Cannabis in Japan – Laws, Use, and History

Prior to 1948, cannabis was widely cultivated in Japan. It was valued for its practical uses in making textiles and rope, for example, and as an integral part of religious and spiritual practices. With the introduction of the Cannabis Control Law by US officials its use, sale and growth became banned in the country. Now cannabis use is deeply frowned upon.

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Cannabis laws in Japan

Can you possess and use cannabis in Japan?

It’s illegal to use or possess cannabis in Japan. The Cannabis Control Act was introduced in 1948, when the country was occupied by the US after the Second World War, under the control of General MacArthur. It hasn’t been significantly changed since then.

The law was passed despite the fact that Japan had no particular problem with cannabis abuse. Indeed, the plant grew prolifically across the country, and was regarded as a highly important crop serving practical, religious and spiritual purposes.

The law specifically refers to both possession and use, and states that those caught with cannabis (for personal use) may receive a prison sentence of up to five years. Although hemp is regarded as a beneficial plant, the authorities take a less tolerant view of cannabis, and it’s not uncommon for people to be imprisoned simply for possessing a single joint.

There is also a risk of social punishment which could take the form, for example, of losing one’s job or being excluded from school. This serves as a powerful deterrent for the people of Japan. The actress Saya Takagi offers a famous example of this in action. After being caught in possession of cannabis, all the programmes she appeared on were removed from the television schedules. She’d also written a theme song for a TV show, which was immediately removed. Likewise, a rugby player for the country’s national team, after being caught, received a lifetime ban from the game, and Toshiba cut all sponsorship deals with his regional team.

Any foreigners caught using or possessing cannabis may be deported, and banned from ever re-entering the country again. The musician Paul McCartney is the country’s most notorious example of this  – after being caught with cannabis, he wasn’t allowed back into Japan until eleven years after the event.

Can you sell cannabis in Japan?

If caught with an amount of cannabis that could be “used for the purpose of gain” (i.e. sold), then the Cannabis Control Law states that the prison sentence rises to up to seven years. The offender may also receive a fine of 2,000,000 yen, depending on the specific circumstances involved.

For importing or exporting cannabis, the prison sentence remains the same, but the fine is raised to up to 3,000,000 yen. If someone is found to have ‘mediated’ the transfer, sale or supply of cannabis, he may receive a two-year prison sentence.

Can you grow cannabis in Japan?

It’s illegal to cultivate cannabis in Japan. If caught growing any amount, the offender may receive a prison sentence of up to seven years, and also given a 3,000,000 yen fine.

This certainly wasn’t the case in the past. Junichi Takayasu, the curator of Taima Hakubutsukan (Japan’s only hemp museum) explained to The Japan Times how prevalent cannabis cultivation used to be in the country.

“Cannabis farming used to be a year-round cycle,” he stated. “The seeds were planted in spring then harvested in summer. Following this, the stalks were dried then soaked and turned into fibre. Throughout the winter, these were then woven into cloth and made into clothes, ready to wear for the next planting season.”

After the Cannabis Control Law was passed, Japanese farmers were in a state of panic. Emperor Hirohito reassured them that they would be able to continue to grow the plant – which they did, despite the introduction of the new law. In 1950, there were around 25,000 cannabis farms in operation across the country.

This number slumped in the years that followed, but it wasn’t the law that brought about the decline. In fact, it was the growing popularity of artificial fabrics that caused it, and the elevated costs of the cultivation licences.

Is CBD legal in Japan?

Although Japan’s authorities adopt a hard line when it comes to cannabis, the law does permit the use and sale of CBD. It was legalised in 2016, and some companies are now allowed to produce CBD products. However, it was only in 2018 that businesses were permitted to advertise their products.

Can cannabis seeds be sent to Japan?

The Cannabis Control Act specifically lists cannabis seeds as an illegal substance. However, the law is ambiguous on this topic, and it seems that the seeds are legal to possess, as long as they’re not used for cultivation. If the seed is sterilised (and can’t be germinated), then technically, it’s also legal to mail it into the country.

Medicinal cannabis in Japan

Prior to the Second World War, cannabis played a significant role in traditional Japanese medicine. It was used to treat conditions such as insomnia, and to offer pain relief. This all changed after the hemp law was introduced in 1948. 

Japan doesn’t currently have a medicinal cannabis programme. In 2007, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals (a Japanese company) announced that it had licenced Sativex from GW Pharmaceuticals to conduct research, which was carried out in the US.

However, this didn’t lead to the product being legalised for medicinal purposes in Japan. Indeed, in 2015, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals stated that its latest trials (regarding cannabis treatment for patients with advanced cancer) had been inconclusive.

Some people have spoken out in favour of introducing a medicinal cannabis programme in Japan. A notable example is Masamitsu Yamamoto, who was caught in possession of cannabis in 2015. He claimed that he was using it as a last resort, to relieve the pain caused by his advanced liver cancer. He petitioned the government to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes, but passed away during the trial, in 2016.

Hideo Nagayoshi, a representative of the Japan Medical Marijuana Association, supported Yamamoto during the trial. He commented that: “No other marijuana trials in Japan’s history had dug this deep into the validity of marijuana as a cancer treatment.”

Industrial hemp in Japan

When the Cannabis Control Act was being drafted, US officials initially wanted to ban both hemp and cannabis. The Japanese authorities managed to convince the US to issue permits for hemp production instead.

