According to a recent report from The Japan News, the region with the most hemp cultivation in Japan is the Tochigi Prefecture, located north of Tokyo. Farmers in the area initially cultivated a variety of hemp called Tochigishiro in 1982, which they still grow today. The number of hemp farmers has dwindled, with 6,000 growers in the Tochigi Prefecture at its peak, down to just 12 today. Many of these remaining growers are in their 60s and 70s.
One 44 year old cultivator, Yoshinori Omori, told The Japan News that his family has been growing hemp for centuries (since the Edo period, 1603-1867). Today, he grows on a four-hectare farm (approximately nine acres) and that property alone makes up more than half of Japan’s remaining hemp production. The news outlet stated that some of Omori’s crop was used to craft the belt of former Yokozuna sumo wrestler Hakuhō Shō.
However, the reduction of growers is worrisome to Omori. “If nothing is done, hemp farmers will disappear from Japan,” he said.
Omori is trying to create new hemp products to revitalize interest in hemp production. “I’d like to broaden the use of hemp and stabilize our business to make the industry attractive to young people,” Omori explained. Items like paper and construction materials take advantage of the versatility of hemp as a material. In February, Omori also created packaging materials made of hemp for a company in Osaka.
In the Mie Prefecture, located southwest of Nagoya, the town of Meiwa also announced its interest in becoming a hub for hemp cultivation. Previously the town delivered hemp to Ise Jingu shrine in the area, but no more hemp farmers remain. Earlier this year in March, the Meiwa city council, Mie University, and local farmers decided to work together to launch a hemp cultivation project, and planted hemp in a 6,000-square-meter-plot (approximately 64,583 square feet, or about 1.5 acres).
Shingo Matsumoto, an executive at an agricultural company called Iseasa, led the cultivation project. “Hemp is the epitome of a Japanese tradition,” Matsumoto said. “We’d like to revitalize the product in a joint effort with the whole community.”
Kogakkan University professor Hitoshi Nitta also told The Japan News that the government should also be making an effort to preserve the country’s long hemp history. “Governments should work to spread accurate knowledge on hemp that is grown by license holders to eliminate prejudice and misunderstanding,” Nitta said.
Historically, the fibers of hemp stalks have been used to make sacred ropes at Shinto shrines, as well as for belts worn by Yokozuna sumo wrestlers (Yokozuna being the highest rank attained by sumo wrestlers).
Other than exceptions for hemp, cannabis is illegal in Japan and the country has a zero-tolerance policy for anything containing THC. Japanese prohibition is continued through the Cannabis Control Law, which was put into effect in 1948.a
Back in 2015, Japan’s former “first lady,” Akie Abe, expressed a desire to see Japan’s hemp industry return to its former glory.
In January 2021, the Hokkaido Industrial Hemp Association published a statement addressing the country’s cannabis law. “The Cannabis Control Act is a profoundly unreasonable law that restricts all cannabis regardless of the quantity or even presence of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, the chemical synthetic substance of which are designated as an illegal drug in Japan), and even prohibits the cultivation of hemp from overseas (see note below) containing none of this substance,” the association wrote.
Later that year in August 2021, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare wrote a report recommending that Japan should follow the example of other countries when it comes to medical cannabis. In May 2022, the Japanese Ministry of Health began to discuss medical cannabis legalization as a way to help those who suffer from refractory epilepsy.
In September 2022, the ministry published another report recommending that the Cannabis Control Act be amended and mirror that of other countries that have legalized medical cannabis. The report stated that only 1.4% of people in Japan have ever used cannabis, while consumption rates in the U.S. range from 20%-40%.
Last year, a Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum in Barcelona, Spain featured a historic Japan exhibit called “Cannabis Japonica.” It featured many unique items that showed the country’s cultural ties to cannabis. According to the exhibit, ninjas would plant hemp and strive to jump over it every day. Since average hemp plants can grow between 9-13 feet tall, it would help them train.
Another interesting exhibit piece featured a children’s story that detailed how families would grow “four to five furrows of hemp seeds,” and the hemp fibres were used in weaving cloth for summer kimonos, samurai attire, and garments for Shinto priests.
The increase in cannabis legalization in other Asian countries is leading Japan officials to also consider cannabis legalization once again. According to Time, officials may begin discussing the current cannabis laws “as early as October” during the next parliamentary session.
For now, it remains illegal to sell or possess, with up to seven years prison sentence if caught, but still technically legal to consume. According to Michiko Kameishi, an Osaka-based lawyer who regularly works on cannabis cases, the law specifically relates to sales and possession. “Also, if you are at a party and there’s a joint going around and if you smoke it, if you say that it doesn’t belong to you—‘it’s somebody else’s, I just puffed on it’—then police cannot arrest you,” Kameishi said.