My first zine piece: Musings on pot leaf pen cases
February 2, 2010

After being in Japan for six months, I finally buckled down and wrote something (other than a lesson plan or blog entry).

HAJET (Hokkaido’s branch of JET) has a great e-zine, titled the Polestar, and the editor contacted me about contributing in light of my background as a writer. It was easy to zone in on a topic: marijuana-themed merchandise’s pop culture presence (especially among young students, i.e., my students) and the contradiction it creates in light of the stifling Japanese anti-drug laws.

I’ll post the link here for the February 2010 Polestar, as well as paste the article’s contents below. I am also thrilled to say that this month’s cover photo is mine. Unfortunately, the editor flipped the mag’s layout to landscape, so my shot was cropped.

I would also like to add something that didn’t appear in print. While researching for this piece, I came across a lot of gossip involving my fine town. Kitami was once famous for being the biggest mint producer in the world. Now, it’s the biggest onion producer in Japan — and allegedly, the biggest pot distributor. Several reliable sources claimed that there is a massive underground gang presence in this town of roughly 120,000. I was even told that a large number of downtown bars are used as money laundering fronts for the drug trade.

I can’t confirm any of this, and for my own safety, I don’t care to dig any deeper (I just finished reading Tokyo Vice, and the last thing I wanna do is get tangled up with the yakuza). But I will say that, on more than a couple of occasions, I have walked into a bar or nightclub bathroom with an open window and the lingering smell of marijuana. Its existence in Kitami is undeniable.


By: J.T. Quigley

Any foreigner living and working in Japan has
been made aware of the hefty penalties for
being caught with marijuana and other illegal
drugs. For those of us on JET, pre-departure,
Tokyo, and regional orientations undoubtedly
warned of the severity of drug violations.
Even the U.S. Department of State cautions,
“Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking
in illegal drugs, including marijuana, in Japan
are severe, and convicted offenders can
expect long jail sentences and fines.” However,
there appears to be a profound contradiction
when it comes to marijuana’s stringent
illegality versus its rampant pop culture
presence in Japan.

Between 2008 and 2009, the Japanese
media converged on a flood of reefer-specific
allegations against national
celebrities, including four sumo
wrestlers, a national-team rugby player,
an actress, and a rock musician. While
college students using marijuana is
nothing newsworthy in the West, Japan
was shocked when students from
prestigious Waseda University were
busted with plastic bags full of pot.
According to GlobalPost, Waseda
administrators made scathing
statements after the fallout, including
the following: “Students foolish enough
to try marijuana all too often end up
physically and mentally ruined, perhaps
leading lives of crime.”

Although there may have been a major
crackdown on marijuana usage here,
most Japanese appear ignorant to the
fact that children are wearing pot leaf
t-shirts to school and using pen cases
with “CANNABIS” printed across the top.
“There is a distinct cognitive
disconnection between the cultural
taboo of recreational drug use and the
prevalence of its iconography,” said
Simon Daly, a first-year ALT in Engaru.

A trip to the local shopping mall yields
numerous options for marijuana-themed
goods. In Kitami, the local
Village Vanguard chain has an entire
section devoted to pot, including shirts,
posters, curtains, and pen cases covered
by images of the illegal green plant. “I
hate to see children wearing those kind
of clothes, using those kind of school
supplies,” said Takuya Sato, a third grade
teacher at North Kitami Junior
High School. “I hate more to see parents
letting them wear and use them. I hate
ignorance. There are no regulations for
these drug-themed items.”

Do most Japanese draw a connection
between marijuana, the illegal drug,
and the symbol of a green leaf with
seven points? “I don’t think many
Japanese know what marijuana looks
like,” said Sato, “They don’t even know
that the colors [often] behind the leaf of
marijuana [merchandise] come from
Rastafari” (Adding insult to injury, one
pen case even had “Rasta Drug Rush”
printed on it). Perhaps many Japanese
simply make a connection between the
symbol of marijuana and reggae music,
which seems to be especially popular in
Hokkaido. But with all the media
attention, nothing is stopping young
people from finding out the true

In the past decade, Japan has seen a
rise in ganja-related arrests, especially
when it involves cultivation. According
to GlobalPost, the number of “green
thumbs” arrested for growing pot has
doubled in recent years. The celebrity
convictions of the last two years are
proof that marijuana isn’t only
increasingly popular as a fashion
symbol, but as an actual controlled
substance. Could there be a correlation
between the acceptance of marijuana’s
iconography and this staggering
increase? “Yes, it could be possible,”
says Sato. “Some students know what
the [marijuana symbols] are and what
they mean. The younger generations
are not ignorant like their parents.”

In the “inaka” surrounding Kitami,
marijuana grows wild. “It’s common
local knowledge that the Japanese
military introduced marijuana to
Hokkaido during WWII to use as rope,”
said a local Kitami region resident who
requested anonymity. “Depending on
what circles you belong to, it’s definitely
available.” A drive around the outskirts
of Kitami in the summer time can prove
the wild pot’s prevalence. Signs are
posted on the side of some roads where it
grows, requesting that upstanding citizens
call the police if they see any stopped cars
or pedestrians picking buds. There is
obviously a source for anyone bold enough
to break the law.

Something caught my eye recently that
embodied the Japanese marijuana
contradiction. After emerging from the
teacher’s room at one of my junior high
schools, I came across a group of my 3rd
grade students. They had their hair slicked
up in “pureboi” fashion, bright-colored
Nike high-tops, and holes in their tracksuits.
The “cool” kids. One had his back against
the wall with his track jacket unzipped. His
black t-shirt had a giant, cartoonish, pot
leaf with arms and legs. One hand was
flashing a peace sign, while the other
gripped a smoldering joint. It wasn’t the
shirt alone that caught my attention (although
the cartoonish weed plant brought back
memories of the outlawing of Joe Camel
ads back in the United States, because it
was deemed that a cartoon targets children).
What bothered me was that the student
was leaning against a Japanese public service
announcement, part of a series in the national
“NO! DRUG” campaign. The campaign logo
that the letters “NO! DRUG” are superimposed
over? A green, seven-pointed leaf of the devil’s

In a country that blindly wears shirts with
botched English and names a bar a “Rounge,”
someone should step up to stop the naivete.
Parents should stop and think about the
meaning behind a symbol before ignorantly
purchasing it for their child. Age limits
should be enforced, as they are in
many Western nations, for purchasing
drug-themed merchandise. Who is stopping
Nazi Swastikas from becoming the next
uneducated symbol craze? Thankfully,
there are people like Sato-sensei who are
pushing back against the ignorance. Being
able to read and understand English seems
like a good start in ending the reefer

“I always ask the student the same
question if they wear marijuana t-shirts,
rock t-shirts, any English-printed t-shirts as
well,” said Sato. “The question is, ‘Do you
know what your t-shirt stands for?’ If they
don’t know, I teach them what, then I say
to them, ‘Your t-shirt is very cool, but if
you wear it without understanding what it
says, that is uncool. So study English!’”