Hemp in Japan: the Samurai

In 1980, Paul McCartney was arrested at Tokyo airport after a small bag of weed was found in his luggage. After having spent nine nights in a cell, the ex-Beatle was deported. A planned tour of Japan was cancelled and Paul McCartney was not allowed to visit the land of the rising sun for the next seven years. Japan still has a very strict cannabis control law. You can be put behind bars for five years just for having one single joint.

Warlords

This was not always the case. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the daimyo, the warlords of feudal Japan encouraged the vassals to grow cannabis. They could sell the plant for a high price in the cities where hemp fibre was used to make refined garments. The weaponry of the Samurai (literally he who serves) was also partly made from hemp.

An important part of the Samurai weaponry was the iron helmet (kabuto) that was fitted inside with hemp covered in silk. The shoulder, sleeve and thigh protectors of the Japanese warriors were also made from hemp in combination with silk and deer leather on which iron plates were stitched with hemp twine. A remarkable detail is that the hemp was impregnated with persimmon juice to make it waterproof. The military equipment that can be seen in our museum in Barcelona is almost certainly from the late Edo Period (nineteenth century).

Modern hemp cultivation in Japan

The hemp cultivation disappeared completely in Japan with the arrival of cotton, the death in 1877 of the last real samurai (Takamori Saigo) and the general cannabis ban in 1948 during the American occupation. That is until Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and his son Akihito was crowned during a special ceremony in which he had to wear a traditional gown made from hemp. A number of farmers in the region Shikoku gave the new emperor a present of illegally planted hemp with which to make the garment. In gratitude they received a licence to grow hemp on a small scale for the making of rope, paper and the clothing for the imperial family.

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