Taima, the crop at the heart of traditional Japanese culture

May 1, 2014

“Japanese people have a negative view of ‘taima’ or cannabis but I want them to understand the truth and I want to protect its history. The more we learn about the past, the more hints we might be able to get about how to live better in the future.” says Junichi Takayasu the curator of the Taima Hakubutsukan (Cannabis Museum) in Tochigi. With Japan’s anti-cannabis laws among the strictest in the world, with possession of even small amounts punished by five-year prison sentences and illicit cultivation earning growers seven years behind bars, it is not surprising that in current society Cannabis has become a taboo subject in Japan. “Most Japanese people see cannabis as a subculture of Japan but they’re wrong. Cannabis has been at the very heart of Japanese culture for thousands of years.”

The Taima Hakubutsukan is the nation’s only museum dedicated to cannabis. Opened in 2001 in the town of Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, approximately 160 km north of Tokyo, the museum’s mission is to teach people about the history of cannabis in Japan — a past that, Takayasu believes, has been denigrated and forgotten for far too long.

According to Takayasu, the earliest evidence of cannabis in Japan dates back to the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.), with pottery relics recovered in Fukui Prefecture containing seeds and scraps of woven cannabis fibers. “Cannabis was the most important substance for prehistoric people in Japan,” he says. “They wore clothes made from its fibers and they used it for bow strings and fishing lines.”

It is likely that the variety of cannabis from which these Jomon Period fibers originated was cannabis sativa. Tall-growing and valued for its strong stems, it is from sativa strains that today’s specially bred industrial hemp is derived.

In the following centuries, cannabis continued to play a key role in Japan — particularly in Shintoism, the country’s indigenous religion. Cannabis was revered for its cleansing abilities so priests used to wave bundles of its leaves to bless believers and exorcise evil spirits. This significance survives today with the thick ceremonial ropes woven from cannabis fibers that are displayed at shrines. Shinto priests are also known to decorate their wands with strips of the gold-colored rind of cannabis stalks.

Cannabis was also important in the lives of ordinary people. According to early 20th-century historian George Foot Moore, Japanese travelers historically used to present small offerings of cannabis leaves at roadside shrines to ensure safe journeys. He also noted how, during the summer Bon festival, families burned bundles of cannabis in their doorways to welcome back the spirits of the dead.

Until the mid-20th century, cannabis was cultivated all over Japan, particularly in Tohoku and Hokkaido, and it frequently cropped up in literature. As well as references to cannabis plants in ninja training, they also feature in the “Manyoshu” — Japan’s oldest collection of poems — and the Edo Period (1603-1868) book of woodblock prints, “Wakoku Hyakujo.” In haiku poetry, too, key words describing the stages of cannabis cultivation denoted the season when the poem is set.

“Cannabis farming used to be a year-round cycle,” Takayasu says. “The seeds were planted in spring then harvested in the summer. Following this, the stalks were dried then soaked and turned into fiber. Throughout the winter, these were then woven into cloth and made into clothes ready to wear for the next planting season.”

Takayasu, along with other Japanese cannabis experts, isn’t sure whether cannabis was smoked in the past or not. Although historical records make no mention of the practice, some historians have speculated that cannabis may have been the drug of choice for commoners. Whereas rice — and the sake brewed from it — was monopolized by the upper classes, cannabis was grown widely and was freely available.

Nor are Japanese people averse to taking advantage of the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Long an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, cannabis-based cures were available from Japanese drug stores to treat insomnia and relieve pain in the early 20th century.

However, the 1940s — in particular, World War II — marked a major turning point in the story of Japanese cannabis production. At first, the decade started well for farmers. “During World War II, Cannabis was classified as a war material, used by the navy for ropes and the air force for parachute cords. Here in Tochigi Prefecture, for example, half of the cannabis crop was set aside for the military.” says Takayasu

Following the country’s defeat in 1945, however, the U.S. authorities occupying Japan brought with them American attitudes toward cannabis. Cannabis had been outlawed in the United States in 1937 and now Washington moved to ban it in Japan. In July 1948, with the nation still under U.S. occupation, it passed the Cannabis Control Act — the law that remains the basis of anti-cannabis policy in Japan today.

There are a number of different theories as to why the U.S. outlawed cannabis in Japan. Some believe it was based upon a genuine desire to protect Japanese people from the evils of narcotics. Several cannabis experts argue that the ban was instigated by U.S. petrochemical interests in a bid to shut down the Japanese cannabis fiber industry, opening the market to man-made materials such as polyester and nylon. Takayasu locates the cannabis ban within the wider context of U.S. attempts to reduce the power of the Japanese military.

