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Japan's Ancient Hempen History

Hemp since the Jomon

Cannabis has grown in Japan since the Neolithic Jomon period (10,000 to 300 BC). The term "Jomon" itself means "pattern of ropes", which were certainly made of cannabis hemp. These ancient people lived a civilized, comfortable existence, and used cannabis for weaving clothing and basket making, as well as using the seeds as a food source. What isn't clear however, is when and how the seeds arrived in Japan.

Some scholars insist that cannabis was abundant in Japan before contact with China or Korea. However, impartial analysis suggests that, like much of its culture, cannabis was almost certainly imported and adapted from China.

Seeds from Korea

The Japanese staple of wet-field rice made its way from China to Japan around 300 BC. The seed stock first went to Korea, then was brought by traders across the narrow but rough channel to Japan's southern island of Kyushu, which is the closest point to the Asian mainland. It is likely that cannabis seeds made the same voyage before or around the same time.

In support of this theory, a cave painting found in coastal Kyushuu depicts tall stalks and cannabis leaves. It too is from the Jomon period, and is one of the earliest Japanese artworks in existence.


Ancient pot graffiti: Korean traders bringing cannabis to Japan.
The richly coloured painting depicts several somewhat strangely dressed people in baggy short-pants and tall curved hats. Horses and ocean waves are also clearly rendered.

The picture apparently depicts Korean traders bringing a plant by boat. Along the stem of the plant are small pairs of budding leaves or branches. The plants themselves are tall and at the top bear large, distinctive, seven-fingered cannabis leaves.

Surrounding the top of this cannabis plant figure is a sun-like aura, suggesting the continuing connection between the sun and cannabis in Shinto. This is strikingly similar to the hieroglyphic carvings from Mediterranean cultures, which show a similar sun/cannabis motif.

Feudal hempen cultivation

During the fuedal era of Japan (c. 14th-15th Century) hemp fibre cultivation was encouraged by the fuedal lords (Daimyo), cannabis cultivation was encouraged by the feudal lords (Daimyo), wanting hempen-ware's high resale value from the wealthy city merchants, who favoured cannabis hemp for making fine clothing.

Japanese merchants dealt in coins which had square holes in the centre, and were carried on strings of hemp. The Japanese five yen coin still has a hole in it, left over from this practice.

Cannabis was a major crop and the primary source of clothing fibre until the 17th century, when cotton was introduced. Cotton began to replace cannabis as a fibre crop because of high yields by heavy fertilizer use and the development of mass processing methods.

Yet sturdy cannabis hemp continued to be used for a variety of specialized purposes, including long-line eel fishing lines and packaging ropes to name a couple.
 
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