Pioneer Japanese cannabis activist Saya Takagi on running for office, getting arrested & more

December, 2017– It was raining lightly and the temperature was 18℃ when I arrived at Ishigaki Island- one of Japan’s most southwestern islands that’s famous for its nature and tropical weather.

I was there to meet a former actress and pioneer of Japanese cannabis activism, Saya Takagi, to learn more about cannabis in Japan.

Of course, cannabis has been used for millennia around the world, so it’s always good to see how different cultures feel about cannabis. Japan has a somewhat complex history with the plant- although cannabis was legal until 1948, the Japanese now regard cannabis as a kind of hard drug, largely thanks to the education system and the media.

During our conversations, I realized that even though she was a famous actress, Saya is just an ordinary person. That’s much different from what I saw on TV when the media was attacking her for being arrested for possession of cannabis- they were reporting on her like she was nuts for having what they called a “dangerous narcotic”.

Cannabis law in Japan

In Japan, there was a specific law for cannabis established in 1948 under the direction of General Headquarters after WW2. This act prohibited not only possessing, cultivating, and transferring cannabis, but using cannabis as medicine- even though other drugs like amphetamines and morphine are allowed for medical use.

In Japan, so many people still think cannabis is a dangerous drug, and that’s one of the reasons why Saya Takagi abandoned her career as a famous actress and risked her reputation to become a cannabis activist, and her impact on the Japanese cannabis movement was huge.

Saya-san, on the right, at a campaign rally in 2016. Photo courtesy of Metropolis Japan

Saya’s 2016 election run and arrest for less than 2 ounces of cannabis

As a cannabis activist, she served as a manager for the Cannabis Inspection Committee and ran for a seat in the Upper House of the Japanese government in the July 2016 election, campaigning to legalize medical cannabis and abandon nuclear power. Although she did not win, her slogans about abandoning nuclear power and legalizing medical cannabis were widely broadcast by the media, creating widespread awareness in Japan that medical cannabis exists.

In October 2016, she was arrested for possession of 55 grams of cannabis, but as a matter of fact, the cannabis wasn’t even hers! It belonged to someone who was using cannabis to treat his heavy angina, and he was growing it on her property. Despite this, she was arrested and given a suspended sentence of 3 years and 1 year in jail, and she was in jail for 6 months waiting for her sentence!

Ever since, she has rarely made media appearances. She now lives on Ishigaki island- which is about 2000 km away from Tokyo- and manages her camping lodge, “Niji-no-mame” (which means “bean of rainbow”).

Saya-san's camping lodge, Ninji-no-mame. Photo courtesy of the author.
Saya-san’s camping lodge, Ninji-no-mame. Photo courtesy of the author.

The media versus Saya Takagi

After her arrest, the media denounced her and called her crazy, but even though she suffered huge backlash, she was praised by Shinto followers, Japanese people living abroad, and people who needed medical cannabis.

When she was doing a street speech for her election campaign, there was a young man listening with tears in his eyes as everyone else dubiously passed her by, and it reminded her why she was speaking out in the first place.

Looking back at her actions and experiences, she mentioned, “I didn’t do anything wrong and the generations will change. I don’t regret these experiences, either. As someone said, there’s always a rainbow after the rain. The things I have done will be a cog in the wheel that changes the world and turns out to be the right thing in the end.”

Throughout the interview, Saya-san gave me valuable insight on everything from her jail sentence to making our world better, and she showed me how important it is to think critically and explore the essence of things.

Saya-san’s first experience with Cannabis.

Her first experience with cannabis was when she was 17 years old. In those days, the regulations were not as strict as they are now, and she shared a joint with a surfer guy she met at the disco. When she smoked cannabis for the first time, she felt guilty because she had bad images of it and other drugs, but she just got sleepy when she smoked it.

After that first session, she used cannabis occasionally, but she still had the stigma that cannabis is bad, so she would often pass on chances to smoke.

It wasn’t until an experience in India changed her mind. When she went to India for Yoga training, she took a long-distance bus and needed to use a bathroom- but she was in the middle of nowhere, so she decided to venture into a thick growth of weeds. She realized that these weeds were cannabis, and she thought, “These plants are just living in nature, hurting no one. These plants couldn’t be a narcotic,” and before she returned to the bus, she gently grabbed a few of the buds in front of her and put them into her pocket.  

Cannabis and Shinto

What is cannabis to Saya-san? She thinks that cannabis should be holding hands and coexisting with human beings and generating synergy.

She says that Shinto, a traditional religion of Japan, focuses on finding god in nature and cannabis is believed to be an object representative of a divine spirit. Strangely, she has met cannabis in her life- even though she didn’t seek it out- but it turned out she needed it almost as if it was necessary.

The pattern on this cottage window is a Japanese symbol for cannabis. Photo courtesy of the author.

Why did Saya leave show business for activism?

It’s difficult to be an activist in Japan because you can’t say the truth without risking your job or family, and the reason she became an environmentalist was the Great East Japan earthquake on 3.11/2011.

After the earthquake, even though radioactive contamination in the Fukushima area was still uncontrolled, a lot of people were ignoring that fact because the media was pushing the message of “cheering up north east of Japan by eating food from the area.”

The media trying to influence public opinion made her sick, and as an actress and model, she was a part of that industry and so she decided to leave show business, including the popular TV drama she was on- choosing instead to be fight to make the world better for our descendants.

That’s why she became a environmentalist and began living a self-sufficient lifestyle, later opening Niji-no-Mame on Ishigaki Island.

Exploring Ishigaki Island with Saya-san

When I first arrived at the airport with Kosho Higa, the other manager of Niji-no-mame, Saya was already there to pick me up personally. I hopped in her car and got a tour of Ishigaki Island, where I got to experience it like the locals- I ate goat soup and explored Kabira Bay, and at night, I interviewed Saya-san over Orion beer and awamori, a famous Okinawan alcohol.

Kabira Bay. Photo courtesy of the author
Kabira Bay. Photo courtesy of the author

Going forward

Cannabis was respected as a sacred plant and used to make hemp, the strong and almighty textile in Ancient Japan. But cannabis has been illegal in Japan for 70 years, despite many promising uses- cannabis can be used for bio energy (even though it’s not cost effective yet) and it has been proven to be effective with diseases such as ADHD, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, cancer, and so on.  

Yet there is little scientific research into how cannabis could benefit Japan.

In Ukraine, at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, they have been researching how cannabis can decontaminate nuclear radiation and found that cannabis has a lot of potential, and I wonder if Japan will use cannabis to help decontaminate the Fukushima area.

All creation has both a good and bad side- even cannabis- and so I think it is necessary to see both sides and understand them to see the true essence of it.