“Hemp culture in Japan” in Journal of Industrial Hemp Association, 1997

As published in Journal of the International Hemp Association Vol. 4 No. 1 June 1997

Hemp culture in Japan

Since the neolithic Jomon Period, hemp has been grown in Japan.  Jomon means ‘pattern of ropes’.  These hunting and collecting people lived a civilized, comfortable existence and used hemp for weaving clothing and baskets (Mayuzumi 1996).  Cannabis seeds from prehistoric sites have been uncovered on the island of Kyushu (Marui 1997).  While the origins of hemp are not entirely clear, like much of Japan’s culture, hemp was most certainly imported from China.  Hemp made its way from the Middle Kingdom around 300 BC, before (or along with) another staple: wet-field rice (Rathburn 1993).  Hemp had first gone to Korea, then was brought by traders across the narrow, but rough channel to Japan’s southern island of Kyushu.  A neolithic cave painting from coastal Kyushu depicts tall stalks with hemp-shaped leaves.  Strangely dressed people, horses and waves are also in the painting, perhaps depicting the Korean traders bringing hemp to Japan.   The hemp plant figure itself reflects the sun/plant image, similar to the hieroglyphic likenesses used by Mediterranean cultures (Bennet 1997).

 “Ventilating: entering hemp field to admit air.”

        As time went on, more people arrived on Japanese shores from China and Korea, carrying Japanese culture into the Yayoi Period, producing major changes in Japan as foreigners imported more advanced practices, and the indigenous Japanese quickly adapted their ways.  Most significant was the spread of agriculture and clan societal structure.  Hemp successfully adapted to the Japanese climate and spread throughout its latitudes.  Hemp was already a well-established crop by the time written language and recorded history appear during the Yayoi Period.   The indigenous Ainu on the northern island of Hokkaido made their colorful costumes from hemp fiber during this period, circa the 3rd century AD (Constantine 1992).   These people lived in patriarchal clan groups and wore clothes of hemp and bark.   Also, the complex Shinto system of multiple patriarchal deities developed as numerous clans each adopted a patron saint. (Hooker 1996)
A few centuries later, Bukkyo (Buddhism) made a similar journey starting from India across the Himalayas to China, on to the Hermit Kingdom of Korea, and ending up in Japan.  In the long migration from India to China, the teachings of the Buddha were modified.  However, from China to Korea, the basic tenets remained unchanged.  Upon arriving to Japan however, the natives adapted and intertwined Buddhism with both the traditional mythological religion of Shinto and their reverence for hemp.  Shinto is the ancient ‘way of the gods’, a ritualistic expression of profound respect for the kami (the intrinsic god-like spirit) in nature.  Purity and fertility are held paramount, and hemp is considered a symbol of both.
The Kojiki (the native chronicle of Japan) relates that after creating Japan, the ‘primal pair’ consulted each other saying, “We have now produced the great eight-island country, with the mountains, rivers, herbs and trees.  Why should we not produce someone who shall be lord of the universe.” (Moore 1991)  This pair then begot the founding goddess-figure, Amaterasu Omi kami (sun goddess) who is enshrined at the Ise jinja (shrine).  The prayer recited at the shrine is called Taima (hemp).   Hemp [seed], salt and rice are the sacred staples that are used as part of all the rites at the shrine (Yamada 1995).  The emperor himself is re-garded as a direct descendant of these gods and acts as the high priest of the folkloric Shinto belief.
Japan’s largest jinja, called Iizumo Taisha, is located in rural Shimane Prefecture (Honshu Island, south of Tottori).   As the story goes, every October all the Gods of Japan gather at this sacred site and the rest of the nation is left unprotected.  There, the deities hold a harvest match-making ritual and celebration.  Epic stories relate the feats of the gods as they amused themselves here in the ‘Home of the Gods’ (JNTO 1997).  Shimane Prefecture is far from any urban center, and until about 50 years ago, had the bounteous hemp harvests.

        “At Shinto jinja (shrines) and Buddhist tera (temples), certain objects are symbolically made from hemp.  For example, the leg-thick bell ropes, and the noren, a short curtain that hangs over the doorways and brushes the top of the head as one enters the room, must be hempen.  The noren acts as a symbolic purification rite, meant to cause evil spirits to flee from the body.” (Robinson 1996)

Indeed, the Shinto priests and faithful used hemp fibers as symbolic elements in their religious ceremonies.  One such use was the waving of a gohei (a short stick) with undied hemp fibers attached to the end.  Shaking these asa fibers above the patron’s heads apparently drove the evil spirits from the soul.   Further, hemp was a symbolic gift of acceptance and obedience from the groom’s family to the bride’s in times of matrimony (Robinson 1996).
Historically, the priests dressed in hemp robes as well.  It is in death that Shinto and Buddhism blend into a common braid.   The relatives continue to visit the graves, leaving offerings and praying in the Buddhist way.  Yet at home, a family shrine with the departed’s picture and memorabilia is tended in the Shinto tradition with hand claps, incense, and worshipping of the kami (deity) within.
The Japanese traveled long distances searching for salt, seeking enlight-enment and following pilgrimages.  In olden times, these merchants, wandering pilgrims and traveling believers were obliged to leave an offering to the sahe no kami (protective deities) before embarking on a journey.

