Hemp & Japanese culture

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Hemp has always been a popular agricultural product in Japan. In fact, circa post WW2, the Duponts and cotton cartels of the time were seeking to wipe hemp off the map as a matter of strategic economic importance.

Foreign troops were surprised at the amount of hemp growing both wild and cultivated. American General of the Army, Douglas Macurthur and his colleagues rewrote the Japanese constitution including Taima Torishimari, the Hemp Control Act.

The Hemp Control Act was first enforced in the harvest of 1967 when 20 stalks were seized from a farmer’s collective in Shinshu, Nagano region. Around this time, one person filed a suit against the government, claiming the law was unconstitutional. From there the first “marijuana symposium” was to be held at Kyoto University, marking the beginning of the hemp liberation movement. Such conferences are now attended by a diverse group of lawyers, doctors, students and farmers alike, all lobbying the government for research.

Many citizens of Japan may be anxious about resuming legal hemp cultivation, frustrated by the long and usually unsuccessful application process, However, a variety of hardy strains of free growing hemp continue to abound in the fast abating countryside, most is wild but some is still being cultivated by farmers who are continuing the old tradition of their culture.

Since 1991-2, Japan has had to swallow its pride as years of subsidies and reliance on chemical farming methods has resulted in massive crop failure, often resulting in withered crops where rainfall is less than expected.

Total dependence on foreign oil, crowded cities, toxic oceans, hazardous nuclear reactors, aging population and an absurd amount of golf courses, with a dwindling amount of farmland has left the country looking for new options as it carries onto the next generation.

Clearly what little benefits there are of such difficult circumstances can be found in the re-emergence of organic farming practice and a return to heritage farming that will encourage the implementation of sustainable production methods, including industrial hemp growth.

Japan is realising this new and exciting vision of how hemp could make an impact on the country’s culture as it takes meaningful steps towards recycling and reduction of consumption, mainly in wood products; harnessing their skill with traditional arts of the land and soul, paired with their modern prowess in manufacturing and marketing.

Hemp and marijuana hasn’t always been an unpopular product in Japan. In fact it has been well regarded in Japanese culture. Traditional uses for hemp were to make ceremonial linen clothes for the imperial family and Shinto priests. This included the Japanese emperor who acts as a chief priest in the Shinto culture. Other common uses include Washi (finely-made papers), Noren (ritual curtains) made of hemp fibre, and bell ropes, for Shinto shrines and sumo rituals.

In fact, hemp has been known to grow in Japan since the Neolithic Jomon period. Jomon itself means “patterns of ropes” which were indeed made of hemp. Archaeological evidence places hemp seed as a source of food during this period (10,000 to 300 BC). This hunter and gatherer society of people lived a civilised existence and used hemp for weaving clothing and basket making. What isn’t clear however is how and when these seeds arrived in Japan.

It is often difficult to distinguish the facts of history from the pervasive myths that create the religion of Shinto. Although impartial analysis suggests that like much of its culture, hemp was most likely imported and adapted by the Japanese from China or Korea; many scholars would insist that hemp was abundant in Japan before contact with either country.

In order to better understand the journey of those first hemp seeds, it can be beneficial to consider some other prominent imports which have played a role in shaping Japanese culture and indeed the standards of their civilisation. Buddhism, wet-field rice and Washi paper; the latter is easiest to trace as it is written on paper.

"A.D. 105 - Paper as we know it was invented by Ts'ai Lun, a Chinese court official. It is believed that Ts'ai mixed mulberry bark, hemp, and rags with water, mashed it into a pulp, pressed out the liquid and hung the thin mat to dry in the sun. Paper was born and this humble mixture would set off one of mankind's greatest communication revolutions. Literature and the arts flourished in China.

A.D. 610 - Buddhist monks gradually spread the art to Japan. Papermaking became an essential part of Japanese culture and was used for writing material, fans, garments, dolls, and as an important component of houses. The Japanese were also the first to use the technique of block printing. "

Over 80 subtle varieties of paper spread throughout Japan within 50 years of touching down on the country after Korean monk, Doncho, produced a piece of paper for his royal demonstration made from hemp rags and mulberry bark, as is Chinese tradition.

Another Japanese staple, wet-field rice, found its way from the Middle Kingdom to Japan around 300BC. The seed stock first arrive in Korea where it was brought by traders across the narrow but rough channel to Shimonoseki, Japan's southern island of Kyushu which is the closest point to the Asian mainland. It is probable that hemp made the same voyage before or around the same time. There have been seeds from prehistoric periods reported that have been uncovered on the island of Kyushu which would suggest such a passage definitely took place before the common era; yet scientific dating techniques would struggle to put an accurate date on such an artefact.

In support of this theory, a cave painting found in coastal Kyushu depicts tall stalks and hemp leaves, also dated from the Jomon period. It is one of the earliest artworks discovered in Japan. In all, the picture seems to depict traders bringing a plant by boat. Along the stem are small pairs of budding leaves or branches. The plants themselves are tall and at the top bear large, distinctive, seven-fingered hemp leaves.

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


Hemp has an important function in Shinto mythology, the “Way of the Gods”, as the ancient indigenous religion of Japan is known. Shinto is the spirituality of Japan and its people, it is a set of practices to be carried out with diligence, in order to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. Plants, trees, rocks and animals are all seen to possess a sort of spirit or reverence which can be terrifying or peaceful.

Their practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki during the 8th century.

Hemp was used in these practices to purify and to drive out evil. Ceremonies at majors shrines involved the burning of Taima (Cannabis). Hemp seeds are also used in Shinto marriage ceremonies and sometimes hemp leaves will also be burnt as an “invitation to the spirits”.


Many products continue to be sold to the Japanese, washcloths and curtains made from Chinese and Korean hemp, some new hemp products from western manufacturers are also beginning to take off. Given Japan’s enthusiasm for traditional North-American fashion, this could be a thriving industry if the restrictions were to be relaxed.

There are now several stores carrying hemp products including Asakoii, a traditional hemp shop in Kyoto which has continued to serve patrons since the 1600’s, surviving wars and prohibition. Perhaps the greatest significance of this store is its emphasis on the ancient connection of spirituality, art and agriculture, a vital example of hemp’s rich history in Japan. Their hemp Noren sign boasts in Japanese; “We only know about hemp but we know every detail.”

Like many governments, the Japanese parliaments are hesitant and under-informed about the benefits of extensive hemp cultivation, and although the current legal status does leave opportunity for application to cultivate hemp, the process can be lengthy and futile.

On the other hand, as international exchange progresses and brings with it a cross germination of fresh ideas in business and activism, the market for hemp is bound to increase. With many young Japanese entrepreneurs looking to expand into this exciting field, and some American companies already beginning to reap the rewards.

Whether or not Japan continue to develop and adapt their attitude and knowledge of hemp, including law and regulation; further enabling the country to reap the rewards of a versatile and vibrant plant as it has in the past, is a question that remains to be seen. One thing that remains clear is that hemp has had a huge cultural and agricultural role in the development of Japan as a nation.



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