Is Japan ready to embrace CBD?

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Kota Shimomura, owner of CBD Coffee in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, has noticed a peculiar thing about his clientele. “When talking to customers, they do things like cry,” he says.

The 35-year-old Shimomura stands outside his newly opened, white-walled storefront, eyeing a group of patrons taking curious sips of coffees and smoothies infused with droplets of the cure-all taking Tokyo, and the global lifestyle market, by storm: CBD.

Also known as cannabidiol, CBD is a nonpsychoactive ingredient found in cannabis, specifically hemp. It can be consumed in topical and edible forms, and its proponents claim it can alleviate ailments ranging from acne to inflammation to PTSD. But Shimomura says it’s more than just product intrigue that has drawn in droves of customers: It’s his shop’s consultations, which allow Tokyoites to release their stress.

“There’s really a need for (a place like this),” he says, noting the rise in telework has left many feeling isolated. “People don’t have others around them they can talk to, and in Japan there are lots of one-room apartments. I truly understand the need people who don’t have (support) have for this kind of store, where they can do things like relax and detox.”

Health benefits

Relax and detox, as it turns out, are hallmark buzzwords for the increasingly trendy CBD. In recent years, as the global conversation around cannabis has shifted and many countries have moved toward legalization, the extract has popped up in everyday products such as moisturizers, bath salts and beer.

“I’m trying to pinpoint when CBD became popular in the States,” says Lauren Yoshiko, a Japanese American writer and podcast host who lives in Portland and covers the cannabis industry. “It really was people figuring out CBD as this way to get high, without getting high, was a super marketable concept.”

In late 2019, Scientific American cited a Gallup poll predicting that the CBD market would be worth $20 billion by 2024. And in September, wellness guru Martha Stewart posed for The New York Times wearing a necklace of CBD gummies, claiming she could eat 20 at a time, normalizing the product for a mainstream audience.

Destress and detox: According to Kota Shimomura, it’s more than just CBD intrigue that has drawn in droves of customers: It’s his shop’s consultations, which allow Tokyoites to release their stress. | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Destress and detox: According to Kota Shimomura, it’s more than just CBD intrigue that has drawn in droves of customers: It’s his shop’s consultations, which allow Tokyoites to release their stress. | DAN BUYANOVSKY

“I went to a cannabis conference and someone pointed out that CBD is being treated like a trend,” Yoshiko says, “but CBD is interesting because it actually works. Acai berries were a trend, you saw it in all these products and you were eating it at restaurants, but it’s just another berry. CBD legitimately works; there’s research.”

In terms of the growing appetite for CBD in Japan, Shimomura predicts that within five years the market is “certainly going to be bigger than tobacco.” Judging by the demand he has seen at his own shop, and his plans to open a second location in Shinjuku by the end of the year, he has good reason to think so.

But Shimomura isn’t the first in Japan to see the growth potential in the cannabidiol business.

HealthyTokyo, founded by former health professional-turned-entrepreneur Michael Bobrove, has imported CBD to Japan since 2016 and now has locations in Harajuku and at Haneda Airport, where it sells oils, edibles and a smattering of pet-friendly products. Tomigaya’s trendy Camelback Coffee now keeps a bottle of CBD extract beside its register. And in Kamakura, the beachside Magokoro cafe has a selection of CBD-infused muscle balms and soaps for sale, to complement its health-conscious, all-vegan menu.

Priyanka Yoshikawa, a model and former Miss World Japan, recently channeled her national fame into a CBD-inspired skin care line called Mukoomi, a play on the Japanese words mukō (beyond) and miru (to see). Its initial product line includes a CBD-infused toner, serum and face cream.

“I wanted to have my own skin care line for a long time,” Yoshikawa says, “And I saw that no one was really doing a good, CBD-based skin care line.”

Yoshikawa was initially introduced to the product by a friend while on a modeling shoot in the U.S.

Beauty benefits: Former Miss World Japan Priyanka Yoshikawa uses CBD oil to help with clear skin and getting a good night’s sleep. | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Beauty benefits: Former Miss World Japan Priyanka Yoshikawa uses CBD oil to help with clear skin and getting a good night’s sleep. | DAN BUYANOVSKY

The beauty queen used steroid-infused creams for her sensitive skin for many years, and had recently been having trouble sleeping. But after trying CBD, she says, her skin cleared up and she was able to get a better night’s rest. Nowadays, while she only sleeps three to four hours per night, CBD continues to improve the quality of her sleep.

