rocks and trees all possess a sort of spirit or reverence which can be terrifying or peaceful. Purity and fertility are paramount Shinto concepts, and cannabis is an essential symbol of both.

Geisha relaxing and smoking a bowl  between (or with) their customers.Geisha relaxing and smoking a bowl between (or with) their customers.The Cannabis Goddess

Shinto creation stories tell of the Japanese islands rising from volcanoes and hot springs. A Goddess and God figure descended to people the country with their direct descendants.

This first pair then begat the founding goddess-figure, Amaterasu Omi Kami (Sun Goddess). She is enshrined at the holiest of places, the Ise Shrine (Ise Jinja).

At that shrine on the Ise peninsula, the special prayer given for the founding Goddess of Japan is called “taima”, which literally means “cannabis”. Cannabis, salt and rice are the sacred staples that are used as part of all the rites at the shrine.

In fact, cannabis, mulberry fibre, and cloth and paper made from them are offered to the gods at all Shinto shrines, along with salt, sake and rice.

In olden times, wandering pilgrims were obliged to leave an offering of cannabis leaves and rice to the pathside phallic-fertility statues of the Sahe no Kami (protective deities) before embarking on a journey.

Hempen Purity

At Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, certain objects are symbolically made from hemp. For example, the thick bell-ropes must be hempen, as is the noren, a short curtain which acts as a symbolic purification “veil”, meant to cause evil spirits to flee from the body as the head brushes lightly beneath it.

In another old tradition, rooms of worship were purified by burning cannabis leaves by the entrance. This would invite the spirits of the departed, purify the room and encourage people to dance.

The element of purity is stressed again as undyed hemp fabric was an important part for the household of the new bride. This undyed hemp came to symbolize the “womanly virtues” of faithfulness, chastity and obedience. Like the undyed cloth, an old saying goes, the woman must allow herself to be dyed any color her husband chooses.


Hemp Seed for Food

While soy and rice have long been Japan?s nutritional staples, cannabis seed was also an important part of the diet, used mostly as addition to vegetables or else as gruel.

When the armies of the fuedal age went to war, they subsisted on balls of ground cannabis seed and brown rice gluten to keep them strong.

In contemporary Japan, ground cannabis seed remains in the diet in Shichimi (seven spices) used for flavoring Udon noodles. Unsterilized cannabis seed bird food is readily available as well.


The Gods’ Harvest Party

Another Shinto tale tells that every October, all the dieties from around Japan gather at a sacred site in rural Shimane prefecture, at Japan’s largest shrine called Iizumo Taisha.

Shimane is far out of the way of any urban center, and besides being “Home of the Gods”, it was home to bounteous cannabis harvests up until about 50 years ago. During this month, the rest of the nation is left unprotected from calamity while the gods hold a harvest festival and match-making celebration.

Zen Hemp Haiku

Zen, the meditative, Taoist influenced branch of Buddhism, was also influenced by cannabis, in the forms of marijuana and hemp. Samurai and scholars who followed Zen’s subtle tenets express cannabis’ inspiration in arts like Haiku (short poems).

In the following Haikus, the feeling of cannabis is clear. The wandering Zen poet Issa Kobayashi writes:

The cannabis around my hut
also has suffered
From summer thinness.
Just when I hear
The sundown bell,
The flower of this weed.

Basho the Haiku Master writes:

The cannabis- How wonderful it is!
The summer drawing room.
Trees and stones, just as they are.
Ah, how glorious!
The young leaves, the green leaves,
Glittering in the sunshine!

And one more, author unknown:

When all things are hushed,
suddenly a bird’s song
arouses a deep sense of stillness.
When all the flowers are departed,
suddenly a single flower is seen,
and we feel the infinity of life.

(All haikus quoted from Drake)


The Hempen Arts

A common pattern in fabric is the traditional “asa no ha” (cannabis leaf), where the seven blades of the leaf intersect to form a mandala-like pattern. This pattern is often seen in curtains, quilts and kimono (seen on background)

This pattern is also commonly seen in paintings depicting the “floating world” of Geisha. These colourful art prints often depict the subject’s kimono with this geometric leaf pattern, as well as relaxing and smoking a long slender pipe while between customers (opposite page). Another interesting artifact from that world is a hair comb, detailed with cannabis and what are likely Japanese maple leaves (below).