        “These deities were represented by phalli, often of gigantic size, which were set up along highways, and especially at cross-roads, to bar passage of malignant beings who sought to pass . . .  Standing as they did on the roadside and at cross-roads, these gods became the protectors of the wayfarers; travelers prayed to them before setting out on a journey and made a little offering of hemp leaves and rice to each one they passed.”(Moore 1991)

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

        “On the first evening, fires of hemp leaves are lighted be-fore the entrance of the house, and incense strewed on the coals, as an invitation to the spirits. At the end of the three days, the food that has been set out for the spirits is wrapped up in mats and thrown into a river. Dances of a peculiar kind are a conspicuous feature of the celebration, which is evidently an old Japanese custom; the Buddhist elements are adscititious (derived from outside).” (Moore 1991).

This ritual took place as part of a Buddhist holy day for “giving respect and making amends with departed ancestors”.   The current tradition at this August O bon festival involves the similar practice of leaving offerings of the departed’s favorite foods on the grave, perhaps to purify or satisfy the restless soul.  At some time in the past, hemp leaves were likely a part of this ritual as well.

Asakiri (hemp harvest) “After the 18th day before autumn equinox
[that is, around September 3], hemp is torn out with the roots.”

        Zen (the meditative Taoist-influenced branch of Buddhism) was especially influenced by hemp.  Samurai (elite warriors) and scholars who followed the subtle tenets of Zen express hemp’s inspiration in arts like haiku (short poems), aikido (a martial art), kyudo (archery) and chanoyu (tea ceremony).  A well-known children’s adventure story tells about a technique used by ninja (warriors) to improve jumping skills.  The student ninja plants a batch of hemp when he begins training and endeavors to leap over it every day.  At first this is no challenge, but the hemp grows quickly everyday and so does the diligent ninja’s jumping ability.   By the end of the season, the warrior can clear the 3-4 meter high hemp.  This certainly attests as much for hemp’s vitality as the ninja’s ability (Mayuzumi 1996, Masuda 1996).  The formal dress of the Samurai warriors was hempen as were the training clothes of meditators and martial artists.  In kyudo (archery) the bow’s string is specifically hemp, which reflects a connection with the meditative practice of Zen as well as hemp’s toughness as a fiber (Mayuzumi 1996).
In an elaborate, pre-bout ceremony called dohyo-iri, the reigning Sumo wrestling grand champion Yokuzuma carries a giant hemp rope around his ample girth to purify the ring and exorcise the evil spirits.  This continues even today, as the belt worn by Hawaiian-born champion Akebono is also made of hemp (Wein 1996-97).
Trade and communication between China, Korea and Japan faded over the next few centuries as each country followed it’s own secluded path.  However, Japan did continue to send scholars and students to learn medicine, agriculture and science from the Chinese and bring the best of it back home.   Japanese doctors incorporated the ancient Chinese pharmacopoeia and utilized many forms of the hemp plant to treat a variety of illnesses.  Hemp preparations are especially used as a laxative, to treat asthma and poisonous bites, to worm animals, counteract skin ailments and as a general tonic to promote vigor. (Drake 1970)
During the Shogun (feudal) era, hemp cultivation was encouraged by the daimyo (feudal lords) wanting hemp wear’s high sale value to the wealthy city merchants, who favored hemp for making fine clothing.   This brought economic strength and power to the daimyo of the area, who were actually often in debt to the merchants (Stearns et al. 1992).  The merchants had an interesting position in feudal society.  They were ranked near the bottom of the social ladder, but by building unions and creative marketing, they were soon the wealthiest class.  Samurai forbade themselves to handle money, as they thought it was unclean.  However, the merchants had learned the use of money from foreigners.

        “Merchants dealt not in rice but in coin, and utilized four metals: gold (obankobanichibu kin), silver (choginmame-itamonme), copper (zeni),and iron.  They had square holes in the center based on the Chinese system, and were carried on strings of hemp.” (Hidden Variable 1997)

While the farmers were supposedly given rights and privilege by the Samurai, they were in fact kept poor, busy and occupied with the agricultural process, which was labor intensive in low-tech rural Japan.  Even then, space was at a premium and the farmers began terracing the hillsides, as they had learned from the Chinese.

Roots and tops are cut off “Tie the stalks in bundles,
cut them to the same length with an oshikiri

        Hemp, along with silk for the wealthy Samurai class, was the primary source of clothing fiber until cotton was introduced in the 17th century.  Cotton began to replace hemp as the fiber crop for the new urban working class because of high yields (accompanied by heavy fertilizer use) and the development of mechanized processing methods.  Hemp was still used for a variety of specialized purposes, including the straps of geta (high wooden sandals), long-lines for eel fishing, and packaging ropes (Mayuzumi 1996).
Hemp is also an ingredient in making the fine paper known as washi (Taki, no date).  This technology also came from China, but the Japanese refined it and elevated it to a Zen-like craft.  These traditions are acknowledged by a modern paper maker.