“We’re workaholics in Japan,” she says. “People need to chill more. And having CBD in your lifestyle can bring more of that relaxation, one-on-one time with yourself.”

Last month, Yoshikawa hosted a three-day pop-up for Mukoomi in Ebisu. In between sharing product samples with friends and fans, she admits to having her sights set on making Mukoomi the “go-to CBD-based beauty and wellness brand in Asia, not just Japan.” But to reach that goal, she’ll have to continue to source the high-quality CBD used in Mukoomi products, which is tested twice — by manufacturers and by an independent lab.

“Being able to have clean CBD is very important to us,” she says. “There have been problems with that in other countries, of people using all sorts of CBD and mixing it up with different manufacturers and you never really know the quality.”

As Mukoomi scales up, manufacturing will be its biggest obstacle.

Just as Shimomura sells goods from companies based in the Netherlands, Slovenia and England, Yoshikawa is required to produce all Mukoomi products overseas, in countries where hemp growth and CBD extraction are legal. Once those products arrive in Japan, they are packaged by the Mukoomi team.

“It would be wonderful if we could use hemp that is grown in Japan,” Yoshikawa says, “but that’s not up to us.”

Legal barriers

Shimomura notes that the few Japanese brands he does carry at CBD Coffee use Kentucky-grown hemp in their products, as a result of Japan’s Cannabis Control Act, a piece of legislation that stifles the growth and sale of hemp in-country.

The multitiered legislation, originally passed in 1948 under the U.S.-led Occupation of Japan, largely prohibits the importing or exporting of cannabis; prescribing patients with medicines manufactured from cannabis; receiving treatment with medicines manufactured from cannabis; and advertising cannabis in the context of medical or pharmaceutical affairs.

But with Tokyo’s newfound enamorment with CBD, advocates for cannabis research and legalization see an opportunity to renegotiate the law and the societal interpretation of it. Two such groups, Green Zone Japan and Japanese Clinical Association of Cannabinoids (JCAC) are leading the charge, citing Japan’s lengthy history with the plant as a reason to rethink it as an illicit drug.

“Japan has a history of cannabis cultivation of more than 10,000 years,” says Dr. Minoru Arakaki, chief director of JCAC.

Naoko Miki, one of the founders of Green Zone, recently wrote for Medical Cannabis Network Quarterly that hemp is “revered as a sacred plant” and as a “symbol of purity and fertility” in Shintoism, one of Japan’s indigenous religions. Historically, hemp fibers have been used to make ropes and curtains at both Shinto shrines and Buddist temples.

Still, the Cannabis Control Act has instilled such a disdain for cannabis in Japanese culture that when celebrities are caught in possession of the substance — from actor Yusuke Iseya to singer Junnosuke Taguchi to “Terrace House” cast member Sean Okamoto — their misdeeds are televised for national consumption.

Dr. Yuji Masataka, executive director of Green Zone Japan, denounces what he sees as propagandic positing.

“The stigma around cannabis is like the stigma for criminals,” says Masataka, who works at a hospital as a neurologist when not volunteering his time to Green Zone. “Here in Japan, no one has ever seen cannabis and they don’t know what it is. So all the information they get about it is (from) the news broadcasts about arrests.

“Just last week, one local newspaper confused cannabis and amphetamines,” he says. “They wrote in an article that police arrested a man for having cannabis in a small package of white powder. Cannabis is not white powder. Ever. But a newspaper said that. That’s the drug education here in Japan.”

This awareness gap can have practical effects on businesses, too.

Yoshikawa stresses the importance of her company’s online FAQ page, where customers can find an answer to the question: “Is CBD legal?” in both English and Japanese.

CBD Coffee’s Shimomura recalls a group of Meguro locals distributing fliers to schools near his cafe, asserting that he was distributing illegal drugs.


Growth restrictions: Even domestic brands of CBD oil used in drinks at CBD Coffee are made with Kentucky-grown hemp, since it’s illegal to produce the crop in Japan. | DAN BUYANOVSKY

Growth restrictions: Even domestic brands of CBD oil used in drinks at CBD Coffee are made with Kentucky-grown hemp, since it’s illegal to produce the crop in Japan. | DAN BUYANOVSKY

“Of course, that’s not the case,” he says, “so we went to a lawyer and had him draw up a certificate saying that CBD was legal in Japan and that there was no THC in it, so it was safe.”