A widely celebrated painting from 1929, Shimizu’s Taima Shukaku (Hemp Harvest), depicts farmers cutting down thick, dense hemp fields, surrounded by a vibrant valley. This painting was a finalist for a kind of national “painting of the year” award from the government.

Wood-cut prints from a 1979 artistic agriculture grow book show the same dense fields. One caption explains how one must walk through the fields to “ventilate” the plants. Other captions include a three-step water-retting technique, and a means of bleaching with potash and lime.


Archery & Sumo Wrestling

The bowstring used by Zen Archers is specifically made of cannabis, which reflects a connection with the meditative practice of Zen as well as verifying hemp’s toughness as a fibre.

Sumo wrestling involves an elaborate pre-bout ceremony called dohyo-iri, in which the reigning champion carries a giant hempen rope around his ample girth to purify the ring and exorcise the evil spirits. This purification ritual continues even to this day, with the approximately 30 pound hempen belt being worn by Hawaiian-born sumo champion, Akebono.
Leaping Ninjas!

A well-known folk story tells of a technique used by elite ninja assassins to improve their jumping skills.

The learning ninja plants a batch of cannabis when he begins training, and endeavors to leap over it every day. At first this is no challenge, but the plants grow quickly, and so must the diligent ninja’s jumping ability. By the end of the season, the warrior can alledgedly clear the full grown stand of cannabis. This certainly attests as much for the plant’s vitality as to the ninja’s leaping ability.

US Cannabis Suppression in Japan

Cannabis cultivation came to a legal halt in Japan during the post WWII allied-forces occupation. Allied troops lived in Japan and helped to rebuild and reshape the nation which had been battered by the destruction and poverty of wartime. The foreign troops were certainly surprised at the abundance of cannabis, growing both wild and cultivated.

When American General Douglas MacArthur and his colleagues rewrote the Japanese constitution in 1948, they were sure to include the Taima Torishimari Ho, the Cannabis Control Act.

Western companies seized upon this new, tightly controlled post-war market, and offered new synthetic products to replace the traditional. The cannabis plant was almost completely eradicated, and thousands of years of growth and breeding were greatly diminished under an avalanche of post-war change.

Hemp for Victory

Ironically, it was the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of the Philippines a few years earlier that had acted as catalyst for the US “Hemp for Victory” campaign to replace the Manila-hemp used by the armed forces.
Japan had also relied on domestic and Southeast Asian cannabis crops to make their uniforms, helmet linings and other war accessories for their Imperialist campaigns, until WWII.

Loss of memories

Despite the intentions of the centralized government and the Cannabis Control Act, cannabis was still cultivated and growing wild in cities, especially along railways, until the mid-50’s. As was the case in many other countries, most farmers had no idea that this outlawed plant “cannabis” was the familiar crop they still used for everything from bird seed to fine woven cloths.

Most Japanese believe that marijuana is a narcotic, and do not realize that it is the same plant as cannabis hemp, which was once as much a part of Japanese culture as rice. In a mere half century, MacArthur’s Cannabis Control Act managed to almost totally wipe away the memories of cannabis culture, which had endured for several thousand years after its beginnings in the Jomon Period.

The Japanese term for cannabis, asa, still has a familiar sound to the Japanese people, most of whom just assume that it has just been replaced by new, better fibres. Fortunately, much information survives in art, books and stories. Wild cannabis also continues to grow in abundance, now a weed in areas where it was once a valued crop.

Government permits

Like other governments, the Japanese parliament continues to be hesitant and under-informed about the benefits of extensive cannabis cultivation. Yet the current legal status still allows cannabis to be grown, with a permit.

However, the permit application process is lengthy, frustrating and futile, as the government rarely issues permits. It has been so long that most civil servants respond simply with a blank look.

Cheeba Cheeba on Hokkaido Island.Cheeba Cheeba on Hokkaido Island.Hemp Stores

Hempen household accessories like washcloths and curtains continue to be sold in Japan, made from Chinese and Korean hemp. More recently, new hemp products from western manufacturers are taking off. Given Japan’s enthusiasm for traditional, rugged North American fashion, this will be a burgeoning industry should the restrictions relax.

There are now several stores carrying cannabis hemp products, including the Earth Shop and Cheeba Cheeba run by expatriate American Neil Hartman on the island of Hokkaido.

