HEMPEN CULTURE IN JAPAN
Nihon, has long been a land of mystery to outsiders. Though isolated
from the world’s progress for thousands of years, Japan still managed to
import and reinvent the wisest ideas from other lands, turning them
into something all their own. Hemp is no exception.
(Click to see big picture)
Hemp in Japanese history
As time went on, more people arrived on Japanese shores from China and Korea, some to trade, many to settle, in all taking Japanese culture on to another period. This Yayoi period produced major changes in Japan as "foreigners" imported more advanced practices and quickly made the indigenous Japanese adapt their ways. Most signifant was the spread of agriculture and clan-like social arrangment.
The people of these times lived in patriarchal groups and wore clothes made of hemp and bark, a technique which continued on for hundreds of years. At this time also the complex Shinto system of multiple patriarchal diety developed, as numerous clans each adopted a patron saint. (Hooker)
By that time, hemp had successfully adapted to the Japanese climate and spread throughout the latitudes. Even on the northern island of Hokkaido, the indigenous Ainu made their colorful costumes from the fiber during the Yayoi period around the 3rd century AD. (Constantine)
Thus, hemp was already a well-established crop in many parts of Japan by the time written language was commonly used, and the first "official" recorded history appears as the Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan), published by Crown Prince Shotoku in 710 AD (soon after the introduction of paper making, Chinese writing and Buddhism).
Trade and communication between China, Korea and Japan faded over the next few centuries as each country led it’s own secluded path. Japan did continue for a while to send scholars and students to learn medicine, agriculture and science from the Chinese and bring the best of it back home, including the Kampo (Chinese medicine) ancient pharmacopoeia developped by Lao Tzu. This system of health and treatment utilized many forms of the hemp plant to treat a variety of illnesses.
A translated account reads "Hemp preparations are especially used as a laxative, to treat asthma & poisonous bites, worm animals, counteract skin ailments and as a general tonic to promote vigor. "(Drake)
During these centuries of fuedal society, a leader emerged named Hideyoshi Toyotomi. He came from a typical village to unite Japan. An account of his growing up goes into some detail on daily life in the 1500’s.:
"The village of Nakamura lies in the rich farming country of southwestern Owari in the delta of the Kiso River. Cotton, hemp and rice were cultivated there during Hideyoshi’s day by a comparitively well-off community of peasants, many of whom owned their own land."
During the feudal era, hemp cultivation was encouraged by the Daimyo (feudal lords) wanting hempen-ware’s high resale value from the wealthy city merchants who favored hemp for making fine clothing. This brought economic strength and power to the Daimyo of the area (who were often in debt to the merchants) (Stearns).
The merchants had an interesting and much maligned position in fuedal society. They were ranked near the bottom of the ladder but by building "unions" and creative marketing, they were soon the wealthiest class. The Samurai forbid themselves to handle money as it was unclean and despised and feared the mechants because of there increasing wealth.
The merchants again learned the use of money from foreigners. "Merchants dealt not in rice but in coin, and utilized four metals: gold (oban, koban, ichibu kin), silver (chogin, mame-ita, monme), copper (zeni),and iron. They had square holes in the center based on the Chinese system, and were carried on strings of hemp." (Hidden Variable)
(note: the 5 yen coins still have a hole in them left over from this practice)
During this time, Japanese agriculture and social structure continued to change despite lack of new influence from outside sources. Indeed as the merchants and daimyo fueded, the farmers started to "unionize to sell their hemp directly to the markets in Edo (old Tokyo).
"Cotton was not grown much before the Muromachi period and then it seems to have been confined to mainly to Eastern Japan where growing condtions were not particularily favorable. Toward the end of the 16th century, however cotton found its natural habitat in the Kinai, thereafter the production of raw cotton very rapdily increased . . .
The hemp cloth industry of Uonuma county in Echigo Province provides an example of a different kind. This industry dated back to at least the Nara period, when taxes were party paid by the cloth. But the industry here acheived no considerable growth until certain innovations in bleaching and weaving were made toward the end of the seventeenth century. After that the output of hemp cloth increased from about five thousand rolls to about two hundred thousand roll annually until the end of the eighteenth century. By this time, local sources of raw material were no longer adequate to supply producers and hemp had to be importehttps://www.taima.org/files/uncleweed/d from aizu and yonezawa."(Smith)
While the farmers were supposedly given rights and privilege by the Samurai, they were in fact kept poor, busy and occupied with the agricultural process which was very labor-intensive in low-tech rural Japan. Even then, space was at a premium and the farmers began terracing the hillsides (as learned from China).
