Original Publication: Forbes.com | 10.06.03
Yasunao Nakayama wants to turn Japan into the hemp capital of the world. Yah, mon.You can go to jail for seven years for growing marijuana in Japan. (Second-degree murder gets you only three years). So why is Yasunao Nakayama, 39, driving around Japan in a car powered by hemp oil, hawking dope-derived products?
With the exception of researchers, Nakayama is the first person in Japan since the end of World War II to be given official permission to cultivate weed for commercial and experimental uses. The license allows him to run a half-acre farm and to sell any marijuana derivatives, except for the intoxicating buds and leaves. It's also his green light to proselytize on behalf of hemp.
"There is no other plant with such a broad variety of uses," he says. Among them: clothing, soap, fuel, paper, building materials, medicine, liquor and, using flour from the inside of seeds, noodles. Nakayama sells a handful of such goods to bring in $3,300 a month in revenue. He lives modestly in a yurt, a giant Mongolian tent, on Oshima, an underdeveloped island an hour and a half by boat from Tokyo. "The business will get big later, after I have finished promoting hemp," he says. Meantime he is lobbying the government to turn Oshima into a special hemp zone to promote tourism and sustainable development and, he argues most improbably, to help prevent abuse.
Good luck. Masaru Kiuchi, head of narcotics policy at the Ministry of Health & Welfare, represents Japan's official view of marijuana: "It is highly addictive, people can't quit, it causes brain damage and it makes youth antisocial." Arrests have increased by 60% over the last three years; dope-smoking raves among the young are on the rise, Kiuchi says, and are spreading to older crowds.
Yet pot once played an important role in ritual and commerce. Before Japan's occupation by U.S. forces, which imposed antinarcotics laws, at least 200,000 farm households cultivated hemp. During World War II Japanese imperial army soldiers were permitted to smoke marijuana to ease the stress of battle. Hemp was once burned in special urns to help Shinto priests in their divinations. Its smoke also symbolized the passing of the spirit of the old emperor to the new one. When Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, his successor had to plant hemp seeds to produce a crop that would provide fiber for special clothing to be worn during the succession ceremony.
It was to such tradition, as well as to a little-known clause in the drug laws allowing licensed farmers to grow marijuana for nonnarcotic purposes, that Nakayama appealed when applying for his license. Officials in Shizuoka prefecture were shocked at the request, and he was called in to explain himself before a committee of five very suspicious men. Nakayama presented his case, mentioning seeds found in a 12,000-year-old archaeological site, the traditions of the imperial household and the threat that an aspect of the culture was in danger of extinction. The panel bumped up the request to the governor, who granted Nakayama his license.
Perhaps that exception has gone to his head. Nakayama is on a mission to turn pot into a major industrial crop for Japan. He points to research by Ford Motor, begun in 1929, on a hemp car. Don't believe it? The results were published in Popular Mechanics in 1941--a steel chassis with a body consisting of hemp fiber and plastic made from hemp resin. Although the car was tough and lightweight, it was not cost-competitive and the project was dropped. No talks with Toyota or Honda yet. But Nakayama is high on promoting hemp-based gasoline, extracted by pressing the seeds into oil; he is convinced that its costs of production, now projected at four to five times the cost of diesel fuel, can be drastically reduced. Then there are plastics and building materials, which now cost 1.5 times what those derived from petroleum do. "The world is very interesting when viewed through the lens of hemp," he says. Indeed.