        “AD 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.

AD 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.” (Mead Corporation 1996)

Hemp soon became a somewhat exclusive fabric used for special garments by the upper classes.  Hemp’s durability allowed the same fibers to be reused several times for recycled clothing, rags and finally paper.   As class structure made labor-intensive hemp economically unreachable for many, they tried to imitate hemp’s properties with cotton.  In fact, the summer yukata (cotton kimono) was the common person’s adaptation of the yukatabira (absorbent hemp bathrobes) that the wealthy wore after soaking in the hot springs (Mayuzumi 1996).
After short periods of limited trade with some European countries (primarily Holland) in the early 17th century, Japan once again solidly closed the bamboo curtain to the West.  In 1853, the US Navy’s Commodore Perry and a fleet of black gunboats pried open Japanese ports for trade and began a new era of change, trade and conflict.  Japan, a still feudal and warring nation, scrambled to learn the secrets of these strange “bearded barbarians” and take stock of their impact.  Realizing they had been caught in a very vulnerable position, Japan embarked on an intense, rapid industrialization program.  In the ensuing chaos, the young emperor Meiji was restored to the throne and the Samurai class dissolved.  Japan quickly engineered trains, steam-ships, silk factories and mining operations.   Surpassing in a few decades, the growth of industry that had taken Europe and America close to a century to achieve.
Shortly after their hasty ushering onto the world stage, Japan sent its first diplomatic mission to the USA, sailing across the Pacific only a scant four years after first seeing an ocean-going vessel.  Among the crew, serving as Captain Kimura’s personal servant and translator, was Yukichi Fukuzawa.  He tells in his account of the journey, about the crew all receiving a pair of hemp sandals to make the passage.  He goes on to say that some crewmen were a bit embarrassed when they arrived in San Francisco and saw how different their footwear and customs were.

        “All of us wore the usual pair of swords at our sides and the hemp sandals.  So attired we were taken to the modern hotel . . .  Here the carpet was laid over an entire room and upon this costly fabric, walked our hosts wearing the shoes they had come in from the streets!  We followed in our hemp sandals.” (Fukuzawa 1960)

Young Fukuzawa went on to found Kieo University and inspire Japan’s new educational system.  His face is now on Japan’s 10,000 Yen bill (which also probably contains hemp).
Regardless of the fact that Japan had become a world entity, the country ‘s farmers still bore the brunt of the labor, working long days in treacherous conditions to supply essentials for an increasingly urban population.   From the humid summers to the freezing winters, hemp provided rugged and functional clothing.  In the Meiji and Taisho eras (19th century), hemp fiber was combined with other plants like seaweed and broom-straw to make circular, pointed snow hats (Rathburn 1993).  These hats are a solid helmet of hemp fiber intertwined with seaweed, perhaps to let the snow slide off the sloping, conical peak.  The farmers also utilized similar materials in making pack-like back support pads for hauling heavy loads down steep mountainsides.  You no bi (the craft skill of traditional artisans) endures (Rathburn 1993).  This tactile feeling of ‘beauty in utility’ evokes a sense of the rugged simplicity and deliberate, elegant workmanship that blends so well with the hemp aesthetic.  During this same era, while country people fashioned rugged work wear, the textile artists continued using hemp to a different end.  The skill of the Japanese textile makers is seen in hemp kimono (traditional clothing) worn especially in the summer.  Often dyed in vats of fermented ai (indigo), the fine, almost sheer weaves show the versatility of hemp.  Weaves are so fine that the fibers look more like raw silk or fine flax.  Certainly, Japan’s previous experience with silk complemented the spinning and weaving of such fine diameter hemp thread into a fabric more usable than that of the silkworm (Kolander 1996).

Niru (boiling) “Put in yukakeburo (bath) and boil it.”

        Legal hemp cultivation came to a halt during the post-W.W.II occupation by allied forces.  Allied troops lived in Japan and helped to rebuild a nation battered by the destruction and poverty of wartime.  The foreign soldiers were certainly surprised at the abundance of hemp growing both wild and cultivated.  In 1948, when American General Douglas MacArthur and his colleagues rewrote the Japanese constitution, they included the Taima Torishimari Ho, the Hemp Control Act (Constantine 1992).