Hemp (along with silk for the wealthy Samurai class) was the primary source of clothing fiber until the 17th century when cotton was
introduced. Cotton began to replace hemp as the fiber crop for the new urban working class because of high yields by heavy fertilizer use and development of mass processing methods.(Mayuzumi)
Hemp continued to be used for a variety of specialized purposes, including the straps of geta (high wooden sandals), long-line eel fishing lines and packaging ropes (Mayuzumi), to name few.
After short periods of limited trade with some European countries (primarily Holland but only on an off-shore trading zone) in the early 17th century, Japan once again closed the bamboo curtain solidly to the west.
In 1853, American Commodore Perry and a fleet of black gunboats pried open the ports for trade and began a new era of change, trade and conflict.
Inside, a still feudal, warring nation scrambled to take stock of the impact and learn the secrets of these strange "bearded barbarians".
Realizing they had been caught in a very vulnerable position, Japan embarked on an intense, rapid industrialization. In the ensuing chaos, the young Emperor Meiji was restored and the Samurai class dissolved. Massive, sudden change occured in a short time, and a nation was restarted.
This new Meiji era sparked a period of mutual bewilderment and competitive fascination, an awkward dance between the East and West that begat wonderful exchanges of arts, medicine and humanity, and the brutality of war and racism.
Japan quickly engineered trains, steamships, silk factories and mining operations, surpassing in a few decades the growth of industry that had taken Europe and America close to a century. Shortly after their hasty ushering onto the world stage, Japan sent its first diplomatic mission to USA, sailing across the Pacific only four years after first seeing a ocean going vessel.
Among the crew, serving as the Captain Kimura’s personal servant and translator, was Yukichi Fukuzawa. He tells in his account of the journey about the crew all receiving a pair of hemp sandals to make the passage.
He goes on to say that some crewmen were a bit embarrassed when they arrived in San Francisco and saw how different their footwear and customs were:
"All of us wore the usual pair of swords at our sides and the hemp sandals. So attired we were taken to the modern hotel. . . Here the carpet was laid over an entire room and upon this costly fabric, walked our hosts wearing the shoes they had come in from the streets! We followed in our hemp sandals." (Fukuzawa)Young Fukuzawa went on to found Kieo University and inspire Japan’s new educational system. His face is now on Japan’s 10,000 Yen bill. Regardless of the fact that Japan had become a member of the world community, the country’s farmers still bore the brunt of the labor, working long days in treacherous conditions to supply essentials for an increasing urban population. From the humid summers to the freezing winters, hemp provided rugged and functional clothing.
In the Meiji and Taisho eras (19th century), country-people continued an ancient technique, combining hemp fiber with other plants like seaweed and broom-straw to make circular, pointed hats which the wet mountain snow would slide right off of. (Seattle Asian Arts)
These hats are really more of a solid helmet of hemp fiber intertwined with seaweed, perhaps to let the snow slide off the sloping, conical peak. The farmers also utilized similar materials in making pack-like, back support pads for hauling heavy loads down steep mountainsides. The crafting skill of the traditional artisans endures; the term for this is You no Bi . (Seattle Asian Arts) This tactile feeling of "beauty in utility" evokes a sense of the rugged simplicity and deliberate, elegant workmanship that blends so well with the hemp aesthetic.
During this same era when country people fashioned rugged workwear, the textile artist continued using hemp to a different end. The skill of the Japanese textile makers is seen in hemp kimono (traditional clothing) worn especially in the summer.
Hemp became a somewhat exclusive fabric used for special garments and upper classes. Hemp’s durability allowed the same fibers to be reused
several times for recycled clothing, rags and finally paper. As class structure made labor-intensive hemp unreachable for many, they tried to imitate the properties with cotton.