Whatever the motivation, the U.S. decision to prohibit cannabis created panic among Japanese farmers. In an effort to calm their fears, Emperor Hirohito visited Tochigi Prefecture in the months prior to the ban to reassure farmers they would be able to continue to grow in defiance of the new law. For several years, the Emperor’s reassurances proved true and cannabis cultivation continued unabated. In 1950, for example, there were approximately 25,000 cannabis farms nationwide. In the following decades, however, this number plummeted. Takayasu attributes this to a slump in demand caused by the popularity of artificial fibers and the costs of the new licenses cannabis farmers were required to possess under the 1948 act.

Nowadays, Takayasu said, there are fewer than 60 licensed cannabis farms in Japan — all of which are required to grow strains of cannabis containing minimal levels of THC. With the number of farmers so low, Takayasu fears for the future of cannabis in the country. As far as he knows, there is only one person left in the nation versed in the full cycle of seed-to-loom. That person is 84 years old and when she dies, Takayasu fears, her wisdom will disappear with her.

Faced with this danger of extinction, Takayasu is determined to preserve Japanese cannabis culture. He organizes annual tours to the legal farms near his museum to show visitors how space-intensive cannabis cultivation is and how it requires very few agricultural chemicals. Additionally, Takayasu runs monthly workshops to teach people about weaving cannabis fibers. On display in the museum are a variety of clothes made from cannabis; the soft cream-colored material is warm in winter and cool in summer — perfectly suited to the Japanese climate.

Among the museum’s fans are members of the local police department, who praise his efforts to revitalize the rural economy and sometimes visit to learn more about the outlawed weed.

Source: The Japan Times

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Overseas market expanding as Japanese ‘anime’ celebrates its 50th year

March 23, 2013

2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the first ever TV broadcast of anime in Japan, which kicked off with the anime classic  “Astro Boy” created by the “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka.

Over the past half century, anime has steadily gained popularity around the world , it is now without question one of the key symbols of Japanese culture. But the question of whether Japanese anime is really bringing enough profits to its creators is a different matter.

“It is really great that Japanese anime is being watched all over the world, but the sales are not really growing,” said Hiromichi Masuda, director of Video Market Corp., which provides video services to mobile phones, at a seminar on March 21, during the Tokyo International Anime Fair 2013.

6 years ago, overseas sales of Japanese anime hit ¥16.8 billion but that has since plunged almost by half, a direct result of pirated videos online and video-on-demand services. In 2011, global sales were a mere ¥8.55 billion.

These figures show how tough it is to not only sell anime through proper channels but also promote related businesses such as anime merchandising in foreign markets.

Not only the overseas market is suffering though the domestic market faces tough challenges too as Japan faces a rapidly aging and shrinking population.

At the Anime Fair, however, some people, from both domestic and international markets, seemed confident that Japanese anime companies still have the chance to take fresh approaches to business, such as strategically co-producing content with domestic and overseas partners.

One project that has recently caught the attention of the media and the industry is the Indian version of “Kyojin no Hoshi,” which was aired during the 1960s and ’70s and is a classic among baseball-anime TV series in Japan.

The Indian version is called “Suraj: The Rising Star,” and sticks pretty much to the original plot, except for the change of sport, baseball has been switched to cricket.

Traditionally, Japanese anime makers have aimed their attention at producing content for their domestic audience, but it can be hard to sell anime series to overseas broadcasters, particularly due to stricter censorship. This makes working with foreign partners from the outset a good idea.

As many Japanese anime makers are small or midsize firms, “it’s not easy for them to go overseas and sell their product by themselves,” said Masuda. “It’s important that they find distribution networks and partners to jointly produce (content).”

Another international co-production is “Scan2Go,” created by Tokyo-based d-rights, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, South Korean broadcasting firm SBS and New Boy, a toy maker based in the United Arab Emirates.

They jointly produced the series and its merchandise, and first aired the show in Europe, Asia and Middle East in 2011, where it has reportedly been well-received. They also started broadcasting the program in the United States last September.While many anime programs are made to air and be marketed in Japan first, “Scan2Go” has yet to debut here.

Foreign buyers at the Anime Fair appeared to welcome the opportunity to co-produce programs and related goods in their home regions, saying that Japanese anime has great potential to cultivate more overseas markets.

Amer Bitar, managing director of the satellite-TV channel Spacetoon International in UAE, said that Japanese anime could be hugely popular in the Middle East and North Africa regions, due to the high population of young people there.

To cultivate that market, though, Arabic content is needed, so co^production between local and Japanese firms will be key, said Bitar, adding that the UAE government is financially supporting such creative projects.

While co-producing may be one approach to help boost overseas marketing, some foreign buyers pointed out that Japanese anime makers should not be in too much of a rush to adjust their content to such markets.“It has to stay original,” said German buyer Daniel Otto, who is Vice President of Acquisitions and Sales at AV Visionen. He said that in the past Japanese anime makers tried to create content that targeted European viewers, but apparently it was not so successful.

