Cannabis has been cultivated and sown into human culture for thousands of years. It’s an incredibly versatile and fast-growing plant best known for its strong fibers and medicinal properties. And it is also a nutrient-rich food.

Evidence of this goes back as far as 10,000 B.C., and it’s no surprise since the plant is so useful and its seeds so nutritional.

The seeds are a complete protein — they contain all 20 amino acids. They also contain fatty acids and omegas 3 and 6.

Shichimi togarashi beef. Shichimi is a seven-spice chili power or sauce that traditionally includes hemp seed.

[Image: Jules on Flickr]

There are many health benefits to be gained from eating the seeds. For example, and especially important for vegetarians and vegans, hemp seeds are an easily digestible protein source. Eating hemp seeds is thought to be good for heart health and for a healthy immune system, too.

Currently, while the type of cannabis that gets you stoned is illegal in both countries, China is the United States’ main competitor when it comes to industrial hemp and the Japanese continue to include hemp in their diets.

Earliest Documented History

China and Japan have similar cannabis timelines. The earliest evidence of cannabis was found in artifacts and cave drawings located in both countries and dating back to approximately 10,000 B.C.

It’s thought the plant was predominantly used as fiber for ropes, cloth for clothing and canvas, and strings for fishing line and bows.

Cannabis fibers are stronger than bamboo, a plant also used in many other Asian cultures for purposes similar to hemp. This made the plant invaluable during times of war, making for farther-flying arrows and fewer repairs.

Cannabis in China

Evidence that the ancient Chinese used hemp dates back to approximately 10,000 B.C. Archeologists discovered hemp-rope fibers embedded in pottery dated to that time.

Around 4,000 B.C., hemp was used in China to create other high-quality materials, too. Fossilized hemp paper was discovered dating back to 100 B.C.

Hemp fibers have also been found in burial sites dating back to the Chou Dynasty from 1,122 to 249 B.C.

The Yanghai Tombs in China held a 2,700-year-old stash of cannabis preserved perfectly, and through detailed scientific analysis it was determined to contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Newlywed Chinese couple in traditional dress in the historic city of Shimei, Shandong, China.

[Photo by Gauthier Delecroix via Flickr.]

As with many ancient medicinal plants, like ginseng and ephedra, cannabis was first discovered in China. In roughly 2,700 B.C, Shen-Nung, known as the Father of Chinese medicine, was emperor.

The Herbal” is thought to be a collection of books created from Shen-Nung’s oral traditions between 200 and 250 A.D. He reportedly ate 365 plants and seedsincluding poisonous ones! — while studying their medicinal properties. (There are some who claim his story is mythologized.)

The book lists plants that are considered “noble” because they provide health benefits with no negative effects.

Má, which is the Chinese word for cannabis, is listed along with hundreds of other drugs derived from nature. According to the books, cannabis was said to help with a hundred different health issues.

During the Han Dynasty, anesthesia, or mázui, was invented by a physician who crushed cannabis into a powder and mixed it with wine. This doctor, Hua Tuo, became China’s first surgeon.

The literal translation of mázui is cannabis intoxication.

Watercolor of Shen Nung, Chinese deity of medicine. Copied from an old painting in Shanghai by a Chinese artist. The god is seated at the mouth of a cave, dressed in his traditional garb made from leaves, holding in the right hand a branch with leaves and berries, the virtues of which he has been demonstrating.

[Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.
Watercolor published in 1920.]

Traditional Nepalese hemp shoes for sale hanging at the entrance to a shop in the old city area. Panaut-Kavrepalanchok dstr.-Bagmati zone-Nepal.

(Yes, we know Nepal isn’t in Japan or China, smart-butts; we’re showing you an example of ancient-looking things made out of hemp. Neat, huh?)

[Photo credit: R. Weisswald]

Cannabis in Japan

Evidence of cannabis first appeared during the Jomon period, 8,000 to 300 B.C.

There is no indication that cannabis was smoked. Historical books and writings speak only of the lives of the rich and privileged and it appears they preferred sake, or rice wine.

Most Japanese historians, though, believe taima — the word for both cannabis and hemp; they consider them the same — may have been consumed by the general public but not recorded in historical records.

As in China, artifacts from Japan reveal that hemp fiber was used to make many items.

Its seeds were a source of food, too, and various parts of the plant were used to make medicines.

Seeds from about 11,000 years ago have been found in the ruins of Torihama, a shell midden or ancient kitchen dump.

Ninjas used the growing plant for training. The objective was to jump over the plant. Its fast growth rate made it a challenge for students to increase their leaping ability to match the plant’s progress each day.

Some surviving bell ropes at shrines and temples are still made of hemp. The bell is rung by a visitor just before they pray, making it a sacred fiber.

Shinto, an indigenous religion of Japan, did formerly use it for spiritual ceremonies as they believed cannabis has cleansing powers that can purify a person’s energies.

Brides even wore veils of cannabis to convey their purity.

Jingu taima, or shrine cannabis, was used to make amulets that were believed to protect those who carried them. Today, given the strictness of Japanese cannabis laws, similar amulets are made of paper.

Female Ninja at Ninja show at Iga Ninja Museum, Ueno, Japan.

[Image: John Gillespie via Flickr.]

The cannabis plant was so ingrained in Japan’s early culture that there were common sayings implying that cannabis made the weeds surrounding it grow stronger.

Even children were told they needed to learn to stand straight and tall to be strong like the cannabis plant.

However, due to the United States’ occupancy of Japan after the country surrendered during World War II, anti-cannabis propaganda was spread all over the country as it has been here from the 1930s until this day.

Read “Movie Matt” Brunson’s review of the 1930s cannabis propaganda flick “Reefer Madness.”

In 1948, the Cannabis Control Act became law in Japan, beginning the government prohibition of cannabis there.

Just like in the U.S., big companies brought with them their way of doing things, including new materials like nylon and wood-pulp paper, to Japan. Nylon was a DuPont goldmine.

The chemical company and the papermakers and newspapermen of the time enjoyed great gains selling their solvents, techniques and newspaper copy. Cannabis prohibition was lucrative for those companies.

In Japan today a person can receive a five-year sentence for possessing small amounts of cannabis and seven years for growing or selling.

Even one of the Beatles – Sir. Paul McCartney – spent nine days in a Japanese jail for possession in 1980.

To this day, though, champion sumo wrestlers’ loincloths are made of hemp. And shichimi, a seven-spice chili, is still made with hemp seeds.

And, a fun fact: Japan grew so much weed historically that they can’t get rid of it. During each spring the mountains and hills are a-bloom with cannabis!

In Hokkaido, the government and police are trying to eradicate the wild cannabis and vow to prosecute anyone who attempts to sample any of the flowers.

But, just like a weed, you can cut it down and it will come right back.

Stay tuned for “History of Cannabis, Part II.”
Cara says she’s taking us to India!
If you’d like to skip ahead, watch this documentary, “Cannabis: A Lost History,” a film by Chris Rice.
Cara Wilson

Cara Wilson


Cara Wilson is a cannabis advocate and freelance writer based in Hickory, N.C.

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[Header image: Oleg Malyshev]