        “First, you have to remember that most Japanese still believe that Cannabis is a narcotic, and do not realize that it is the same plant as hemp, which was once as much a part of Japanese culture as rice.   In a mere half century, MacArthur, with the Marijuana Regulation Law [Hemp Control Act], managed to totally wipe away even the memories of hemp culture, which endured for several thousand years after its beginnings in the Jomon Period.” (Yamada 1995)

Ironically, it was the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of the Philippines a few years earlier, that had catalyzed the USA’s ‘Hemp for Victory’ campaign to replace the Manila “hemp” used by the allied armed forces.  Japan relied on both domestic and Southeast Asian hemp crops to make uniforms, helmet linings and other war accessories.  Western companies seized the post-war market opportunity in Japan by offering new synthetic products to replace traditional ones, and the hemp plant was almost completely eradicated under an avalanche of post-war change.  However, despite the intent of the newly installed central government to replace hemp, it was still cultivated and growing wild in cities, especially along railways, until the mid-50’s (Mayuzumi 1996).  As was the case in other countries, most farmers had no idea that the outlawed plant ‘hemp’, was the familiar crop they used for everything from bird seed to finely woven cloth.
In Japan’s beautiful and bewildering language, hemp is expressed by a kanji (ideogram) character, also adapted from Chinese, and pronounced “asa”.  According to Joe Wein (1997): “There are so many ancient connotations to hemp, it’s incredible.  For example, the kanji for ‘to rub’ consists of ‘hemp’ and ‘hand’.  You rub hemp [Cannabis] to get hashish.”   Another explanation is that ‘hemp’ harvesting and processing involves a large amount of ‘hand’ work.  Since the decline of Cannabis hemp production, the term asa has become a catchall term for alternative fiber crops such as jute, sisal, and flax, as well as true hemp.  Referring to Cannabis hemp more specifically is the word, taima.  Tai (or dai) simply means ‘big’ or ‘tall’.  (Ta ma is the original Chinese name of hemp.)  As in other lands, reminders of traditional hemp culture live on through family names such as Asada or Asahara (hemp field) and given names like Asako (sweet, little hemp child) or Mamiko (sweet, hemp flower).  Asa still has a familiar sound to the Japanese people, most of whom assume that it has just been replaced by new, better fiber.

Hosu (drying) “Dru thoroughly in the sunshine.
Gets ‘star’ (stains) if it gets wet with rain.”

        Little is remembered in common lore of this hidden heritage.  Fortunately, much information survives in art, books and stories.   In the 1991, 4th edition of Japan’s major encyclopedia, Kojien, the entry for asa (hemp) states;

        “. . . Ropes, nets, sails and textile for clothes and shoes are made from it.  Annual plant of the mulberry family.   Introduced from Central Asia. . . .  Leaves are long and 5-9 fingered. . . .   Also, along with benihana (a type of ginger preparation) and ai (indigo) they make the sanso (three plants).  Since olden times it has been cultivated all around the world.  Hashish and marijuana are made from Indian hemp from India.” (Kojien 1991, Wein 1997)

According to USDA comparison studies, Japan’s strains of hemp were tall and vigorous, out-performing both 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.” (Dodge 1896)

The USDA continued experimenting with Japanese strains with remarkable success.  Growing in Virginia, a hybrid variety resulting from crossing with a strain from Tochigi-Prefecture broke their height record.

        “The three best strains, Kymington, Chington and Tochimington [named after Tochigi Prefecture in Japan] averaged, respectively, 14 feet 11 inches, 15 feet 5 inches, and 15 feet 9 inches, while the tallest individual plant was 19 feet.  The improvement by selection is shown not alone in increased height but also in longer inter-nodes, yielding fiber of better quality and increased quantity.” (Dewey 1920)

