“It’s not something I ever talk about with other Japanese people,” Takeshi tells me, wiping his hands on his bartender’s apron. “They don’t understand. I can only talk about it with foreigners like you.” Takeshi owns a bar on the east side of Tokyo, and his name isn’t really Takeshi. He, and nearly everyone else I spoke with, asked that their names not be included in order to ensure their safety.
Takeshi began smoking cannabis at age eighteen when, obsessed with hip hop, he took off to New York City to see the home turf of his musical idols. One of his American friends introduced him to marijuana and he’s been smoking ever since, traveling between the US and Jamaica and Japan. “My parents, my friends…they think because the punishment is the same, marijuana is the same as cocaine, heroin, all of that.” He shrugs, adding “What can you do? I just don’t talk about it. If even one person tells the police, I’m screwed.”
That’s not mere hyperbole. Even global megastar Paul McCartney spent over a week in a Japanese jail after a 1980 arrest for marijuana possession at a Tokyo airport. It was only his status as one of most famous musicians in the world that saved him from what was, at the time, the standard sentence: seven years hard labor.
“My parents, my friends … they think because the punishment is the same, marijuana is the same as cocaine, heroin, all of that. What can you do? I just don’t talk about it. If even one person tells the police, I’m screwed.” – Takeshi, Tokyo-area Bar Owner
Attempting to get a glimpse at what the hip young Tokyo natives thought of cananbis, I messaged an acquaintance of mine who works in a hip, fancy salon/boutique in a hip, fancy part of town. He’s young, he’s fashionable, he had lived in the west for a few years and not only spoke excellent English but was also in a position to compare both cultures and their attitudes toward marijuana. I told him I was writing an article for a western magazine and wanted to ask him a few questions. “Sure,” he responded immediately. “I’m happy to help. What’s the article about?” I told him, and he hasn’t spoken to me since. Japanese people, on the whole, do not like talking about illicit drugs. In a country famous for its zero-tolerance drug policy, even talking about illegal narcotics makes most people extremely uncomfortable, and cannabis is no exception.
Even a casual glance at marijuana’s perception in the media seems to confirm this. Consider the Saya Takagi story: a former actress running for a seat in the Upper House of Japan’s parliament, she was alone in her support for the legalization of medical marijuana. Both Takagi and her campaign were mostly ignored by the media — some suggest this was deliberate — until three months after losing her race she was picked up in an Okinawa drug raid and arrested for possession of marijuana. The media was not kind. There is little sympathy in either the press or the justice system for anyone arrested for possession, even if they’re using it as a last-ditch effort in their battle with advanced liver cancer. In fact, such has marijuana been demonized that even using it outside of Japan’s borders, even in a state where it’s recreational use is legal, is enough to end one’s athletic career.
In light of this, the bizarre silence from friends and acquaintances on the subject became understandable. I decided a new investigative track was necessary and, wanting a law enforcement perspective on the matter, I called up the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and asked to speak to their Public Relations division. I was transferred to a polite older gentleman who asked for the name of the publication for whom I was writing. I answered him and could clearly hear his fingers clicking across a keyboard. Seconds later he told me that he was unable to answer any of my questions, which I thought was strange response, given that I hadn’t actually asked him anything up to that point. He suggested I speak to the National Police, who were, to my surprise, also unable to answer any of my (thus far unasked) questions.
I’m not sure why even the police were uncomfortable talking about marijuana. Maybe they thought I’d bring up embarrassing statistics that indicate marijuana use, while still a very minor phenomenon in Japan, is on the rise. In a nation that has worked so hard to eradicate the abuse of narcotics, this increase might feel like a shameful failure to law enforcement officials. Or perhaps they, like many others, feel that the slow seepage of western culture into Japan is bringing a more liberal attitude towards marijuana, something they do not wish to foster. In which case speaking with a western lifestyle magazine devoted to marijuana enthusiasts will not be high on their list of priorities.
Despite this commonly held attitude, or perhaps because of it, it should be noted that marijuana was not imported from abroad. The pacific rim has its own native strands of cannabis which have been used since antiquity to make rope, clothes and other hemp products until the 1948 Taima Torishimari Hou — Cannabis Control Act — made all such activity illegal, even though there is no evidence cannabis was used recreationally or even medicinally before that time. And although the cannabis grown and cultivated for hemp has a far lower THC count than the marijuana used for recreational purposes, both are considered identical under the law and are referred to with the same word: “taima”.
Junichiro Takayasu, director of the Taima Hakubutsukan in Tochigi Prefecture, the only cannabis museum in Japan, told me the reasons for prohibition were economic and political in origin. “Textile manufacturing greatly increased in 1948, and modern chemical fibers were cheaper and easier to produce than cannabis. America wanted Japan to adopt drug laws similar to its own, and outlawing all cannabis — a full prohibition, like America preferred — would both appease the Americans and bring more efficient textile manufacturing to Japan.” The Americans got the full prohibition they wanted, the post-war Japanese market got the more efficient textile manufacturing it wanted, and between the two the traditional cannabis farmers in Japan got tsubureru (潰れる), “to be crushed”. Their industry all but disappeared, and today only a handful of farmers in Japan are licensed to grow taima.
“I think American weed culture becoming more mainstream has helped make Japanese marijuana better.These days people know how to grow and cultivate it to produce better, more powerful strains.” – Mori, Tokyo-area Musician and Translator
Tokyo musician and translator “Mori” agrees with the notion that western influence is the best explanation to the increase in usage. “I think it’s because the west has been changing it’s attitude and that’s slowly leaking into Japan,” he told me. Mori began smoking at sixteen and still remembers buying marijuana from Iranian street dealers in Shibuya. I asked him about the quality of the product and he laughed. “It was brick weed from China or something. Half the time it was brown. The taste was terrible.”
Since then the price has mostly either stayed the same, or even dropped in some cases. In the early 2000s one would typically pay 5,000 yen (roughly USD $50.00) per gram, and now Mori pays anywhere from 3,500 to 5,000 yen for the same amount. The Iranians are gone now, and so is the brick weed — though the price has remained relatively the same, the quality of the marijuana has greatly improved. “I think American weed culture becoming more mainstream has helped make Japanese marijuana better,” Mori told me. “These days people know how to grow and cultivate it to produce better, more powerful strains.”
Everyone I spoke with agreed that there’s a strong connection to counterculture music (especially western) and marijuana in Japan, and it’s true that counterculture music and marijuana have been closely associated for several decades in the minds of Japanese people. Perhaps authorities are right to worry this will make marijuana more alluring to young people. As if to put too fine a point on this opinion, a half-dozen high school students in Kochi Prefecture were arrested for marijuana possession and their blunt explanation was “we wanted to be like foreign musicians, and so we smoked weed.
There is a sad, cruel irony behind this phenomenon. Visitors to the Taima Hakubutsukan may be treated to the sight of a 1947 photograph depicting Emperor Hirohito speaking with taima farmers, a conversation in which, according to Takayasu, the emperor is assuring the farmers that their traditional livelihood, the very methods by which they and generations of their ancestors served the community, would be protected. A promise like that is no small thing in Japan. In this country tradition is not simply a matter of habit but rather a matter of identity, both in terms of the workers and the communities they serve as well as the nation at large. The emperor must have known even then that his was an impossible promise, that the plain and stark necessity of rebuilding his shattered country — a task which required appeasing the imperial forces occupying Japan — meant that he would have to erase yet one more part of his own nation, one more part of its identity. And now, seventy years later, the utter stupidity and hypocrisy of the war on drugs has manifested itself in the US undermining its own goals by sneaking marijuana into Japan through cultural back doors.