In Kyoto, a traditional hemp shop called Asakoji has continued to serve patrons since the 1600’s, surviving wars and prohibition. Perhaps more importantly, the store emphasizes the age-old connection of spirituality, art and agriculture, a vital example of cannabis in Japan. Their hemp noren sign boasts in Japanese “We only know about cannabis, but we know every detail.”

Cheeba Cheeba: owned by expatriate American Neil HartmannCheeba Cheeba: owned by expatriate American Neil HartmannAt Taimdo (cannabis shrine) in Tokyo, a hemp shop sells mostly imported hemp goods and is a centre for activism and research. Citizens are increasingly using political means, as well as spiritual, to restore cannabis cultivation in their homeland by distribution of information and products.

Changing the Laws

For two decades following the passage of the Cannabis Control Act, the law seemed to exist only on the books. Many farmers still grew hemp and the law was not enforced.

Earth Shop on Hokkaido Island.Earth Shop on Hokkaido Island.Outside pressures built up, and in 1967 the Cannabis Control Act was enforced for the first time, when 20 stalks were seized from a farmer’s collective in the Shinshu, Nagano region. The ensuing legal proceedings sparked the cannabis liberation movement in Japan.

Symposiums in the 70’s

In the early 1970s, the first modern cannabis symposium was held at Kyoto University and a court challenge was filed to argue that the ban was unconstitutional. The cannabis movement became a struggle not only against cannabis laws, but also against the pressing thumb of US influence, symbolized in the continuing occupation of Okinawa by US military forces.

Cannabis conferences are now attended by a diverse group of lawyers, doctors, students, and farmers who are lobbying the government and encouraging research.

In Iwate prefecture, an association of hemp farmers promotes a festival in which they invite the public to join in the harvest.

Earth Shop: also owned by Neil Hartmann.Earth Shop: also owned by Neil Hartmann.Tests and Research

Research and test cultivation of low-THC hemp has been going on at many Japanese universities for several years.

In Tochigi prefecture, a group has recently begun producing and marketing rugged, refined paper made from pure, domestic cannabis hemp. This handsome paper is available in limited supply and is being used for printing cards and book-covers.

Shinshu University in Nagano is also cultivating, and various projects are underway in Iwate and Fukui prefectures and on Hokkaido, showing cannabis’ potential in many latitudes and climates.

Earth Shop Manager, HarukoEarth Shop Manager, HarukoBlitzing, Challenging, Building Houses

Shizuoka lawyer Hidehiro Marui has been representing marijuana arrestees for much of his 20 year career, and also owns a coveted permit to cultivate cannabis for personal research. He and his colleagues are blitzing the mass media, publishing research and dissertations in popular magazines to encourage public education about cannabis and its potential products.

Cannabis’ potential as a building material is especially intriguing to this group, who plan to construct hempen houses throughout Japan, reducing their massive importation of wood as well as showing a useful application of hemp.

Before 2000, Marui’s group plans to challenge the Cannabis Control Act and test its constitutionality. This could have a resounding impact on this island nation, and will certainly call the Japanese people to debate at many levels.


Pot Prices in Japan

Pot is more expensive in Japan than North America, but so is everything else, with a cup of coffee going for as much as $7cdn.

Police always quote a “street price” of 6000 yen ($65cdn) for a gram of marijuana, but the actual price is usually about half that. An ounce sold to a friend goes for $600 to $900cdn.

On the northern island of Hokkaido marijuana grows wild, so it is very rare that anyone spends money to get it. People there are very friendly and will often give big bags full to their friends. Since it is wild the quality is not world class, but it is free.


Marijuana Smokers in today’s Japan

While smoking marijuana is not as wide-spread in Japan as it is in Canada, Japanese cannabis culture is certainly alive and well.

The most popular drugs in fast-paced Japanese society are nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, followed by amphetamines. In 1995, there were almost 20,000 arrests for speed, compared to about 1,500 for pot.

In the big cities, it isn’t hard to find buds or hash in small quantities. It is nonchalantly viewed as a trendy western drug by many casual urban users. Something you do a couple times before you “get serious” with your life. The chunks of hash are primarily sold by Iranians in the parks or train stations, but the police are rounding up many of these people and deporting them for visa violations and minor infractions, in actions that often seem racially motivated.

The commercial product comes mostly from the Phillipines and Thailand, smuggled in by boats, the packages tied to off-shore buoys and passed off to the locals. It also comes in from Hawaii, brought in by smugglers posing as tourists.


