Every so often I come across a 9-year-old kid in a “Ganja” T-shirt covered in pot leaves.
Or else it’s a book cover or pencil case with red, yellow and green colors in the background and the pot leaf outlined. Sometimes it has the word “Cannabis” in yellow. Sometimes it’s a T-shirt covered in a repeating pattern of marijuana leaves.
It’s present from elementary through high school, and it’s particularly shocking because Japanese drug policies are extremely restrictive: One gram of marijuana can get you five years in jail and up to $344,000 USD in fines. Foreigners will serve their sentence before being deported and banned for 10 years to life.
Marijuana Laws in Japan
There are no “class” distinctions for drugs in Japan, so marijuana = cocaine = crack = heroin, etc. A simple urine test is enough to merit a conviction and it can be administered based on suspicion, meaning that merely talking about marijuana use in public can get you convicted and deported if you’re within earshot of a bored cop (and in Japan, cops are usually bored: Outside of Hakata Station, one cop’s job is smiling on a small ladder while waving at people).
So, with the law coming down so hard on pot users, you would think parents and teachers would crack down on their 9-year-old’s celebrations of the stuff.
The problem is that marijuana laws are so restrictive that no one knows what it looks like. According to a 2008 survey, only 1.5 percent of Japanese citizens has smoked marijuana (Compare that to 42 percent of Americans).
Government statistics rank pot as the 6th most-abused drug; it falls behind the obvious (caffeine, alcohol and nicotine) but also behind speed and huffing paint. Combine that with a more restrictive legal status and you have a black hole of awareness.
Sure, hipper kids may see it in movies, or pick it up from context. And clearly people use it: There’s a head shop called “420” in a local dive-bar neighborhood, which sells pipes and other smoking supplies. Japan’s proximity to Thailand and other marijuana meccas ensures that there’s some available on the black market – and shady street merchants selling hand-made necklaces (exclusively after dark) are probably a good source.
The Wrong Leaf
So, yes: There are pot smokers in Japan. But everyone else is just super into leaf-peeping.
There’s a word for leaf-peeping; Momiji-gari, literally, “Maple-tree hunting.” The weather report in Japan tracks the change of foliage across the country; the fanaticism is so intense that a good number of Japan’s residents are convinced that it’s the only country that has seasons.
So ask the typical 9-to-17-year-old kid what the plant on their pencil case is and you will probably hear that it’s a maple leaf. He isn’t bullshitting you. Their parents and teachers will probably say the same thing. I’ve even seen the marijuana leaf used as a logo for a wig store. And even if the word “cannabis” appears with the leaf, it doesn’t matter: English is decorative, and almost never read (If English was read as a language, you wouldn’t have shirts that say “Work Hard, Play Hard, Tyrannosaurus Rex”).
I see today that Paris Hilton was turned away from Japan after an overnight stay at Narita Airport in Tokyo, on account of her previous drug convictions. This Christian Science Monitor article actually makes for an interesting read – particularly its discussion of a North-Korean/Yakuza Metamphetamine called “Shabu” that is popular in Japan. I have never heard of it until this article, but then, I don’t run with North Korean or Yakuza crowds.