“Probably the finest hemp in the world” is how the US Department of Agriculture described Japanese hemp some 130 years ago. In 1948 the post-war US military government imposed a harsh cannabis law and the Japanese hemp industry fell into decline. Now things are looking up again.
This spring, Takashi Okanuma, head of the Japan Hemp Association, was awarded a rare cannabis license that will permit him to legally grow cannabis. I interviewed Okanuma from his home in Japan.
CC: Can you tell us about your childhood experiences with hemp?
Takashi: I was born in a village in Nagano prefecture in the mountainous center of Japan. When I was growing up, I didn’t hear about hemp at all.
Later my mom told me that her family was growing hemp when she was a kid. I think that’s why when I talked about hemp to her, she could accept it without difficulty.
As you may know, up to this day the thong of Zouri [Japanese sandals] is made of hemp. My mom says when she was going to school she normally carried some hemp fiber with her in order to repair her Zouri in case the thong would break. It was just after World War II and people used to wear Zouri all the time, even in winter, she said.
My grandfather used to enjoy playing Yumi [Japanese traditional archery] in the garden of the village shrine with his friends. The bowstring of Yumi is still made of hemp today.
My grandfather had a part time job making hemp bowstring from hemp fiber. I remember when he was holding one end of a hemp bowstring with one foot and twisting hemp fiber with his hands. Recently, when I was fixing a storage hut I found quite a lot of his hemp fiber. I never asked where he got that fiber from.
CC: It’s not easy to get a hemp grower’s license in Japan. What special reasons were involved in your case?
I could only get it because the main purpose on my license application was to preserve an intangible cultural asset named Nara sarashi, a traditional hemp weaving craft.
I want to use hemp industry to economically and culturally reactivate rural villages. There are young people who want to live in villages and make a living doing good things, such as sustainable development, if only they could have enough income there.
I have cultivated my back yard and three people came to help me. I can cheaply rent 100 square meters for a hemp field in the village where I have learned Nara sarashi. If I can find a customer for hemp stems to make products such as paper or construction materials at that village then I will go for it. Otherwise I will just grow in my back yard (18m2) to gain experience this year.
CC: What seeds will you be using?
They are supplied by the Hemp Energy Research and Development (HERD) Academy, which is run by Mr Nakayama, a hemp farmer, and Mr Marui, a lawyer. It’s a very low-THC strain called MSDS and was developed by Dr Nishioka of Kyushu University.
In 1967, Nishioka found a variety in Saga prefecture which instead of THC contains cannabidiol acid (CBDA). This so-called CBDA strain is recognized as indigenous to Japan since the neolithic Jomon era. That’s why HERD Academy refers to it as “Jomon Asa”.
Tochigi Shiro [the most common Japanese cultivar]was derived from the same CBDA species at Kyushu University.
CC: What are your aims with hemp?
I have been looking for a job with which I can have a decent life with my family, doing really good things for people and the earth. I saw hemp as a business opportunity, but there was almost no market for hemp in Japan because only a few people knew why hemp is so good.
At first I wasn’t fully aware how bad the environment on earth would be during my son’s generation. Then I realized we need action. I need to educate people about how serious the environmental crisis is and what hemp can do for the environment. This is why the Japan Hemp Association was founded.