A clear estimate of how well these strains grew in their native soils under the care of talented Japanese gardeners is difficult to determine.  Hemp still grows in abundance as a weed in some areas where it was once cultivated as a fiber crop.  Written and oral reports of expansive, wild and semi-cultivated crops of Cannabis in the vast rolling hills of the cold northern island of Hokkaido, have persisted for years, and have more recently been substantiated (Gakujin et al. 1994, Masuda 1996).  Miasa-mura (beautiful hemp town), is located in Nagano Prefecture (north central Honshu island) amongst foothills and valleys in the shadow of the Japan’s Northern Alps, and is one of the former centers of hemp cultivation.  When asked how much hemp was grown in this region one farmer responded by saying, “Do you see these rice fields?”.  Pointing to the vast checkerboard of rice fields he had been cutting and bundling, he continued: “Before the war, we didn’t grow rice here, we grew hemp” (Gakujin et al. 1994).  In 1998, this area will host the Winter Olympic Games, and perhaps this hemp heritage will receive global exposure.  Miasa-mura’s town brochure features the distinctive seven-fingered serrated-edge hemp leaf.  The town educates visitors at a hemp and flax museum with spinning equipment on display.  Many residents in the town are anxious to resume legal hemp cultivation and are frustrated by the requirement of a long and always unsuccessful application process.  However, a variety of hardy strains of hemp continue to abound in the quickly shrinking backcountry.  Most of this hemp is feral, but some is cultivated for use by farmers carrying on the old ways (Gakujin et al. 1994).
However, in this area of Nagano Prefecture, the local government allows the growth of one or two closely monitored hemp fields of exactly one thousand plants grown at a different location in a rotation of villages (Miasa, Ogawa, Shin-shushimachi, Omachi, Nakajo) every year.  The local authorities count the plants at the beginning, during and end of the growing season to ensure that no hemp has been taken.  The hemp fiber isn’t used at all, in fact, after the plants mature and bear seeds, the seeds are harvested to maintain a fresh seed stock in the town coffers and the hemp crop is burned completely in the field (Gruett 1994).  This is certainly a waste of fiber, but at least the acclimated strains have not become extinct, as has happened in other countries.
Also, in this same area, an American expatriate farmer and craftsman has stepped back a few hundred years and “reopened” a village.  The hamlet of Gonda was founded about 600 years ago by monks who settled when they found a clear water spring in this secluded mountain valley.  The area, several days walk from the nearest trade village, thrived as a farming community of several families.  As Japan entered into foreign wars, Gonda’s young people were drafted from the farms to fight for the Emperor, and many never returned.  This migration continued for close to 50 years.  During the post-war poverty period, poor country people migrated to the cities to seek work.  Most fled the rural life, except for the oldest child of each family, who must remain to carry on the family traditions of maintaining the graves, tending the elders, and serving as lord of the house.  By the early 1970s, Gonda was still half a century behind modern Japan with no utilities, roads or public services.  Households were bursting with long-living elderly, but had scant few workers.  Since only old folks remained, city officials moved them into city condos, rather than provide them with infrastructure and services.  The area stood vacant for a decade, silent and fading back into the hills, except for an occasional relative bringing ceramic saucers of sake and oranges to the graves.
Steve Gruett and his family re-settled the village and homesteaded there, tending the area and again realizing the bounty of the mountains.  As a result of their hard work and smartly planned organic agriculture, Gonda’s fields once again bloom with life and they are discovering the rich agricultural history of the area.  When Steve first arrived in the early 1980’s, he saw film footage from circa 1970 of farm grandmothers hand-harvesting and retting hemp.   The film showed the grandmas pulling the long, fiber strands from hemp plants and shaking the seeds into woven baskets.  The film was presented by a local school teacher at a town meeting to discuss the old ways, some of which are now illegal (Gruett 1994).

Arau (washing) “Tie into bundles and wash in the river, then dry them again.”

        Hemp is also being grown in Nagano Prefecture for making the bell ropes, curtains and other essential goods for Shinto and Buddhist houses of worship (Maeda 1995).  In this area, the hemp tradition lives on in festivals and dance.  The Japan National Tourist Organization tells about this in their on-line brochure:

        “Oasahiko Shrine: Just walk-ing to this quiet shrine is a lovely experience.  On either side of the road are 400 to 500-year-old black pines designated a Prefectural Natural Monument.  Several wonderful festivals are held here: . . . a lion dance (shishi mai) in November to honor the god who brought hemp and cotton to the province . . .”

On the smallest of the four main Japanese islands (Shikoku) hemp is grown for the use of the imperial family.  When emperor Hirohito died in 1989, a coronation was held for his heir.  Since Hirohito’s son was succeeding him as the ‘living entity of God’, there was to be a special Shinto ritual.  In Shinto beliefs, hemp symbolizes purity, and the new emperor was bound by tradition to wear hemp garments, which had become unavailable over the course of his father’s long rule.
When a new Emporer ascends the throne in Japan, specific, symbolic rituals and ceremonies usher in the passing into the new era.   Even the years in modern times are measured by the Emporer’s years of reign, indeed history is divided into eras of rulers.  As hemp is a symbol purity in the Shinto traditon, the Emporer wears hemp robes for many of the ceremonies.  The prinicpal ceremony is called “Daijotsu” (great rice offering) and while the details are a secret, there must be a roll of hemp waiting at the foot of the royal futon at the end of the day.
Since the last occurance of the Daijotsu, (pre W. W. II, Emperor Hirohito) hemp had been criminalized.  A group of Shinto farmers in Tokushima-ken had thought ahead, planted a symbolic yet illegal crop, and presented the emperor with his new clothes made of pure local hemp (Gruett 1994, Bennet 1997).   They are still producing this hemp crop for the exclusive use of the imperial family.
In the village of Koyadaira-mura and Yamakawa-cho town, the country people spun and wove the cloth into the sacred fabric called “aratae” (fine cloth) 13 meters long and 34 centimeters wide.   The villagers presented it to the Imperial family so the Daijotsu could go on (Bennet 1997).
These farmers were rewarded for their efforts and continue to cultivate pure hemp exclusively for the Imperial family on their semi-tropical island between the “Seto-ki” (Inland sea) and the Pacific Ocean.
Ordinary Japanese are still able to buy hemp clothing and household accessories that come mostly from China, Korea, and more recently the US and Canada.  Hemp and its breezy feel is particularly favored as summer apparel in the muggy heat.  The domestic Japanese hemp is especially fine-woven and some weaves have a unique sheer, yet crisp crepe-like quality.  Occasionally, very small quantities of Japanese hemp make it to the market-place where it is sold by international high-end silk fabric dealers in amounts suitable only for collecting and research, and not as a commercial venture of consequence (Kolander 1996).
Kyoto has always been the center of the arts, humanities and spirit of Japan, and because of some well-timed discouragement from a US Diplomat, Kyoto was not seriously bombed during World War II (Atomic Bomb Museum 1994).   Thus, the traditional textile arts are carried on in the old capital and artists continue to use hemp for making sheer woven cloth, hand-dyed curtains and screens, paintings and quilts.  These arts often specifically require hemp cloth as it works best with the natural dyes and wax resist methods of dying.  Obtaining true hemp is difficult and the replacements simply do not perform as well.  A common pattern used in curtains, quilting and kimono is the traditional asa no ha (hemp leaf), featuring a mandala-like pattern of intersecting diamonds forming a stylized hemp leaf (Takeuchi 1996), and in the colorful art prints of the day, usually depicting plays and concubines.  The kimono of the artists portrayed frequently show this geometric leaf pattern, and it is still commonly created by textile artists today.
One of the most celebrated paintings of its time, Shimizu’s Taima Shukaku (Hemp Harvest) painted in 1929, depicts farmers cutting down thick, dense hemp fields, surrounded by a vibrant valley (Marui 1997).  Woodcut prints from an artistic agricultural text of 1979 show the same dense fields.  The caption explains how one must walk through the fields to “ventilate” the plants.  Other captions explain various well-evolved processes including a three-step water retting technique and also explain a means of bleaching with alkaline chemicals like potash and caustic lime (Wein 1997).

