Weed in Japan: A Tale of Illegality and Anti-Pot Culture

Despite the country's long history with cannabis, Japanese anti-drug measures are notoriously rigid.

Himeji Castle and full cherry blossom with Fuji mountain background Source: Shutterstock

The movement to legalize weed has gone global. Canada, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and most of the United States are just a few of the governments around the world legalizing cannabis for recreational or medical use. 

Unfortunately, this trend hasn’t caught on everywhere, and anti-cannabis sentiment remains particularly strong in certain Asian countries. Japan, for example, is one of the most anti-pot countries in the world today. 

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In fact, the Japanese government is so worried about cannabis, it warned its citizens to refrain from cannabis consumption even when visiting a country where weed is fully legal. In October 2018, the Japanese Consulates in Toronto and Vancouver released a statement warning Japanese citizens that cannabis prohibitions laws applied to them even if they were using weed while visiting Canada, a country that has legalized cannabis for recreational and medical use at the national level. 

Japan’s Cannabis Control Act

Following World War II, the United States occupied Japan in order to “rehabilitate” the defeated nation under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. During this time, Japan passed the 1948 Cannabis Control Act, a law that restricted cannabis cultivation and possession. 

The passage of the Japanese Cannabis Control Act closely followed the United States enactment of the Marijuana Tax Act, a 1937 piece of legislation effectively banning all cannabis cultivation and possession in the U.S., including hemp. Interestingly, there was no perceived marijuana problem in Japan when the Cannabis Control Act was passed. 

The most likely explanation for Japan’s cannabis prohibition is the heavy influence of American forces. Unfortunately, the United States was intoxicated by its own xenophobic and racist tendencies at the time. These ideologies undergirded American cannabis prohibition and, despite an existing Japanese hemp industry, caught on in Japan. 

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Is Hemp Legal in Japan?

The bright side to the Cannabis Control Act was that it did not prohibit or disincentivize hemp cultivation outright, unlike the United States Marijuana Tax Act. Instead, the Japanese Cannabis Control Act restricted cannabis cultivation to farmers holding government-issued permits. This legal move made it possible for thousands of hemp farmers to continue their work without much government intervention—for a time. 

The over-regulation of the legal hemp industry in Japan resulted in a massive reduction of hemp farmers. Thousands of farmers cultivated hemp in 1954, but by 2018, that number was down to just a few dozen. The majority of hemp farmers in Japan cultivate the crop for the manufacture of textiles, especially those used for religious ceremonies.  

Weed Arrests in Japan

The Japanese Cannabis Control Act includes the following penalties for cannabis violations:

  • Up to 10 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of 3,000,000 yen for the unlawful cultivation, import, or export of cannabis for financial gain 
  • Up to five years imprisonment and a fine up to 2,000,000 yen for the unlawful possession or transfer of cannabis 
  • Up to three years imprisonment for the knowing provision of funds, transportation, equipment, or facilities to anyone conducting an illegal cannabis operation 

In 1991, Japan passed a law known as the Act Concerning Special Provisions for the Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Act, etc. and other Matters for the Prevention of Activities Encouraging Illicit Conducts and Other Activities Involving Controlled Substances through International Cooperation. 

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Yes, that is the actual name of the law. 

According to Special Provisions Act, “a person who publicly agitates or incites committing a drug crime […] is subject to imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 500,000 yen.” That means you can go to jail just for talking positively about pot use. Japanese authorities used this law to justify the arrest of a man and woman who posted messages on social media promoting weed.  

The rate of weed arrests in Japan is increasing. In 2019, Japanese law enforcement made 4,321 cannabis arrests, a 17 percent increase in arrests from 2018. Those elevated arrest rates are a part of a multi-year trend—for the past seven years in Japan, each year results in a higher number of cannabis arrests than the year before. 

Why is Japan so Anti-Pot?

The Japanese have a long history with cannabis. A small but old segment of society used hemp the way that it’s been used around the world for thousands of years: for paper, fabric, and medicine. But when the United States brought its “reefer madness” paranoia to the island country, the Japanese adopted laws that did not reflect reality. 

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Today, Japanese anti-drug measures are notoriously rigid. In fact, the societal and political attitude toward any psychoactive substance, including cannabis (but ironically, not alcohol), closely reflects American sentiment toward drug use at the peak of the war on drugs. No one is protected from public scrutiny. 

Celebrities in the United States are almost expected to smoke weed and are either praised, ridiculed, or pitied if caught. In Japan, being arrested for cannabis possession is a career-ending publicity disaster. Shows are canceled, products are pulled off shelves, and the guilty parties are subject to prison sentences, fines, and a much more limited future than what they’re used to. But things may be changing. 

Recently, Yusuke Iseya, a widely admired celebrity with more than 20 years of experience in TV and film, was raided and arrested for cannabis. The initial government and media response was typical. However, one of Iseya’s co-stars praised his work ethic and said she looked forward to working with him again, an indirect but obvious detour from the regularly scheduled condemnation. Moreover, the studio producing Iseya’s upcoming film announced that it would continue with the project, “based on our view that the film and the individual are different things.” 

The fact that these tiny attitudinal shifts represent a dramatic departure from Japan’s conventional reaction to cannabis use is telling. If you plan to travel to Japan, consider making it a weed-free vacation. Even if minds are slowly beginning to change, you’re unlikely to find many sympathizers around to help you out if you get caught smoking pot in Japan. 

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