Ross Rebagliati: Hempen Hero

The 1998 Winter Olympic games are over and done, but their effect is still being felt in Japan and around the world. After snowboarding for ten years, hosting my own TV program on snowboarding, and learning to speak fluent Japanese, I was given the honour of having the best possible seat for the first ever Olympic Snowboard Halfpipe competition.

The competition began on February 8, with minimal presence from Japanese media, who are known for only covering events with Japanese competitors. Since there were no Japanese snowboarders, their media turnout was rather weak for Ross Rebagliati’s gold medal performance.

That all changed on February 9 however, when it was announced that Rebagliati would lose his medal due to a pot-positive pee test. The Japanese media had finally found something they could cover, and for the next two days the papers were filled with articles concerning the decision. Debates were held on TV with panels ranging from professors to actors. One of the most common wrap-up comments heard from reporters was something to the effect of “loose morals in other countries can lead to problems like this.”

The overall opinion of the Japanese media? Marijuana is bad and Rebagliati should have his medal taken away. Even after his medal was reinstated, TV shows rambled on endlessly about how the Olympic Committee had made a big mistake and the medal should definitely be taken away. Many argued that Rebagliati should face charges in a Japanese court.

It is unfortunate that such uninformed people should be in a position to create and influence public opinion, but in Japan it is very difficult to voice an opinion that goes against the laws.

During the two days before the medal was returned, I spoke to many of the Japanese staff involved in the snowboard competitions. Not once did anyone question why marijuana was even being tested for. The only thing anyone ever said was “mottainai” (what a waste) or “Taima suttei baka da ne” (he’s a fool for smoking marijuana). The most common comment was “snowboard ga image warukunaru ne” (now snowboarding will have a bad image). Again and again I was reminded how far Japan has to go towards proper marijuana education.

Yet all in all what happened was not only good for Japan but for the hemp/marijuana movement world wide. Thanks to Ross Rebagliati, the movement to legalize cannabis got a big boost and some great press. He proved to Japan and to the world that you can smoke marijuana and still win a Gold Medal and be a hero for your country.

? By Neil Hartmann, Earth Shop, Hokkaido


Miasa-muras town brochure. Residents there are eager to grow legal cannabis.Miasa-muras town brochure. Residents there are eager to grow legal cannabis.Homesteading Hempsters

In the mountains and countryside, the situation is somewhat better as the skills of growing are still practiced. Unfortunately, it’s hard to meet growers and smokers out in the countryside (that’s why they live there). Several people I met there had moved from the big cities to homestead and grow in the rural areas.

Due to the scarcity of equipment and the high cost of electricity, most crops are outdoors in clearings on steep hillsides in the dense forests. The genetics come from various seeds brought back from vacations to Thailand, Jamaica, Amsterdam or BC, and then worked into the Japanese soil.

Some growers in villages use small greenhouses alongside their house, hoping no one stops by to see what’s growing.

Expansive wild and semi-cultivated crops of cannabis grow in the vast rolling hills on the cold northern island of Hokkaido. Young city folk often try to harvest the rugged fibre for personal smoking use, with little success and often legal problems. The police know this trick and station roadblocks during harvest season, often catching people with their trunk full of plants.


The government’s gold medal crops

In February of this year, the Nagano region of Japan hosted the Winter Olympic Games. Yet despite all the media frenzy around Canadian pot-puffing gold-medal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, the local hempen heritage received no exposure.

The best example of local Japanese cannabis culture is the town of Miasa-mura (beautiful hemp town), located in Nagano-prefecture, amongst the foothills of Japan’s Northern Alps.

When asked how much cannabis used to grow in this region, one farmer responded by asking “Do you see these rice fields?” He pointed to the vast checkerboard of rice fields he’d been cutting and bundling. “Before the war, we didn’t grow rice here, we grew cannabis.”

Miasa-mura’s town brochure even features a distinctive cannabis leaf. The town educates visitors with a hemp and flax museum and spinning equipment on display.

Many residents are anxious to resume legal hemp cultivation, and are frustrated by the long and always unsuccessful application process.

The Nagano government administers the growth of one or two closely monitored hemp fields, of exactly one thousand plants each. They are grown at different locations in rotating country villages. The local authorities count the plants at the beginning, middle and end of the growing season, to ensure that none have been taken.