Tokomawashi (fermenting) “Soak in water, cover
it with straw mats, leave it for one or two days.”

        The use of ground hemp seed persists in the Japanese diet in the shichimi (seven spices) used for flavoring udon noodles.  While soy and rice have long been the nutritional staples, hemp seed was often part of the diet, used mostly as an addition to mountain vegetables or else as gruel.  In recent times, even brown rice has virtually disappeared from their kitchen in favor of processed foods and foreign dishes.  Certainly, Japan’s skill in soy foods like tofu and miso will adapt well to hemp, which exceeds so many of soy’s health benefits.  Unsterilized hemp seed bird food is also readily available in Japan.
Household accessories such as washcloths and curtains continue to be sold, but are made from Chinese and Korean hemp.  More recently, new hemp products from Western hemp manufacturers are “taking off”.   Given Japan’s enthusiasm for traditional, rugged North American fashion, this should become a burgeoning industry.  As more international exchange takes place, a blending of new ideas in business and activism is taking place.  This is bound to increase the markets in both countries.  With resources like the World Wide Web making borders and time zones less relevant, and young Japanese entrepreneurs looking to expand into an exciting field, some American companies are beginning to reap the rewards of this vast potential.  Of course, some Japanese realize this is an indirect trade.

        “The struggle to liberate and revive hemp is therefore a struggle to renew Japanese culture and liberate the country from the occupation policies and colonial subjugation of the United States.  Speaking spiritually, I believe this struggle is every bit as important as the movement in Okinawa today for the removal of the American bases.  We are talking about physical and spiritual independence.” (Yamada 1995)

The national government also continues to maintain its own seed reserves.  Since 1946, when Cannabis hemp was in short supply due to the war, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Medicinal Plant Garden has maintained a seed stock and bred varieties of asa for research at a large secure complex in suburban Tokyo.  Given the Japanese knack for detail and research, it is certainly a valuable cache of information and genetics.  The director, Torao Shimizu, maintains that the plants are just to teach people what hemp looks like so they can dispose of it should it be found it growing in their area (Lazarus 1994).  While the original intent seems to have been for medicinal use of Cannabis, this motive has been lost under a cloud of paranoia, though the use of seeds for medicine is common information.  “The seeds are used as bird seed and can also be used as a medicine (asashijingan), as a mild laxative” (Kojien 1991, Wein 1997).

Asafune (hemp boat) “Put it into a hemp boat (tub) filled with
water and leave it for two days.”