Before the introduction of cotton to Japan, hemp fiber had already long been in use for the weaving of cloth. (Hughes, 77)
In fact, the summer cotton kimono, the yukata, was the common person’s adaptation of the yukatabira (absorbent hemp bathrobes) the wealthy wore to and after soaking in the hot springs. (Mayuzumi)
Hemp in Religion
In the vast journey from India to China, the teachings of the Buddha were altered considerably, although on the trip from China to Korea and then on to Japan, the tenets remained undilluted. However, upon receiving this wisdom, the Japanese adapted and intertwined Buddhism with the traditional mythological religion of Shinto.
Shinto is the ancient "way of the gods." A ritualistic expression of profound respect for the kami (the intrinsic god-like spirit) in nature. Plants, animals, rocks, trees all possess a sort of spirit or reverence which can be terrifying or peaceful. In Shinto, humans are always searching towards purity and resposiblity which transcends the traditional religous sense and into day-to-day society.
Shinto’s creation stories tell of the islands that would become Japan rising from volcanoes and hot springs. God/dess figures descended to people the country with their direct descendants who are more cherished than any other on Earth. Purity and fertility are paramount concepts and from the beginning to the present, hemp is an essential symbol of both.
In Kojiki (the Record of Ancient Matters) the story relates: After creating the country the primal pair consulted together saying, "We have now produced the great eight island country, with the mountains, rivers, herbs and trees. Why should we not produce someone who shall be lord of the Universe." (Kojiki)
This first pair then begat the founding goddess-figure, Amaterasu Omi kami (Sun Goddess). She is enshrined at the holiest of place, the Ise Jinja (shrine) along with the ancient sacred mirror Ameratsu gave to her grandson when he descended from above to reign over the eight island kingdom.
At that shrine on the Ise penisula, the special prayer given for the founding Goddess of Japan is called Taima (cannabis). Further, hemp, salt and rice are the sacred staples that are used as part of all the rites at the shrine. (Yamada)
Indeed hemp and mulberry fiber and cloth, and paper made from them, as well as salt, sake, and rice are offered to the gods at the Shinto shrines.
This element of purity is stressed again as undyed hemp was an important part for the household of the new bride. This undyed hemp came to symbolize the womanly virtues of faithfullness, chastity and obedience. Like the undyed cloth, an old saying goes, the woman must allow herself to be dyed any color her husband chooses. (Hughes, 49)
In a shrine ritual, a Shinto priest shakes a short wand with hemp attached called a gohei over the head of patrons in a cleansing ceremony (Robinson)
Originally the actual hemp and mulberry fibers were attached to a stick but eventually paper made from the same and cut into distinctive zig-zag strips and attached to a sakaki branch became standard. The priests dressed in robes made of a sort of starched hemp paper so as to be pure to perform these purification rites. (Hughes)
Another Shinto tale tells that every October, all the dieties from around Japan gather at a sacred site in rural Shimane prefecture (Sea of Japan side of Honshu, south of Tottori) at Japan’s largest jinja (shrine) called Iizumo taisha. During this month, the rest of the nation is left unprotected from calamity while the Gods hold a harvest and match-making ritual celebration. (JNTO) Shimane-ken is far out of the way of any urban center and, besides being "Home of the Gods," it was the home to bounteous hemp harvests up until about 50 years ago.
Although initially widely accepted, Buddhism faded and didn’t really gain widespread acceptance again until an enterprising royal adjusted it significantly to make it more inviting to the masses by combining the search for enlightenment a sense with Zen asceticism (again borrowed from the Chinese).
At Shinto Jinja (shrine), and Buddhist Tera (temple) certain objects are symbolically made from hemp. For example, the leg-thick bell ropes must be hempen, as is the noren (a short curtain), which acts as a symbolic purification "veil", meant to cause evil spirits to flee from the body as the head brushes lightly under the short curtain.
It is in death that Shinto and Buddhism mix into a braid. The relatives continue to visit the graves leaving offerings and praying in the Buddhist way. Yet at home, a family shrine with the departed’s picture and memorabilia is tended in the Shinto tradition with claps, incense and worshiping the kami within.
