Japanese marijuana smokers have a sixth sense. Or at least, that’s what Takeshi (not his real name) tells me as we sit in an increasingly smoky room in suburban Saitama, where a chunky, pungent joint is being passed from person to person.
“You don’t ask a person if they smoke. You just know. You’re a smoker and they come to you,” he says.
Takeshi rolls a mean joint, but that’s hardly surprising, as he’s been a smoker for 18 years. His friend Kenji’s not bad either. Both of them are in their 30s, hold down jobs, play sports and lead otherwise normal lives. They grow marijuana themselves, or otherwise access it through networks of friends.
“No one’s really selling it. Most people are just growing for themselves. They’re peaceful people and they just grow it and give it to their friends,” Takeshi says.
But after years flying beneath the radar, Japan’s marijuana underground is getting paranoid — and it’s not just the weed talking. High-profile cases involving celebrities, sports stars and university students have focused media and political attention squarely on what’s being portrayed as a marijuana boom.
“Now marijuana is big in the news because a lot of people are getting caught and everybody’s getting nervous,” Takeshi says. “Before it was kind of free but now the tension is getting bigger and we always feel kind of depressed. Everybody’s really uptight.”
3,793 marijuana-related arrests in 2008
Marijuana-related arrests soared in Japan last year — there were 3,793 in 2008, compared to 3,272 in 2007 and 1,670 in 1999. Four sumo wrestlers — three Russian and one Japanese — have been expelled for smoking grass in the past year, throwing the ancient sport into a crisis that claimed the scalp of the sumo association head Kitanoumi. At universities, including venerable institutions such as Waseda and Kyoto, students have been caught selling and smoking marijuana, mostly home-grown from seeds bought over the Internet.
The apparent spike in marijuana usage has sparked a wave of warnings about the apocalyptic threat the drug poses to society. An email sent to Waseda students thundered that marijuana smokers “all too often end up physically and mentally ruined, perhaps leading lives of crime.”
“There is no ‘innocent’ or ‘harmless’ way to take illegal drugs. In Japan, possession alone is sufficient to lead to the most dire of social punishments. Engaging in drug-related activity is utter stupidity,” it read.
Newspaper editorials followed a similar line. Railing against the “cannabis pollution” sweeping the country, the Asahi Shimbun mounted arguments against those who wonder why marijuana is illegal, while tobacco and alcohol are not.
“Banned substances, including cannabis, are believed to act on the brain’s ‘reward center’ that produces the sense of satisfaction felt when one achieves something. In short, they act on what could be called the source of human vitality,” it said.
But a significant number of young Japanese seem to be suspicious of this official hysteria, and a recent survey revealed that a majority of Waseda University students have no trouble accessing illegal drugs. So are we witnessing the emergence of Japan’s first stoner generation? And if we are, is that such a terrible thing?
Thriving marijuana underground
You won’t see any Bob Marley posters on the wall of Hemp Restaurant Asa in Shimokitazawa. Its clean white surfaces are awash with ambient lighting, and the kitchen serves up macrobiotic food made from hemp-derived ingredients.
The restaurant’s owner, Koichi Maeda, is one of Japan’s best-known hemp activists, campaigning for the legalization of cannabis for both medical and commercial purposes. Now 58, he has written several well-received books, including "Marijuana Seijun Ryokou" (“Young Marijuana Holiday”), about his adventures smoking pot around the world. He also speaks Arabic, English and Korean. In fact, Maeda is as close as you get to a celebrity in Japan’s marijuana underground.
“I think marijuana use is becoming more widespread,” he says, “especially as more and more people go abroad and experience marijuana in the U.S. or Southeast Asia.”
According to Maeda, most pot is grown in homes and distributed among networks of friends, rather than through organized crime gangs. He estimates that 2-3 million people smoke marijuana in Japan, although there are no hard figures to back this up.
“The police say marijuana becomes a source of profit for the yakuza, but marijuana smokers don’t like to have relations with the yakuza,” he says.
Maeda is big on the history of cannabis in Japan. Before the end of World War II, hemp was an important crop, and not because of any narcotic qualities. It was widely grown in the Japanese countryside and used to make rope, nets, clothes and other products. Even today, religious robes that the emperor wears during certain ceremonies are made from hemp.
But when the Americans rewrote Japan’s constitution after World War II, hemp was outlawed— which led to protests from local farmers.
“In the Diet, there was an argument about hemp control,” Maeda says. “Some members of parliament, especially from the agricultural areas, fought against the control because they were very poor at that time and needed the plant.
“In the end, hemp was allowed to be grown with a license, and about 20,000 were engaged at the time. But now only 200 growers have the license because it is very strictly regulated. It’s almost impossible to get one — you have to build a very high fence, over five meters high.”
Strict drug laws
Japan has some of the world’s strictest drug laws, with heavy sentences meted out for relatively minor offenses. About five years ago, Maeda became embroiled in a high-profile case involving his friend, the late writer Ramo Nakajima.
Nakajima, who had gained a cult following with novels such as "Tonight, Every Bar in Town," asked Maeda to supply him with some marijuana, ostensibly to help with his glaucoma. Maeda enlisted a grower friend, who gave a 1/4 ounce to the writer. Police caught Nakajima with the pot at his home, and Maeda and the grower were also arrested. Nakajima later died after falling down a flight of stairs in an alcohol-induced stupor.