The hemp fibre isn’t used at all, but the seeds are harvested to maintain a fresh seed stock in the town coffers. The hemp crop is then completely burned in the field. Although a waste, at least Japan’s acclimatized strains aren’t extinct, as has happened in many other countries.

The feds’ private stash

The federal government also continues to maintain its own private stash of cannabis seed and plants for posterity and experimentation.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Medicinal Plant Garden has maintained a seed stock and bred varieties of “asa” for research since 1946, when cannabis hemp was in short supply due to the war. Given the Japanese knack for detail and research, their large, secure complex in suburban Tokyo is likely a valuable cache of information and genetics.

While the original intent of the compound seems to have been to advance the medicinal use of cannabis, this motive has been lost under a cloud of paranoia, even though the use of seeds for health and medicine is common information.

The director, Torao Shimizu, maintains that the plants are just to teach people what cannabis looks like, so they can destroy it should it be found growing in their area.


International Cannabis Culture

In these rural areas, cannabis culture grooves on with an international twist. It is wonderful to pass a bong around in a foreign land, knowing that you are among folks with the same understanding of the plant as you. This is especially true in Japan, which is so often seen as a crowded, neon, worker hive. It feels great to meet people living a life like yours in so many ways: same tunes, same thoughts, same ganja.

One friend told me about Bob Marley’s visit to Japan about two years before he died. Bob’s entourage hadn’t brought any weed with them to Japan, so Bob was excited to meet this friend who was able to provide Bob with buds from his apartment closet grow system. Bob stayed at his apartment for a couple of days and gave him a percussive gourd as a gift.


Japanese strains of hemp

According to a 1912 US Department of Agriculture comparison study, Japanese strains of hemp were taller and bigger than European and Chinese strains.

“…Japanese Hemp is beginning to be cultivated, particularly in California, where it reaches a height of 15 feet. Russian and Italian seed have been experimented with, but the former produces a short stalk, while the latter only grows to a medium height.”

The USDA continued experimenting with Japanese strains with remarkable success. A strain from Tochigi-prefecture grown in Virginia even broke the USDA height record.

Since definitive research on Japan’s crop volume was destroyed in WW2 fire storms it is difficult to arrive at a clear estimate of how well these strains grew in their native soils.


Japanese Pot Cops

Japanese police still work hard at catching pot people, especially importers. Police literature quotes from a book called “What is Marijuana”:

“Marijuana abuse causes disorder of time concepts, confusing past, present and future. Addicts sometimes see what can not be seen, or sometimes see themselves as beautiful ladies, birds or animals. Sometimes they fall into a state of lethargy.”

Japan’s anti-pot establishment also targets famous people to publicly defame. In 1995, one of Japan’s most popular rock singers, Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, was caught with under 2 grams of grass. He was jailed, fined millions, had his concerts canceled and had to publicly apologize.

Remember that the Japanese jailed Paul McCartney for two ounces in the early seventies, and it was only with great diplomatic pressure that he was released.

Japanese have also been at the other end of the rope, as the Phillipines hanged a Japanese convicted of smuggling several ounces of pot in the early 1990’s.


the kanji for cannabis means `big hemp.`the kanji for cannabis means `big hemp.`Cannabis in the Japanese Language

In Japan’s beautiful and bewildering language, cannabis is expressed by an ideogram character, adapted from Chinese, and pronounced “asa”. This character is read “ma” in Chinese and represents two plants hanging upside down from the rafters of a drying shed. Note that only marijuana plants would be hung to dry in thus fashion, as cannabis grown for fibre is field-retted after harvest.

Since the decline of cannabis cultivation, “asa” has become a sort-of catch-all term for replacement crops such as jute, sisal, flax linen, as well as cannabis, making it a bit confusing. However in any dictionary or other languge resource, it is unmistakable that the asa character means cannabis.

A character which refers to cannabis more specifically is “taima”. “Tai” (or “Dai”) means “tall” or “big”, while “ma” is the original Chinese reading of the “asa” character. This is the “official” word for the plant used in the law that prohibits its cultivation.

There is an amazing piece of linguistic proof that the ancient japanese were very aware of cannabis’ enlightening uses. The japanese character for “to rub” consists of “cannabis” and “hand”. Of course, you rub cannabis only to get hashish.

