Among the weird characters, objects, and symbols that Japanese adopt as cultural icons (including, but not limited to, Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, human feces, faux-Russian rabbit-centric series Usavich, the V sign, popularizing NG as a handy opposite to OK in everyday life, the abomination that is Sento-kun, and Sento-kun's girlfriend) is one that still catches me off guard every time I see it:

The seven-pointed cannabis leaf.

Any upright, punk-themed fashion store is bound to have a bunch of bracelets and baseball caps bearing the leaf, and a day on the town is enough to find several 20-something Japanese guys thuggin' around with a cannabis-themed Zippo lighter and at least a dozen schoolkids (boys and girls alike) sporting leaved backpacks, sneakers, flair, and pencil cases.

You can surprise any number of kids by telling them what plant that leaf comes from, but it's not like Japan as a nation has never been in touch with psychotropics: Less than a decade ago magic mushrooms were still being openly sold in nightclubs here.

And other drugs have had a place in traditional Japan. A small town in northern Shikoku today maintains an ancient tradition of piling hemp on a mountaintop and burning it bonfire-style in an annual festival.

These traditions persist in a doublethink paradox alongside Japan's zero-tolerance controlled substances policy which criminalize all varieties of drugs, including cannabis. Even modest drug busts tend to make national NHK news, each time shocking the Japanese public, and criminal suspects face penalties far beyond those of Japan's Western allies. For example:

Any person who commits an offense [of growing marijuana] for the purpose of gain shall be liable to penal servitude not exceeding 7 years or to both penal servitude not exceeding 7 years and a fine not exceeding 2,000,000 yen according to the circumstances.
Any person who unlawfully possesses, receives, or transfers cannabis shall be liable to penal servitude not exceeding 5 years. (source)
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JapanHemp offers some interesting reads on the subject, including accounts of several people who were detained at Narita airport and imprisoned for possession. Stories tell of the absolute servitude demanded in Japanese prisons, followed by deportations and 20-year bans on readmission to the country. Even Sir Paul McCartney spent a brief stint in a Japanese jail when he brought marijuana into the country for a Wings concert tour.

Those harsh penalties appear to keep usage low among nationals. In one survey, only 1.5% of Japanese people admitted to trying marijuana, compared with 42% of US residents. And this low demand keeps street prices for all illegal substances sky high.

In sum, the cannabis leaf gets plenty of exposure as an object of fashion and youth in Japan, but that doesn't mean that the general public understands what it is or wants to smoke it with you. If you're the kind of person who needs the green to get by, you may find it best to stay home.

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