The Japanese wound paths around their country as they travelled long distances for salt, enlightenment and pilgrimages. In olden times, these wandering pilgrims and traveling believers were obliged to leave an offering of rice and hemp leaves to the path-side phallic-fertility statues of the Sahe no Kami (protective deities) before embarking on a journey.
"These deities were represented by phalli, often of gigantic size, which were set up along highways and especially at cross-roads to bar the passage against malignant beings who sought to pass . . . Standing as they did on the roadside and at cross-roads, these gods became the protectors of the wayfarers; travellers prayed to them before setting out on a journey and made a little offering of hemp leaves and rice to each one they passed." (Moore)
In another old tradition, rooms of worship were purified by burning hemp leaves by the entrance. This would invite the spirits of the departed, purify the room and encourage people to dance.
An account of this event states:
"On the first evening fires of hemp leaves are lighted before the entrance of the house, and incense strewed on the coals, as an invitation to the spirits. At the end of the three days the food that has been set out for the spirits is wrapped up in mats and thrown into a river. Dances of a peculiar kind are a conspicuous feature of the celebration, which is evidently an old Japanese custom." (Moore).
This seems to coincide with a Buddhist "giving respect and making amends with departed ancestors" holy day. The current tradition at this August "O bon" festival involves the similar practice of first, travelling to the family plot, and then leaving offerings of the departed’s favorite foods on the grave, perhaps to purify or satisfy the restless soul. At some point, the same hemp leaves were probably part of this ritual.
Partly as a politcal power move, Buddhism was assigned as the official religion of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the period (from1600 -1868). During this time, all citizens were obligated to register as members with one of the three main branches of the sect. (Religions of Japan, Monk)
The grass around my hut alsoBasho the Haiku Master writes:
The grass-and one more (author unknown);
When all things are hushed,
(All Poems quoted from Drake) Note about the Haiku translation: these poems were extracted already translated into English from the original Japanese. While they seem to be an accurate representation of hemp, this author has not seen the original Japanese texts to determine the actual Kanji characters used.)
A well-known children’s adventure story tells about a technique used by ninja (stealthy assasins) to improve jumping skills.
The learning ninja plants a batch of hemp when he begins training and endeavors to leap over it everyday. At first this is no challenge, but the hemp grows quickly everyday and so does the diligent ninja’s jumping ability. By the end of the season, the warrior can alledgedly clear the full gorwn stand of hemp. (Mayuzumi, Masuda) This certainly attests as much for hemp’s vitality as the ninja’s leaping ability.
From the southern islands of Okinawa which are cuturally mixed of Japanese and South Pacific island culture, the skill of Karate emerged.
In the Karate-do Kyohan (the book of the way of the empty hand) it relates the feats obtainable by the Karate master:
"A miraculous and mysterious martial art has come down to us from the past. It is said that one who masters its techniques can defend himself readily without resort to weapons and can perform remarkable feats: the breaking of several thick boards with his fist. With his sword hand he can kill a bull with a single stroke; he can pierce the flank of a horse with his open hand; he can shear a hemp rope with a twist or gouge soft rock with his hands . . ." (Funakoshi)
Kyudo (Zen Archery) has been practiced as a martial art since the early part of the millenium. Like other arts, its was inbued with Zen concepts and confusion principles of training and disipline.
"the Japanese developed a bow that was much longer and stronger than those seen in Asia and Europe . It is recorded that a warrior who who happened to catch the enemy in ranks was able to kill three of them with the same arrow shot, go great was it’s penetrating power." (De Mente)
Not coincidently, the bow’s string is specifically made of hemp. (Mayuzumi, Marui) which reflects a connection with the meditative practice of Zen as well as verifying hemp’s toughness as a fiber.
During an elaborate pre-bout ceremony called dohyo-iri, in Sumo (wrestling), the reigning Yokuzuma (grand champion) carries a giant hempen rope around his ample girth to purify the ring and exorcise the evil spirits. From the front of the belt hang zig-zag strips of white paper which are common religous symbol in Japan found hanging at Shinto shrines and in the small "shelf" shrines at home. (sumo guide)
This purification continues even today, the 25-35 pound hempen belt being worn by Hawaiian-born sumo champion, Akebono. (JW)
It is interesting to note the use of salt in as a purifying agent in the ring as well which relates to Amatseru’s shrine at Ise in which hemp and salt go together in purification rites.