        Like other governments, the Japanese parliament is under-informed about the benefits of hemp, and continues to be hesitant to support extensive cultivation.  The actual current legal status still leaves the opportunity for application to cultivate hemp.  However, this is a frustrating, lengthy, and nearly always futile process, as the government rarely issues permits.   It has been so long since the last one was issued that most civil servants respond simply with a blank look (Gruett 1994).  For the first two decades, the law seemed to exist only on the books.  Farmers still grew hemp for community uses and the law was not enforced until the out-side pressures of ‘internationalization’ caught up.   Internationalization is the closest translation of Japan’s approach and attitude towards creating their niche as a responsible major world player.  Continued American military and business occupation, coupled with massive internal government scandals and instability, made creating an international identity difficult.  During the economic gravy days of the last few decades, the world’s view of Japan has been obscured by a massive corporate face.  Anyone can quickly name several well-known Japanese companies, but it is difficult to name a famous individual.  There is little room for individual thought against the mainstream policy.  This may begin to change as Japanese people continue a sort-of environmental reawakening.
The Hemp Control Act was first enforced during the harvest of 1967, when 20 stalks were seized from a farmer’s collective in the Shinshu, Nagano region (Yamada 1995).  The ensuing legal proceedings sparked the hemp liberation movement in Japan.  In the early 1970s, the first modern hemp symposium was held at Kyoto University and a court challenge was filed to argue that the ban was unconstitutional.  The hemp movement became a struggle not only against hemp laws, but against the pressure of the United States’ influence, and the continuing occupation of Okinawa by military forces.  Hemp conferences are now attended by a diverse group of lawyers, doctors, students, and farmers who are lobbying the government and encouraging research.
In Kyoto, one traditional hemp shop, Asakoji, continues to serve patrons since the 1600s, having survived wars and prohibition.   Perhaps more importantly, Asakoji shows the Japanese community a vital example of the age-old connection of spirituality, art and hemp agriculture in Japan.  Their hemp noren sign boasts in Japanese “We only know about hemp, but we know every detail.”  At the Taimado hemp shrine, a hemp shop owned by Koichi Maeda, sells hemp goods (mostly imported), and is a center for activism and research.   Maeda’s business cards are proudly printed on Japanese-grown hemp paper.   Citizens and customers are increasingly using political means, as well as spiritual, to restore hemp cultivation in their homeland (Maeda 1997).
Hidehiro Marui, a lawyer and writer from Shizuoka-ken has published several articles in prominent magazines and has challenged the courts.  He also holds a unique “loophole” permit allowing him to grow hemp at his home for research purposes.  Marui and his colleagues are also “blitzing” the mass media, publishing research and dissertations encouraging public education about hemp and its potential products.  Further they challenge the publicly owned broadcasters to give equal time to covering hemp’s positive impact along with negative Cannabis drug reporting.  Hemp’s potential as a building material is especially intriguing to this group, who plan to construct hemp houses, reducing Japan’s massive importation of wood. (Marui 1997)

Asahagi (peeling) “Break off two or three sun (6 to 9 cm) at the
bottom and peel skin and divide it from agara (husk).

        Before the year 2000, the Taima Torishima Ho (Hemp Control Act) will again be called for review to test its constitutionality (Marui 1997).  If hemp is given fair time, this will have a resounding impact and will certainly call the Japanese nation to debate at many levels.   In a country of political indifference, farmer’s cooperatives have been a vocal, organized political force since the Shogun periods.  Increases of low-cost crop imports, reductions in subsidies, and difficult weather have made many farmers look for a change from growing rice year after year.  This has also led to a re-emergence of sustainable, organic farming techniques that will speed the implementation of industrial hemp cultivation and rejuvenate the tired soil.
At several universities around Japan, research and test cultivation of low-THC hemp has been carried out since the early 1990s.  In Tochigi Prefecture, a group has recently begun producing and marketing rugged, refined paper made from pure, domestic hemp.  This handsome paper is available in limited supply and is being used for printing cards and book-covers.  Shinshu University in Nagano Prefecture is also cultivating hemp, but information is not being widely published.   Various projects are underway in Iwate and Fukui Prefectures and on Hokkaido island, showing hemp’s potential in many latitudes and climates.  Furthermore, in 1997 at least two permits have been granted to individual growers for crops in Shizuoka Prefecture, much closer to the urban centers of Japan.  One permit went to a young farmer couple and the other permit to a lawyer for personal research, following extensive legal wranglings.
Whether Japan will follow the hempen path along with Pacific Rim trading partners such as Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Canada remains to be seen.  Perhaps Japan will reaffirm its place as a regional leader and embark on a hemp cultivation program that will be a model for other Asian nations.   Japan’s economic growth provided an example that many other Asian nations are now emulating with staggering success.
An often startling fact to foreigners who have never visited the scenic Japanese countryside is that it is 80% forested, and much of that is in steep, sharp mountain ranges.  While Japan maintains its own forests in a sustainable and responsible manner, their companies and consumers continue to be a major detrimental force in the wholesale destruction of foreign forests to feed a thirst for mass media publications and information.  Particularly affected are forests in Malaysia, Guyana and Canada’s British Columbia, where the majority of the cut trees is pulped and made into newsprint and household paper.
Recently, Japan is starting to realize this and is taking steps towards meaningful alternatives, such as recycling and reducing consumption, especially with wood products.  Considering Japan’s skill at the traditional arts of the soil and spirit, combined with their modern prowess in manufacturing and mass-marketing, it will be exciting and inspiring to see what new impact the hemp plant makes on this country’s culture.  As Japan realizes its role as a global model, hemp will emerge from the shadows to greet the future in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

Hosu (drying) “Bleach the peel with rice ash or lime and dry it.
Then spin it into yarn, just like cotton.”


