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Museum aims to tell true story of hemp in Japan, dispel malodorous marijuana connection

This Nov. 17, 2020 image shows the exterior of the Hemp Museum in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture. (Mainichi/Yuri Sanada)

NASU, Tochigi -- Though hemp may be perceived by some as a dangerous plant behind mood-altering smokables and edibles, it is also a traditional Japanese crop used to make string, fabric, straps for "geta" wooden sandals, and fishing lines.

    One place to get the sober straight goods on hemp's history and uses is the Hemp Museum in the eastern Japan town of Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan's top producer of the plant by far.

    Located on a narrow side street off the historic Nasu-kaido, a road lined with high-end restaurants and souvenir shops, stands a peculiar wood cabin. Just a 5-minute drive from the Tohoku Expressway's Nasu Interchange, this is the Hemp Museum, easily recognizable by the leaf design adorning its exterior wall.

    Fiber called "fine hemp," as well as thread and fabric made from it are on display in the museum, which was opened as a private institution in 2001. There is also documentation related to hemp, among other items.

    Fabric made from hemp fiber is seen at the Hemp Museum in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, on Nov. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuri Sanada)

    "There are many people who have a negative reaction to the mention of hemp, but it was originally an agricultural crop that was closely interwoven with the lives of Japanese people," museum director Junichi Takayasu, 57, told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    In Japan, hemp fiber has been used for geta sandal straps, mosquito nets, fishing lines, and fishing nets, among other items, and its use is said to have deep roots in Shinto rituals. Even today, hemp is used in "suzunoo" ropes for ringing bells at shrines, as well as the "yokozuna" rope that the highest-ranked sumo wrestlers wear around their waist. In areas across Japan, there is also a custom of designing clothing with hemp leaf patterns for newborns. In short, the plant was enmeshed in the daily lives of the local people.

    Hemp plant fiber is different from material used in modern clothing. Linen and ramie fibers are specified as "hemp" under the Household Goods Quality Labeling Act, and are indicated as such on clothing labels. Although these fibers are alien species different from hemp, they have apparently been collectively called "hemp" since the Meiji period (1868-1912).

    "Even though it was only hemp plants that produced hemp, it was replaced by linen and ramie," said Takayasu.

    "Fine hemp" fiber, made from the bark of hemp stems, is seen at the Hemp Museum in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, on Nov. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuri Sanada)

    Traditional hemp fabric has a lighter, softer texture compared to modern clothing labeled as containing "hemp". Takayasu commented, "The material is firm, cool in the summer, and warm during the winter. It's also fire-resistant, so the gear worn by firemen during the Edo era (1603-1868) was also made of hemp."

    However, natural plant and synthetic fibers with foreign roots have grown popular since the end of World War II, and demand for hemp has been on the decline. As hemp fiber is also not suitable for spinning fabric, it has been replaced by cotton and other materials.

    Another reason for the decline of hemp, Takayasu said, is that "the image surrounding hemp grown in Japan was ruined, due to American hippies and soldiers returning from Vietnam smoking marijuana" in the 1960s.

    Now, only farmers licensed by prefectural governors can grow hemp. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the number of hemp producers in the country peaked at 37,300 in 1954. However, due to decreasing demand and the rising age of the producers, that number had dropped to 37 by 2016.

    Hemp Museum director Junichi Takayasu is seen at the museum in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, on Nov. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuri Sanada)

    According to research on the production of special agricultural goods by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Tochigi Prefecture is the top producer of hemp, and yields over 90% of hemp crops in Japan. There are currently 17 farms producing the plant, but apparently only one that has secured a successor.

    Not only the production of hemp, but its processing skills are also said to have been declining. There are reportedly under 10 people in the country who can make yarn and spin fabric from the plant. Takayasu himself has also undergone training for 10 years under a woman living in Fukushima Prefecture, in order to pass on the skills, and holds classes in Tokyo to foster individuals who are capable of producing hemp thread.

    The plant's leaves and flowers have psychoactive effects if consumed, but its stems, bark and seeds can also be processed from hemp. Meanwhile, Tochigi producers have switched to varieties with almost zero psychotropic effects following a series of thefts.

    Meanwhile, marijuana has been legalized in Uruguay, Canada, and some U.S. states. An expansion of overseas business opportunities involving industrial and medical uses for hemp, sometimes called the "green rush," has been gathering global attention. Takayasu emphasized that it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of hemp precisely because of these developments.

    "In Japan, hemp is confused with marijuana, and there's an aversion to bringing up the subject. However, I'd like for there to be impartial discussions in Japan, too, as hemp has been gathering attention worldwide. To achieve this, I'd like to accurately convey the nature of hemp as a crop that has been grown in Japan since long ago."

    The Hemp Museum is open from 12 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays. The museum is closed on Wednesday and Thursday, and admission is free of charge. For more information, please call 0287-62-8093 (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Yuri Sanada, Regional News Department)

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