Cannabis culture also lives on through family names such as Asada or Asahara (hemp field) and given names like Asako (little hemp child) or Mamiko (hemp flower).

the kanji for `to rub` is made of `cannabis` and `hand`.the kanji for `to rub` is made of `cannabis` and `hand`.Other Cannabis Culture terms used in Japan

marifana ? Common slang adaptation of the Mexican/American word for cannabis.
choko ? A modern Japanese slang for weed. Similar to ganja, which is also used.
kusa ? “Grass” as in “You got any grass?”
dozo ? This is the way to say “here, take this” as you pass the joint.
happa ? “Leaf” A common term used the same way as “weed”.
maku ? The verb “to roll.” Try “happu o maku” for “roll up some weed.”
happachu / happaboke ? “Weed junkie”, used a bit lightheartedly sometimes, as the suffix also refers to harder drugs.


Social Stigma & Good Bud

To be caught smoking weed in Japan is a very big deal. Their justice system is efficient and precise at measuring out your sentence, no matter how much influence you may have in another country. There are many foreigners languishing in Japanese jails who were caught bringing in a stash to get them by while they were living and working in Japan.

It is a social stigma to be caught and many Japanese parents fret that if their child goes overseas to visit or study they will become either pregnant or start smoking pot and then not be a proper worker/citizen. Marijuana is considered by many to be as bad as any other drug, and smokers are referred to as “happachuu” (leaf addict) the same as a junkie.

For several years, Japan has had a working holiday visa arrangement with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, so it has given many young Japanese a chance to explore the world and try many new things, and then take their new foreign habits back home to share with their friends. To many young Japanese who feel stifled by the rigors of their society, Vancouver is known for snowboarding, good music and good bud.

Emerging from the Shadows

With total dependence on foreign oil, crowded cities, toxic-patches of oceans, hazardous nuclear reactors, aging population, exessive golf courses and little farmland, Japan will quickly have to look for new options to carry itself into the next generation.

Japan is starting to realize this and has begun to take steps towards meaningful alternatives such as recycling and reducing consumption, especially with wood products.

With Japan’s traditional skill at arts of the land and soul, combined with their modern prowess in manufacturing and mass-marketing, it will be exciting to see what impact the resurgence of the cannabis plant will have upon the nation’s economy and culture.

As Japan realizes its role as a global leader, Shinto’s sacred herb can help reconnect them with their past, and guide them towards a clean and sustainable future.


? A longer and more complete version of this article, including a thorough bibliography citing all sources, can be found online at: http://www.olywa.net

? Writer/Researcher Dave Olson invites feedback. He can be reached at: Giggling Piglet Co-op, 2103 Harrison NW, Suite 2756 Olympia, WA 98502; [email protected].

? Please contact for permission before quoting or publishing any part of this research.

? Thanks to Joe Wein of Kanto region, Japan who has an excellent collection of articles and resources about hemp in Japan available at: http://www2.gol.com/users/joewein/hempjpn.html

? Thanks also to Hidehiro Marui, author of What is the Ganja and Asa and Human Culture. Marui’s Japanese web page is at:



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  579. Anonymous on


    = YOU LOSE.

  580. GanjaOtoko on

    I just wanted to state what would be obvious to anyone who knows anything about Japan: This article is absolutely riddled with historical, linguistic, and factual errors. One example: the “cannabis drying in a shed,” which is used as a description for the Chinese character for hemp, is actually not “cannabis drying in a shed” at all, but two trees ? (?), and the radical for cliff ?. And besides, while Japanese kanji are derived from Chinese which may have been pictographic 3000 years ago, Chinese is not pictographic or ideographic, but is rather a logosyllabic language. Another simple error: the Edo Period prints of women smoking could just as easily be tobacco, which had just entered Japan in this period along with a variety of smoking utensils. You can find similar scenes throughout genre painting of the Edo period, and there is no reason to believe that it is marijuana and not tobacco; or, there is no way to tell which it is. I could point out tens of errors of this sort in this article. As someone who has serious respect for cannabis in all its forms, this article is a disgrace.

  581. Anonymous on

    Bahaha, @Stu… I know. I scrolled up and down the page like “What? This is definitely not a town brochure.”

    Awesome article though. I’ll be in Japan for two months come March and I’m hoping some of the Uni students in Kyoto will be able to expose me to the marijuana culture in Japan. (I’ll be careful, I promise!)

  582. Stu on

    Thanks for awesome article.
    It seems though there’s been some error with the images, about half way through a caption says “Geisha relaxing and smoking a bowl between (or with) their customers.” and the image is currently a blue robot.