The Hemp Control Act
Hemp cultivation came to a legal halt in the during the post W.W.II, allied-forces occupation. Allied troops lived in Japan and helped substantially to rebuild the nation battered by the destruction and poverty of wartime.
The foreign troops were certainly surprised at the abundance of hemp growing both wild and cultivated. In 1948 when American General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur and his colleagues rewrote the Japanese constitution, they included the Taima Torishimari Hô, the Hemp Control Act. (Constantine)
Ironically, it was the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of the Philippines a few years earlier that acted as catalyst for USA’s "Hemp for Victory" campaign to replace the Manila-hemp used by the armed forces.
Japan too relied on both domestic and Southeast Asian hemp crops to make uniforms, helmet linings and other war accessories for their Imperialist campaigns until WW2.
With continued control, Western companies seized this new post-war market and offered new synthetic products to replace the traditional and the hemp plant was almost completely eradicated. Thousands of years of growth and breeding greatly diminished under an avalanche of post-war change.
Despite the intents of the centralized government, hemp was still cultivated and growing wild in cities, especially along railways, until the mid-50’s. (Mayuzumi) As was the case in other countries, most farmers had no idea that this outlawed plant "hemp," was the familiar crop they used for everything from bird seed to fine woven cloths.
"First, you have to remember that most Japanese still believe that cannabis is a narcotic, and do not realize that it is the same plant as hemp, which was once as much a part of Japanese culture as rice. In a mere half century, McArthur, with the Marijuana Regulation Law (Hemp Control Act), managed to totally wipe away even the memories of hemp culture, which endured for several thousand years after its beginnings in the Jomon Period." (Yamada)Asa still has a familiar sound to the Japanese people, most of whom just assume that it has just been replaced by new, better fiber. Fortunately, much information survives in art, books and stories.
In the 1991, 4th edition of Japan’s major encyclopedia, Kojien, the entry of Hemp (Asa) states;
". . . Ropes, nets, sails and textile for clothes and shoes are made from it. Annual plant of the mulberry family. Introduced from Central Asia. . . . Leaves are long and 5-9 fingered. . . .Also, along with benihana (a type of ginger preparation) and ai (indigo) they make the "sanso" (three plants). Since olden times it has been cultivated all around the world. Hashish and marijuana are made from Indian Hemp from India." (Kojien, JW)
Hemp continues to grow in abundance as a weed in some areas where it was once cultivated as a fiber crop. Written and oral reports of expansive, wild and semi-cultivated crops of cannabis in the vast rolling hills on the cold northern island of Hokkaido have been substantiated for years, often by young city folk who try to harvest the rugged fiber for personal smoking use with little success and often legal problems. (Hiro, Masuda)
In the current days, the police still place marijuana arrests as a high priority and especially target foreigners who bring hemp in from other lands. In fact the Japanese jailed Paul McCartney for 2 Oz. in the early seventies and it was only with diplomatic pressure that he was released.
The Shizuoka Prefectural Police department offers these definitions and information:
"The abuse of cannabis has spread. The number of those arrested for cannabis-related offenses and the volume of cannabis resin (hash) confiscated registered a record high in 1995.
Hemp in the Japanese Language
In Japan’s beautiful and bewildering language, hemp is expressed by a kanji (ideogram) character, also adapted from Chinese, and pronounced asa. Since the decline of cannabis hemp production, this term has become a sort-of catch-all term for replacement fiber crops such as Jute, Sisal, Flax Linen, as well as true Hemp making it a bit confusing. However in any dictionary or other languge resource, it is unmistakable that this asa character means cannabis.
"There are so many ancient connotations to hemp, it’s incredible. For example, that the Kanji for "to rub" consists of "hemp" and "hand". You rub hemp to get hashish." (JW)Referring to Cannabis Hemp more specifically is the word, taima. "Tai" (or "Dai") simply means "big," or "tall". Ma is the original Chinese reading of the asa kanji.
As in other lands, hemp culture lives on too in through family names such as Asada or Asahara (hemp field) and given names like Asako (sweet, little hemp child) or Mamiko (sweet, hemp flower).