The law was mostly ignored until the 1960s. The ‘hippy’ counterculture movement meant that more Japanese people started growing hemp again, without permits. This was a risky business, given that Japan was a major US base for operations in Asia, and that the US were currently fighting a war with Vietnam.

Nowadays, hemp cultivation is legal, but only with an official licence. There are two types of licence, and the easiest to obtain is the one for growing low-THC hemp. ‘Tochigishiro’ is the most commonly grown strain, as its levels of THC are remarkably low.

Farmers in Japan are keen to see the law changed, and for hemp cultivation to become an easier process. Some have suggested that the Kyoto Protocol supports their views. This document forms part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Hemp cultivators point out that hemp is a sustainable crop, and could be beneficial for the environment.

Akie Abe, wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is a big advocate of hemp, and in an interview with a Japanese magazine, reportedly stated that “hemp is a plant which all parts can be used effectively. (…) While it is not yet permitted in Japan, I think it can be put into great practical use for medical purposes as well”.

Good to know

If you are travelling to Japan (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:

  • Some experts believe that the intolerance towards cannabis is what drives many people in Japan to use harder drugs, such as amphetamines. Stimulants like these are regarded as a major problem in the country.
  • Cannabis use is relatively uncommon in Japan. Just 1.2% of the population have tried it in the past. To provide some comparison, in the US, 41.9% of people have tried it.
  • Although not many people use cannabis in Japan, numbers are on the rise. In 2017, for example, 3,008 people were arrested on cannabis-related charges, 472 more than the previous years, and the highest figure ever recorded in the country.

Cannabis history

Cannabis has been prevalent in Japan for centuries. According to Takayasu (the curator of the Hemp Museum), the earliest evidence of cannabis in the country dates back to the Jomon Period (somewhere between 10,000 BCE to 300 BCE).

Cannabis fibres and seeds were located in western Japan, and archaeologists believe that the plants were used for making clothes, bow strings and fishing lines. Ancient cave paintings were also discovered, featuring images that look very similar to cannabis plants with the same shaped leaves and spindly stems.

The plant continued to be important to the Japanese people for several hundred years. Cannabis is mentioned in Manyoshu – a book of poetry dating back to the 8th century. Ninjas used the plants in their training by jumping over them each day (some cannabis strains are known for their rapid growth). There are also woodblock prints dating from the 1600s, showing women spinning cannabis fibres, and farmers harvesting cannabis plants.

It played an integral role in Shintoism (Japan’s indigenous religion). Shinto priests believed that cannabis cleansed the air; they would wave bundles of leaves around them to get rid of negative spirits. In fact, cannabis was regarded as a symbol of purity, which is why brides often wore veils made from cannabis when they were married.

The Second World War changed cannabis’s role in Japanese society significantly. The law banned its use, and attitudes towards it changed accordingly. Now, the plant that was once so revered in society is looked upon as a dangerous substance, and shunned by many.

Thanks to the Emperor securing hemp permits for farmers, the hemp industry was saved from extinction. It’s still grown in Japan to this day.

Attitudes towards cannabis

The Japanese government is notoriously negative about cannabis use. This is so much the case that they even requested that Japanese nationals should “respect Japanese law and stay away from marijuana” when visiting other countries where the drug is legal, like Canada.

This attitude is reflected by many of Japan’s citizens who believe that cannabis is a dangerous drug. It’s also regarded as socially unacceptable, something that’s reflected in the public shaming of several high-profile figures caught using it.

However, there’s a growing movement challenging these opinions. For example, Saya Tagaki (the actress arrested for cannabis possession), became a candidate for the Japanese Resistance Party, and spoke out about the plant’s medicinal benefits.

Will it be legalised in the future?

It’s highly unlikely that Japan will legalise cannabis any time soon, either for medicinal or recreational purposes. Although it has permitted some companies to carry out research on cannabis’s health benefits, none of these studies have led to anything further.

It’s important to note that CBD was legalised in 2016, which marks a slight shift in public attitude. Whether these attitudes change further in the future remains to be seen.

  • Disclaimer:
    While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to provide legal advice, as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

Comments

4 thoughts on “Cannabis in Japan – Laws, Use, and History”

  1. Hello, good article. I recommend you to write an article about the cultural importance/impact of cannabis around the world.

  2. As a long term resident here in Japan I very much appreciate your insightful article on hemp in Japan.

    1. As medical marijuana is finding its way through legislation, non-psychoactive hemp, also a cannabis plant is an effective alternative to support healthy immune function and resilient health. Hemp is high in CBD’s which is the component of the cannabis plant thats noted for its beneficial properties in all studies done with medicinal marijuana.
      Please contact me if you are in Japan and would like a source of CBD’s. My company has just been approved to do business in Japan and will be shipping there very shortly.
      organichempjapan.com

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    Sensi Seeds

    The Sensi Seeds Editorial team has been built throughout our more than 30 years of existence. Our writers and editors include botanists, medical and legal experts as well as renown activists the world over including Lester Grinspoon, Micha Knodt, Robert Connell Clarke, Maurice Veldman, Sebastian Maríncolo, James Burton and Seshata.
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    Maurice Veldman

    Maurice Veldman is a member of the Dutch Association of Criminal Lawyers and one of the Netherlands’ most notable cannabis lawyers. With 25 years’ experience in the field, his knowledge of criminal and administrative law supports cannabis sellers and hemp producers by addressing the inequalities between the individual and the state.
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