Cannabis has a long history in Japan, dating back, perhaps, thousands of years. The plant was probably introduced to the Japanese islands from China via Korea. The Japanese term for cannabis, 'taima' 大麻, is derived from the Chinese term 'ta mà' 大麻. Its use began during the so-called 'Jomon period', which lasted from 14,000 B.C. to 300 B.C., an era necessarily characterized by myth and fable. Yet pottery and artifacts from the Jomon containing cannabis seeds and scraps of woven fibers discovered in Fukui Prefecture of Honshu and on Kyushu are certainly not mythical.
So Japan's association with cannabis is indubitably of long-standing. Before the US occupation following World War II, Japan had a productive hemp industry, making cloth, paper and traditional medicine. Samurai used hemp for bow strings. Fishing line, clothes and rope were made from hemp, and the Imperial Japanese army and navy used it throughout the war. Its leaves are still used in Shinto ceremony.
It figured in numerous pain relief and insomnia medications during the early 20th century. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 1914 yearbook, the plant was cultivated widely in "Hiroshima, Tochigi, Shimane, Iwate, and Aidzu, and to a less extent in Hokushu (Hokkaido) in the north and Kiushu in the south. It is cultivated chiefly in the mountain valleys, or in the north on the interior plains...."
After World War II, Americans brought the concept of full prohibition, and the nation today has among the strictest anti-cannabis laws.
Under the penal code, Japanese can be punished in Japan for acts committed abroad, even if said acts are not criminal. The Cannabis Control Act of 1948 (amended 1963) applies to Japanese nationals receiving or possessing cannabis anywhere in the world, with up to seven years hard labor the penalty if convicted. Japan's consulate in Vancouver posted notice to that effect after Canada legalized recreational marijuana, warning its nationals: "Don’t do drugs, even legal ones", as they faced prosecution.
Despite the law's extra-territorial reach, and though medical marijuana is illegal, the US island possession of Guam, where medical marijuana is sold, is a popular destination for Japanese tourists -- and it is believed many go there for cannabis medications.
Illicit use of cannabis is evidently increasing in Japan: police arrested 3,008 people on cannabis-related charges in 2017, up by 472 cases year-on-year, the highest number ever. Figures were significantly higher in the 20-29 age bracket, with 9.4 arrests per 100,000, almost double the 5-per-100,000 rate recorded in 2014. Among youth aged 20 years and under, the 2017 rate was 4.1 arrests per 100,000, up from 1.1 per 100,000 in 2014.
Still, cannabis does not appear to be a major social issue: Japan's population was estimated at 126,440,000 in October 2018, the world's tenth largest, but only 1.3 million Japanese aged 15 to 64 were reported to have used marijuana, according to estimates from a survey by the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry.
Though domestic production considerably shrunk in the latter part of the 20th century due to prohibition policies, it has not completely disappeared and there are strict provisions in the law to permit cultivation.
The aforementioned Cannabis Control Act excludes grown stalks and seeds in defining cannabis, and allows licensing of "cannabis handlers" to possess, extract and research the plant under prefecture authorization. Unauthorized possession, cultivation, trade, transfer or use, however, can earn violators hard labor prison sentences of up to ten years, and fines up to three million yen (US$27,135).
In the 1950s, some 50,000 cannabis farms operated nationwide. Today, fewer than 60 remain, growing low-THC varieties (0.2%) under strict licensing.
As a result, Japan is among the top ten importers of processed hemp (HS: 530290 = True hemp "Cannabis sativa L.", processed but not spun; tow and waste of hemp, incl. yarn waste ): from 2001 to 2018, the country imported 659 tonnes worth US$6.3 million. Most comes from China.
The market for CBD products is booming, with some importers reporting 100% annual growth. Phivida Holdings of Vancouver, British Columbia, ships cannabidiol tinctures to Japan and sells natural health products (oils and capsules) and beverages online to consumers through a nonexclusive distribution deal.
The company expects CBD beverages to become its biggest sellers, and, in all, thinks the market is both "under-served" and worth billions. Japanese consumers are said to be "highly informed" and well-aware of plant medicine benefits, according to a 2018 report.
Also prospering is Elixinol Japan, which has imported CDB products since 2016. In the same report, the company CEO said revenue is up 94% on-year.
In 2017, Japan imported US$147.7mn worth of cannabis oil, about 5% of the global market, making Japan the world's 5th largest importer.
Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical was one of several companies that had applied for cannabis patents related to medical marijuana in Thailand, which is an ongoing controversy after such patent applications were halted.