“Programs that are, from their heart, really dedicated and made for the Japanese market are the kind of programs that the German fans, for example, really want to see.”

Source: the Japan Times


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Japanese pop princess offers shaven headed apology

March 8, 2013
The video of the once genki, long-haired young woman with a skinhead, contorted face and red eyes apologizing directly into the camera was viewed millions of times, and continues to be. This kind of public media apology in Japan usually comes from company officials, sacrificial scapegoats for their company’s bad practice or illegal activities. But from a 20-year-old woman who had done nothing ilegal, it was a disturbing scene.
Ironically AKB’s success is down to their relations with men. Millions of male fans “relate” to the women onstage or online and through countless videos, photos, and products. These distant fantasy relationships are positively encouraged, just not real relationships. This was  Minami’s true sin that by being with her real boyfriend she was effectively ‘cheating’ on thousands of virtual boyfriends. The only way to make them forgive her and win them and their money back was by this extreme show of contrition.

AKB48 has 88 members to choose from therefore every fan can find and support his own ideal girl in the group.The girls’ popularity is voted on constantly in online polls and by the number of hits for Web page views and goods purchased. These rankings are obsessively tracked, and the group members’ status and, presumably, compensation depend on how much they are “liked,” which means how well they sell.

This is highly profitable business. Some estimates place the income of top members at ¥15 million to ¥20 million a year. According to pop music chart compiler Oricon, AKB48 grossed total sales of about ¥19.1 billion in 2012.

Though Minami’s apology may be read as a sign of women’s low status in society it could equally be seen as just another twist on the usual salaryman apology; a personal sacrifice made for the greater good of a faceless corporate entity. That is pop music Japanese style.

Sourced and inspired by The Japan Times


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Japanese ‘Love Your Wife Day’ video sparks international interest

January 30, 2013

Dozens of Japanese men took to the stage in Tokyo on Tuesday to declare their love for their wives. This unusual public display of affection is in honour of Japan’s annual ‘Love Your Wife Day’, a recently established romantic custom in Japan. An online video, complete with subtitles for international viewers,  shows a group of men shouting ‘I love you’, as well as individual declarations of love eagerly watched by a crowd of onlookers and a camera crew! One lady said that her husband’s participation in the event made him appear ‘very fabulous and manly’, reminding her of the early days of their eight-year marriage.

Reservation and modesty are prized in Japanese society, meaning powerful displays of affection like this are rare. Yet this romantic event, which takes place in a car-park in Tokyo, is broadcast nationwide, has now become part of Japanese tradition.

‘Love Your Wife Day’ comes only a few weeks before Valentine’s Day, usually only observed by women in Japan.  They give heart-shaped chocolate to their loved ones as an expression of their feelings. However, women are definitely not neglected when it comes to receiving gifts. One month later on ‘White Day’ or Howaito Dē  (named after the colour of the chocolate originally gifted) men are expected to return the favour by giving presents of higher value to their wives and girlfriends and nowadays this is often expensive jewellery or clothing!

Although ‘White Day’ was originally a Japanese commercial invention, it is also celebrated in China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Sources include: The Huffington Post; The Guardian


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The kimono reborn?

September 18, 2012

The kimono (着物) has existed in Japan since the 8th century. Originally heavily influenced by Han Chinese clothing, it was not long before the kimono became a Japanese fashion in its own right, with a huge range of different styles and designs used. Today, so steeped in history and culture is the garment that it is seen by foreigners as synonymous an integral part of Japanese tradition. However, with the increasing influence of the West in Japan particularly in the world of fashion and the rising price of the kimono, the traditional dress is in danger of becoming a relic of the past. In a society under the constant pressures of modern life, can a garment which requires so much maintenance continue to exist as an everyday piece of clothing?

Jotaro Saito is one man who is working to keep the kimono in the modern world. A third generation kimono-designer, Saito wants young Japanese people to think of kimonos as an option for going to work during the week, or shopping on weekends, rather than a traditional item to be kept in storage for a special occasion. Creating chic, elegant designs, Saito is now the only designer to regularly hold catwalk shows for his kimonos. And although he admits that the kimono market has shrunk quite dramatically in recent decades, he is beginning to see Japanese people showing more interest in the garment, especially those who are well-travelled. Saito believes that this is because people only really see and appreciate their own culture when they have been away from it.

One problem facing Saito in his efforts to increase the popularity of the kimono in Japan, is the cost of his designs. Priced at over £3,000 a piece, his silk kimonos may be slightly beyond the budget of many young people when shopping for daywear. Nonetheless, Saito’s intentions in bringing the kimono back into the mainstream are laudable, and if not quite suitable for the high street shopper, with any luck perhaps they will break into the world of high fashion, in Japan and even abroad.

Sources include: The Japan Times, Tokyo Weekender


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