Hemp, “asa” in Japanese, is a very important part of Shinto culture. Hemp cloth is an important offering, and in the Daijōsai ritual that marks the accession of a new Tennō, hemp cloth is paired with silk. Hemp is also traditionally used in purification rituals, and the name for the ōnusa purification wand is normally written with the characters for “big hemp”, because it originally had strips of hemp cloth, or hemp fibres attached.
This is a bit of a problem at the moment, because hemp is also the plant that you get marijuana from. Japan has very, very strict drug laws, and much lower levels of usage than most western countries. One effect of the regulation is that it is almost impossible to grow or sell hemp in Japan, even the varieties with virtually no psychoactive chemicals that are good for nothing but making cloth. These laws have almost destroyed Japan’s traditional hemp industry; according to the June 21st issue of Jinja Shinpō, there were over 37,000 people growing hemp for fibres in Japan in 1954, but only 35 in 2019. A 99.9% drop is pretty bad.
A lot of jinja would like to use genuine, locally-grown hemp in their rituals, and the Shinto establishment agrees, because that would accord with a lot of Shinto principles. Thus, the arch-conservative Shinto establishment finds itself in the position of pushing for the loosening of certain aspects of the drug laws. (Just not the bits that are actually about drugs.) There are a number of projects associated with the Shinto world that are trying to secure better acceptance of hemp fibres, and expand their production, but they keep running up against the strictness of the laws and the way they are interpreted.
The government has just completed a consultation on the subject, and the committee has published its final report. In this report, they ask local authorities (who are responsible for licensing hemp growers) to be more flexible, and to stop making unreasonable demands of farmers who are growing hemp with virtually no psychoactive compounds in order to provide fibres for Shinto rituals.
If the central government takes that recommendation up, that alone may be enough to change the situation. Once there is explicit guidance to this effect, farmers who are denied licences, or who face unreasonable restrictions, should be able to get relief through the courts. What is more, that will become clear to the officers in local authorities, and for the most part they will adapt, so that there will be no need to sue.
Of course, this is only a first step towards revitalising the production of hemp fibre in Japan, but it is a very important first step.
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