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If you had exhausted all of your other options and were dying of cancer, wouldn’t you want legal medical marijuana to be available to you? A 58-year-old Japanese chef from Kanagawa Prefecture with advanced liver cancer was arrested for possession of cannabis for medical use in December of 2015, and has recently been attending court for his violation of national Japanese law. Masamitsu Yamamoto has never been in trouble with the police before and said that his attempts to get legal cannabis treatment failed. His fight has become symbolic of Japan’s struggle to legalize medical marijuana. Yamamoto stated, “I want to be saved, that’s all…I’ve tried everything else that modern medicine offers.”

A Brief History of Cannabis in Japan

According to The Asia-Pacific Journal, “Japan has some of the strictest anti-cannabis laws in the world.” But how did they come about? Japan has long included cannabis in its culture, and Takayasu Junichi, an expert on Japanese culture and cannabis, noted that “for thousands of years cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture.” Cannabis is taima in Japanese. Junichi explained that the earliest traces of cannabis seeds and woven fibers made from hemp date back to 10,000 B.C.E to 200 B.C.E. This time period is known as the Jomon Period, and the findings indicate that cannabis sativa plants were used to make bow strings, fishing lines, and clothing due to their fibrous strength. Prehistoric cave paintings of cannabis plants are another strong indication, and Junichi’s Taima Hakabutsukan (The Cannabis Museum) is the only museum of its kind on Japan. The museum also holds 17th century woodblock prints and a working loom where Junichi weaves hemp fibers into woven fabrics.

Cannabis was so prominent in Japanese culture that it’s even inspired idiomatic phrases. A Japanese proverb translates to “even gnarly weeds would straighten if grown among cannabis plants,” meaning that a bad person surrounded by good people will eventually become good as well. Students at schools in areas where cannabis was grown sang songs about growing “as straight and tall as cannabis plants.” An interlocking cannabis leaf motif decorated children’s clothing and was believed to bring economic luck. (What do you make of that, Denver?)

Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, promotes natural harmony and purity in the world – and cannabis was cherished for cleansing just as sage was in other religions. Bunches of cannabis leaves were waved in order to get rid of evil spirits, and brides even wore cannabis veils to their weddings. Ise Jingu (the “soul of Japan”) is Japan’s most sacred shine, dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. There are five taima ceremonies performed each year there, and thick ceremonial hemp ropes and displayed. Shinto priests often decorate their wands with the rind of cannabis stalks, as well.

Cannabis was cultivated until the early 20th century, and Japanese travelers would often leave cannabis offerings for safety on journeys – some families burned cannabis in doorways during the Obon festival to welcome back the dead spirits of loved ones. It’s unclear how Japanese people consumed cannabis; it may have been smoked or eaten, or both. Japan had the same cannabis-based medicines that the United States had before world-wide prohibition, and the country was also proud of its wariai kinoko, or “laughing mushrooms.” However, they were outlawed when Japan held the Japan-South Korea World Cup in 2002. Following World War II, American attitudes were imported into Japan’s culture, and cannabis became frowned upon – the U.S. passed the 1948 Cannabis Control Act when they still had possession of Japan. The law still hasn’t changed.

Japan’s Current Cannabis Laws

In Japan, possession of cannabis leads to a maximum five-year sentence, and cultivators get seven years. Of course, people arrested for cannabis possession or cultivation in Japan suffer cultural humiliation on television as well as career death, and Japanese scientists who wish to study cannabis are forced to travel to foreign countries in order to do so. With the progress that the United States, Europe, Canada, and South America are making in the area of cannabis reform, medicine, and scientific research, Japan would be wise to reconsider its archaic laws soon. Vice reported in 2014 that Japan’s laws on cannabis consumption and use only include the leaves and flowers of the plant, so CBD, the non-psychoactive compound, can legally be imported into Japan, helping many people.

The Fight for Medical Marijuana in Japan

Yamamoto was clearly suffering the effects of liver cancer at his court hearing – fluid buildup was obvious in his abdomen and he required a cane for walking. Japanese cannabis laws include Article 4, which bans medicinal cannabis use, even with a prescription, by anyone in the country. Yamamoto had tried chemo, immunotherapy, and everything else he could afford to no avail; tumors spread to his lymph nodes and lungs in less than four years. Then Yamamoto learned about the positive effects of cannabis on cancer patients on the Internet and proceeded to request legal cannabis to treat his illness from Japan’s health ministry, justice ministry, and agriculture ministry. He asked about clinical trials he could be involved in, but since cannabis research is illegal in Japan, he had no choice but to start growing cannabis for himself at home. Yamamoto’s condition rapidly improved with cannabis consumption – the Japan Times reported that his tumors shrank to “one-twentieth of what they used to be.” As a side effect, Yamamoto noted that his suicidal thoughts had stopped and he “felt much better.” Police arrested him last December and found 200 grams of cannabis in his home, all grown on site. Yamamoto wanted to “spark public debate” on medical cannabis use in Japan; he said “[a]s long as there are people whose lives have been saved by medical marijuana, research on it should be allowed. What is justice without life?”

Fighting alongside Yamamoto is Dr. Kazunori Fukuda who owns a Tokyo clinic for cancer patients, and worked on prevention at the National Cancer Center Research Institute for years; also working toward medical cannabis legalization is Koichi Maeda of the Iryo Taima wo Kangaerukai (Japan Medical Marijuana Association) who believes in compassionate use through scientific research. Ogasawara Kenji founded JAMM, the Japanese Association for Medical Marijuana, due to his struggle with multiple sclerosis and the relief that cannabis brought him. Confined to a wheelchair before his medical cannabis use, Ogasawara was able to walk with a cane after only three weeks.

Japan’s laws and social view of cannabis are behind-the-times – here’s hoping that patients and leaders like Ogasawara Kenji and Masamitsu Yamamoto can persuade Japan’s government to make changes that will improve the health of their people and improve their economy. All they need to do is let the idea take root.

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