Island in the Sun

Japan’s ancient traditions include revering a medicinal plant


What is the Buddha? Three pounds of hemp!

—ancient Zen koan


Under current law in modern Japan, possession of just a single joint can land you in prison doing hard labor for up to five years. For your first offense, the best you can hope for is a bare minimum of five months in jail. If you are a foreigner and are caught with any cannabis on your person, at the very least you will be deported back to your country and not be allowed to return (this happened to Paul McCartney).

But it wasn’t always like that. When the United States occupation of Japan began in 1948, General Douglas MacArthur instituted what were known as the “Cannabis Control Laws” when he re-wrote the Japanese constitution, after he and his soldiers found acres of cultivated and free-grown cannabis growing all over the country. Before the Americans showed up, hemp and cannabis had been an essential part of the culture for thousands of years.

The Jomon period of Japan lasted from 10,000 BC to 300 BC. Archaeologists believe that traders sailed across the sea from Korea, bringing with them many different crops, including rice and hemp seeds. A cave painting done by people living in the coastal region of Kyushu (Japan’s third largest island) depicts a boat, waves and large cannabis leaves flanking the scene, evidence of what had been on the minds of the natives living on the island thousands of years ago.

By the 14th century, during the Muromachi period, cannabis was cultivated and used for rope, clothing, string, fishnets and paper all over the country. While the samurai and other upper classes enjoyed liquor made from rice to relax, the peasants used cannabis to achieve the same results. Since the science of Japanese medicine and healing was based on Chinese methods, cannabis was also prescribed for a variety of diseases and other illnesses.

The Shinto religion is native to Japan, and is comprised largely of rituals dedicated to the worship of the spirits of nature, whether it is the sea, the air, a single tree or even a humble pebble.

Despite modern law, rural farmers still use cannabis as a part of their religious devotions. One Shinto ritual involves the burning of prayer leaves, which are composed of hemp. Hemp rope is also burned to purify an area from evil spirits, while hemp seeds are scattered during a marriage ceremony to bless the couple. A gohei, or prayer stick, is traditionally made of wood and hemp fiber.

Obon is one of the three biggest holidays in Japan, and is connected to both Shinto and Buddhism. During Obon, Many of the rites involve hemp and cannabis. Leaves are burnt to bless homes, cannabis incense was burned to drive away evil spirits. Cannabis and rice were also burned at shrines as an offering, and travelers often left small amounts of cannabis and rice seeds at shrines near roads to bless them on their journey.

Zen, a philosophy also native to Japan with connections to Chinese Taoist thought, was influenced by cannabis. One Zen master, Issa Kobayashi, celebrated cannabis with a haiku, or poem that laments how the heat has ruined the cannabis crop in front of his hut. Another Zen master known as Basho wrote a poem dedicated to cannabis praising the leaf for its beautiful, emerald color.


The Emperor Does Wear Clothes

In Shinto (Japanese for Way of the Gods), cannabis is considered to be a symbol of purity, and therefore holy. When Emperor Hirohito’s heir was blessed in a ceremony as the new spiritual leader of Japan, he did so in a custom kimono made of hemp.


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