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Hemp in Japan: Beyond ‘schizophrenia,’ potential for the environment

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INTERVIEW: Yosuke Koga is Director at Japanese hemp company Prossimo, which is developing a broad portfolio of hemp-derived products and recently embarked on retail operations in CBD and hemp footwear. An entrepreneur and researcher, Koga previously worked for Notomi Hospital in an initiative to introduce cannabinoid therapy to Japanese medical society. He is also Editor in Chief of HempToday Japan.

HempToday: There seems to be some recent movement on cannabis issues in Japan. What does the current landscape look like?
Yosuke Koga: First of all, Japan is an extremely conservative and bureaucratic society. Drastic social change regarding such things as cannabis requires a lot of time and work. There’s some schizophrenia right now. First, thanks to the internet, interest in cannabis and hemp is growing rapidly because people are now getting real information. Younger generations are less biased. The Ministry of Health and Labor is currently having a series of meetings about cannabis, which includes considering the approval of Epidiolex as a prescription drug. This is a good sign.

At the same time, law enforcement is pushing really hard on cannabis arrests because they are aware of the global trend toward liberation of cannabis; they are afraid of losing their power over it. The number of arrests for non-violent cannabis possession was at a record high last year in Japan. Also, at the current Ministry meetings, which look positive for medical cannabis, they are at the same time talking about making cannabis use a crime (currently, only cannabis possession is a crime). Unfortunately, it seems like this further criminalization of cannabis was predetermined because the meetings are hosted by the Narcotics Control Department (Japanese DEA). Law enforcement is putting a lot of pressure on these meetings.

HT: What can you say about the status of CBD in Japan?
YK: Of course CBD is leading all hemp sectors, and the market will continue to grow. A few years ago there was only a handful of CBD brands in the Japanese market. Now there are more than 100. Introducing CBD into cosmetics, food and beverages has just started. There is a whole lot of room to fill, with no doubt.

But due to the lack of well established regulations, the future of the CBD business in Japan is a bit uncertain. At Prossimo, we’re mitigating risk by not depending on CBD sales too much. Still, we need to keep raising awareness about the CBD sector, and that is the reason why we started our CBD bar.

HT: Which are the most promising sectors for hemp products in Japan. How do you expect the introduction of hemp-based products to proceed?
YK: It depends on what time frame you are talking about. CBD is the king so far, but other sectors will rise soon. We expect there will be a huge demand for bio-based plastic and natural fibers. Unfortunately we are the second largest plastic waste producer in the world. We love plastic too much, and we are facing the consequences of our actions. That can be said about fiber as well. Japanese are fashion animals. We are responsible for a whopping 1 million tons of annual fashion waste. Our fashion industry is facing a big challenge in switching from cotton to materials with lower environmental impact.

HT: How does hemp figure in Japan’s goals for the environment?
YK: Both consumers and industries don’t yet know what hemp can do in terms of sustainability. Japan is way behind the rest of the world in dealing with environmental issues. The government has just become aware that any kind of product development doesn’t make sense without Sustainable Development Goals in mind. Here’s the most promising signal: We are getting more and more inquiries from industries such as construction and textiles about how to switch their materials from petroleum-based sources to hemp.

Recently China stopped importing plastic waste from Japan. We are not capable of recycling all of that plastic waste, so we are simply burning 70% of it now. Bio-plastic with a low carbon footprint will be much needed throughout the society sooner or later.

HT: Prossimo seems to be looking into all things hemp. Tell us how the company got its start.
YK
: We are strong believers in a “media first” strategy. We joined the HempToday franchise in 2017. The strategy was to provide hemp related information in Japanese in order to educate and bring in stakeholders from other industries that can use hemp. We believe that’s the foundation for expanding the hemp industry overall, and that’s been our goal from the very beginning. Our strategy put us into a unique position as the hub for the industry, and started a constant flow of inquiries and interesting contacts. We have been running the media for three years, and established great relationships with people in the industry. Now we have entered the retail and wholesale business with their support.

HT: What’s the next big thing for Prossimo? What is front-and-center with you now in your role as Director?
YK: More generally, we are building out a broad portfolio, from raw material to final products such as CBD and hemp shoes, our most recent ventures. Prossimo is getting serious inquiries about quality cottonized-hemp fiber from some major apparel companies. They are eager to find someone who can supply them, so we are pursuing the possibilities there. At the moment, running the Bohempia retail store smoothly is also a major priority.

We will continue to move up the supply chain, connecting companies and people inside and outside of the hemp industry, and working together in R&D. As soon as the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted, we will team up with farmers, processors and material manufacturers to help develop new products.

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