  • Asakoji  1997.  pers. comm.  quoted from the store’s banner sign in Kyoto, Japan.  Translated by Misa Nakanishi.
  • Atomic Bomb Museum  1994.  Hiroshima, Japan.
  • Bennet, Chris  1997.  pers. comm.  Vancouver, B.C.
  • Constantine, Peter  1992.  Japanese Street Slang, Tengu Books, Tokyo, Japan.
  • Dewey, Lyster H.  1920.  USDA Bureau of Plant Industry, Report of the Chief: No. 26.  from www.presenter.com/~davewest/fiberwars.
  • Dodge, C. A.  1896.  A report on the culture of hemp and jute in the United States.  USDA Office of Fiber Investigations Report No. 8: 7.
  • Fukuzawa, Yukichi  1960.  Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa translation by Eiichi Kiyooka.  Columbia Univ. Press, NY, NY.: 112-113.
  • Gakujin Inoue, Poli Kondo and Hiro  1994.  pers. comm.  Nagano, Japan.   Farmers, artists, crafters, healers and naturalists in the Shinshu area from whom I learned and lived the old ways of Japan.
  • Gruett, Steve  1994.  pers. comm.  Nagano, Japan.
  • Hidden Variable  1997.  Japanese History, Exploring Japanese Fuedalism Arcata, CA  from http://www.holdit.com/hidden/japan/toc.html
  • Hooker, Bruce  1996.  World Cultures: Ancient Japan, Jomon & Yoyoi Washington State University from www.wsu.edu:8000/~dee/AncientJapan/AncientJapanYayoi.html
  • JNTO  1997.  Japan National Tourism Organization, On-Line tour guide. www.jnto.go.jp/05regional/tokushima/experience.html
  • Kojien  1991.  4th edition of Japan’s major encyclopedia, Kojien
  • Kolander, Cheryl  1996.  pers. comm., Portland, Oregon  author of Hemp for Textile Artists 1995 Mama D.O.C., Inc. Portland.
  • Kotaru, Kyoshi  1996.  (How to make an) Asa Noren from www.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/franz/noren2.html
  • Lazarus, David  1994.  Sumertime and the Pot Farming’s Easy, Japan Times, August 7 from Joe Wein at http://www2.gol.com/users/joewein/hempjpn.htm
  • Maeda, Koichi  1995.  interview in Andrulli, Sim “The Grass is Greener”, Kansai Time-Out (English Language Weekly), Kobe, Japan.   June.  Thanks to Dominic Al-Badri. http://www.kto.co.jp/kto.html
  • Maeda, Koichi  1997.  pers. comm.  Vancouver, B. C.
  • Marui, Hidehiro  1997.  pers. comm.  “What is the Ganja” & “Asa and Human Culture”, Shizuoka-ken, Japan.  Thanks to Asada Yutaka at http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~IS2H-MRI/
  • Masuda, Eiji  1996.  pers. comm., Tokyo, Japan and Olympia, Washington.
  • Mayuzumi, H.  1996.  pers. comm., http://www.ict.co.jp/
  • Mead Corporation  1996.  History of Paper.  Dayton Ohio.  from www.mead.com/mead/history.html
  • Monk  1996.  pers. comm.  from a lecture by an unnamed buddhist priest at The Evergreen State College, Cultural Transformation in Modern Japan program.   Fall quarter
  • Moore, George Foot  1991.  Religions of Japan. from http://www.calyx.net/~schaffer/hemp/hemprefs.html
  • Rathburn, William J.  1993.  Beyond the Tanabata Bridge, Traditional Japanese Textiles.  Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Asian Arts.  Exhibit guide for a Seattle Asian Arts Museum exhibit on Japanese textiles.
  • Robinson, Rowan  1996.  The great Book of Hemp.  Park Street Press: 91.
  • Stearns, Peter N., Michael Adas and Stuart B. Schwartz 1992.  World Civilizations: The Postclassical Era Chapter 19: Spread Of Chinese civilization-Korea, Japan, and Vietnam from http://www.calyx.net/~schaffer/hemp/hemprefs.html
  • Takeuchi, Yasuko  1996.  Osaka, Japan. www.mimuclub.com.yasuko/
  • Taki, Chosuke  (no date).  A Handbook on the Art of Washi: A Collection of Questions and Answers.  All Japan Handmade Washi Association from www.datt.co.jp/origami/Info/washi.html
  • Wein, Joe  1996-97.  pers. comm., Kanto region, Japan.  Joe Wein has a wonderful trove of information on hemp in Japan and Germany on the WWW from which much info was gathered and shared.  See http://www2.gol.com/users/joewein/hempjpn.htm
  • Yamada, Kaiya  1995.  Tokyo Observer magazine #15, An Interview with Yamada Kaiya.  This interview first appeared in the December issue of Jiyu Ishi.   www.twics.com/~anzu/15-Hemp.html

Woodcut prints from the Nômin Seikatsushi Jiten (Historic Encyclopedia of Farmer’s Lives) courtesy of Joe Wein.