“I received an eight-month suspended sentence and three years’ probation. I fought that all the way up to the Supreme Court, because it was for medical problems,” Maeda says.
Maeda battled the conviction on constitutional grounds, but lost. He now has a criminal record, and his grower friend remains in prison five years later.
“Five years is too much. My friend is 56 years old now. I am really angry — he tried to help people. Even if glaucoma was not the main reason, I know that Nakajima needed marijuana for his depression,” he says.
Peter, a 36-year-old English teacher who hails from America’s west coast, also has first-hand experience with Japan’s marijuana law enforcement. Tokyo police caught him smoking last year, and he spent the next 10 days sharing a cell with a homeless man, a heroin addict and an “ore ore” scammer.
“We were out on the town in a pretty popular area in west Tokyo and me and some people I knew started smoking,” Peter says. “A couple of witnesses saw us and called the cops … it was just so surreal for me. I just thought, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Whisked away in a police car with sirens blaring, he soon found himself handcuffed and tied to a chair, where he went through several hours of interrogations about who owned the drugs and the one member of his group who’d escaped.
“I was in over my head, thinking this is more serious than I thought it was and this is not going to be an easy ride. When it really hit me was when they started doing the fingerprinting, because that was a precursor to going into a police holding cell,” he said.
For the next 10 days, Peter lived a highly regimented prison life. English was not allowed — he passed the time by revising Japanese textbooks which his girlfriend brought in. Peter speaks good Japanese, so he was able to chat with his cellmates, which helped alleviate the boredom. So did meals, letter writing and cigarettes.
“I didn’t really smoke cigarettes before that. You just look for the little things, anything you can do to get through the day. There were two breaks: one was sleeping at night, because your mind can take you anywhere you want, and the other was smoking a cigarette.”
Peter is circumspect about his experience. On the one hand, he can’t understand why smoking marijuana is regarded as such a heinous crime, but on the other he knowingly broke Japanese laws — in a public place.
“When you know that something’s illegal and you still do it, then you run the risk of getting caught. As much as my personal view is that marijuana’s not such a big deal, that rule is still there, and I think it’s important to respect that,” he says. “But I kind of felt it was a bit harsh. For doing something which causes no victims and is pretty much innocent, I think it’s pretty ridiculous, to be honest.”
Little chance of decriminalizing pot
It’s far-fetched to imagine that drug laws in Japan will change any time soon. Media, political and public opinion is stacked against those who would like to see pot decriminalized. Occasional pro-marijuana demonstrations, like the recent 420 March in Tokyo, draw hundreds of people, but in reality support for legal reform is very low.
“Of course, the smokers want decriminalization of marijuana, and other people want hemp for industrial purposes, and others for medical purposes,” Maeda says. “But it’s not yet very strong.
“Through the events of this last half year, the TV and the police and the government have tried to implant the idea that marijuana is very bad,” he continues. “Smokers become violent and lose their memory and become sick. But I don’t think this will affect a lot in the future, because in the last 15 years, people came to know the reality. Even if the government spreads false stories, people will come to know.”
Takeshi and Kenji, of course, support the decriminalization of marijuana. But they don’t seem keen to take the fight to the authorities — what they’d really like is for the public attention to disappear so they carry on smoking, without fear of intense police and government scrutiny.
“It’s about 50-50 in terms of whether people believe what the government says,” Takeshi says. “We don’t care what these people think. Their mindset is really old-school. It’s a really tight feeling.”
As the night rolls on in Saitama, so do the joints. Ideas are discussed, jokes are told and YouTube classics are shared. Eventually, the party degenerates into a jam session of staggering musical ineptness.
It seems bizarre that one curious neighbor could land us in jail, possibly for years. We’re criminals, every one of us — relaxed, giggling, happy criminals.
Local hotspots for hemp enthusiasts
Taimado: Store and online shop sell pipes, bongs, rolling papers, clothing, incense and CDs. 2F, 2-6-5 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-5454-5880. Open daily noon-11 p.m. Nearest station: Shimokitazawa. www.taimado.com
Hemp Restaurant Asa: Serves a full menu of healthy hemp-based dishes. 3F, 2-18-5 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-3412-4118. Open Mon-Tue and Thu-Fri 5-11:30 p.m., Sat-Sun & hols noon-11:30 p.m., closed Wed. Menu in Japanese and English. Nearest station: Shimokitazawa, south exit. www.asanomi.jp
Chanvre Hemp Beauty: Offers a variety of oils, aromas and unguents. 5F, Yokoyama Building, 2-11-8 Kichijoji Honcho, Musashino-Shi. Tel: 0422-20-5306. Open Fri-Wed 11 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Thu. Nearest stn: Kichijoji. www.chanvre.jp
Grass: Kusa, gurasu, uiido, haabu (くさ、グラス、ウィード、ハーブ) High: Toba sareta (飛ばされた; lit: flying away) Whacked: Buri-buri (ぶりぶり) Joint: Jointo (ジョイント) Bong: Bongu (ボング) Wanna roll it?: Maku? (巻く) Roach: Ro-chi (ローチ)
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine.© Japan Today