It is in this distinction that the conversation around cannabis in Japan hangs in the balance.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive ingredient found in medical marijuana, which has been classified by the Mayo Clinic as a potential treatment for ailments including Alzheimer’s, cancer, Crohn’s disease and glaucoma, among others. It is currently legal in 33 states and dozens of countries.

But since the passing of Japan’s Cannabis Control Act, the fight to make medical marijuana available as a potential treatment for sick patients has been fraught.

In 2016, Masamitsu Yamamoto, a chef from Kanagawa Prefecture, died of liver failure while on trial for marijuana possession. The former chef had been suffering from advanced liver cancer and claimed he had used marijuana in a last-ditch relief effort, but was still being prosecuted, only to pass away before the trial could conclude.

“This has happened all over the world,” says Green Zone’s Miki. “In the States, there have been numerous cases like this and that accumulation eventually led to legalization. In Japan, this was the very first one with a patient who had enough courage to (stand trial).”

A green future?

In order for medical marijuana to eventually become legal in Japan, both Green Zone and JCAC recognize that embracing the recent wave of CBD intrigue and pushing for its normalization is the first step.

To that end, Green Zone is adding Japanese subtitles to the new documentary “CBD Nation” and virtually screening it for members throughout the year. And in mid-November, JCAC will host an all-day webinar with several speakers who will expound on the benefits of and research developments surrounding CBD.

For Masataka, it is important that CBD and medical marijuana remain part of the same conversation.

“Lots of companies that are trying to sell CBD try to divide CBD from cannabis and we are trying to connect it,” he says. “That’s our job. We recognize CBD as a part of medical cannabis — the first step of cannabis legalization.”

And while Green Zone considers the eventual legalization of medical marijuana a human rights issue, the benefit of reigniting hemp growth in the short term could trigger massive revenue and tax benefits for Japan.

“In 1954, there were 37,313 hemp farmers in Japan,” Miki wrote in Medical Cannabis Network Quarterly, “but the most recent statistics indicate that there were just 37 in 2016.”

In a country plagued by concerns of an aging population and a dwindling workforce, one way to stimulate its agricultural and manufacturing arms would be to re-embrace cultivation on a mass scale.

Last July, Dr. Harumi Kikuchi and the Hokkaido Industrial Hemp Association launched a campaign to call for the revival of hemp growth in northern Japan, with a goal of planting 20,000 hectares of the crop; the end goal is for Japanese-grown hemp to be used in foods, health products and cosmetics.

The campaign’s press release cited “outdated international norms that conflate hemp with marijuana” that have stifled hemp growth since 1948.

JCAC’s Arakaki goes so far as to say that allowing hemp growth is “necessary for the agricultural revival” of Japan.

Cannabis expert Yoshiko, who has watched the boom of the industry on America’s West Coast, also sees upsides for a historically botanical society like Japan.

“Cannabis is lucrative; it wants to grow,” she says. “And there is such a ripple effect. For people who can’t work in restaurants right now, who can’t do barista work right now, who are going to college remotely, all I see is jobs being offered at cannabis companies (at the) starting level, higher than minimum-wage employment. And it just goes up the chain from there. There have been advancements in LED technology and HVAC technology; that’s all changing the way agriculture can be more sustainable, and it’s because of mass cannabis (growth).”

Masataka only needs to look to his home prefecture to see what manufacturing cannabis would do for Japan’s less-populated areas.

“I live in Kumamoto,” he says. “I’m city-central, but if I drive 20 minutes, there are lots of abandoned places. In the countryside, the population keeps decreasing, and that’s because there are no good jobs. Making rice doesn’t make much money, so nobody wants to do that. The only solution for getting young people to come back to the countryside is creating new jobs through cannabis growth.”

Back in Meguro, another group of customers walks into CBD Coffee and pores over a display of well-designed products shipped into the country from across the globe. Finally, one orders a coffee with 10 milligrams of CBD. The barista pours the drink in a paper cup, then reaches for a dropper made by H Think, a Japanese brand that markets itself as “organic hemp CBD” that is “THC free.”

“In the United States,” says Miki, “CBD opened the door for medical cannabis to many people who had never been interested in it. I think the same thing is happening in Japan, on a smaller scale.”

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