A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Tobacco- One of Ibaraki`s Most Important Traditional Crops ! The Tobacco Shrine on Mt Kaba ! And, why the Tokugawa Shogunate Tried to Ban Smoking!

Tobacco growing in Tsukuba`s Matsushiro Neighborhood in June

By Avi Landau


Though I am right here in Japan`s Ibaraki Prefecture, sometimes, lost in thought while cycling through certain parts of Tsukuba`s Matsushiro Neighborhood in summer, I might forget where I am. Looking around, surrounded by tall, large-leafed plants, it is easy to think of myself as being somewhere in rural North Carolina or Kentucky- the American States with the most agricultural acreage dedicated to the cultivation of Tobacco! That is because, all around me, for as far as the eye can see ( which I must admit is NOT very far),it is that very same plant, that most controversial of all legal, traditional crops, that I see growing.

Flowering tobacco plants in Matsushiro, Tsukuba

When I first realized that it was tobacco growing in these fields, I was truly surprised.  Though I knew that the Japanese were prodigious smokers and that there were many brands of Japanese cigarettes, FOR SOME REASON I had thought that the tobacco itself was all imported.

Tobacco fields in Tsukuba`s Matsushiro ( Aug)

Going to the library, I found that I had been terribly off the mark. Not only do all Japanese cigarettes contain Japanese tobacco ( though most DO blend in some foreign leaves to obtain specific flavors), but tobacco had long been an important crop- especially here in Ibaraki ( where it was first planted in 1608!), AND where it had actually been considered one of the 6  important products of the the Mito Clan, which ruled much of what is now this prefecture during the Edo Period ( 1600-1868)- with the others being: paper, lacquer, lacquer-ware, konnyaku ( a paste made from a certain tuber) and firewood ( No. Natto, is NOT on the list!)

In fact, just outside of Tsukuba City, atop of Mt. Kaba, which is on the other side of Mt. Tsukuba, there is a unique shrine- the TABAKO JINJA ( the Tobacco Shrine)- which is dedicated to helping bring about  successful tobacco harvests ( through the intervention of the Gods!) and to which on each September 5th, a huge KISERU ( maybe the biggest in Japan), a traditional Japanese pipe, is lugged up for special prayers and rituals!

A KISERU (traditional Japanese pipe), supposedly the largest in Japan, is carried to the top of Mt. Kaba near Tsukuba as part of the annual KISERU MATSURI held in September

The tobacco harvest begins in August in Tsukuba

Asking some of Tsukuba`s old farmers about tobacco, I found out that these days around here, cultivation of that crop is a mere shadow of what it was 50 years ago. I was told that tobacco leaves being hung out to dry in the sun were a TYPICAL autumn scene in this area. Now, a different  variety, one whose leaves can be machine dried ( and which contains lower levels of nicotine), are planted, and thus Tsukuba`s autumn tobacco-scapes are a thing of the past. Some farmers also mentioned that since this new variety also grows much shorter than did the older one, todays tobacco farms  look different,( less imposing), even before the harvest.

As you probably know, tobacco originally grew in North America, and it was not until Columbus` and later European explorers`encounters with the tobacco using native inhabitants of the so-called New World that this plant was carried to other shores.

No one is certain of just exactly when tobacco first arrived in Japan. It seems logical to assume that it was brought by the Portuguese, way back at the time of the first European-Japanese contact in 1543,  at Tanegashima (Island) , at the same time that fire-arms were introduced. There are , however, no written records remaining to show that this was the case. For evidence of trade in tobacco in Japan we have wait until  the end of the 16th century, when it was brought to the Island of Kyushu by Spanish and Portuguese traders. As for cultivation of the plant in Japan, documents show that this first began in 1604, in Nagasaki.

Interestingly, it was a Japanese invasion force, under the generalship of the warlord and hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which introduced tobacco and smoking to the Korean Peninsula ( even more interesting is that they also introduced chili peppers, originally from Mexico, which would become an essential element of Korean cuisine,while never catching on back in Japan).

When these soldiers came back to Japan and returned to their native regions around the country, they helped spread the custom of tobacco use, and the habit spread like wild-fire, and smoking became common, even among women and children by the 1609.

It was then that the recently established Tokugawa Shogunate made its first attempt at stamping out smoking, inflicting severe punishments on those who defied the ban.

Curiously, however, though this same regime which was able to veritably stamp out Christianity, firearms and so-much else ( wheeled vehicles, free travel, etc)  could not succeed in keeping the people from growing tobacco and smoking it, though they tried to do by re-establishing bans time and again. I guess it just goes to show how much the Japanese love smokin`.

Just why did the shogunate want to stop smoking? Well, it was surely not to prevent cancer and heart disease. There were several reasons. One, of course, was to reduce the incidence of fires. It also disturbed the Shogunate, which was always preaching frugality, that the people, most specifically the rising merchant class, was spending so much money on tobacco and on extravagant paraphanalia such as cases, and especially the unique pipes ( kiseru) which the Japanese came to use most commonly for smoking ( these were probably based on similar pipes used in South-East Asia).

A Japanese pipe- KISERU

Most importantly, however, was the fact that, because such good prices could be gotten for tobacco, farmers became reluctant to grow rice! This would have indeed been a major concern for the authorities, and is probably the main reason for the periodic crackdowns on smoking.

As I mentioned before, tobacco was first introduced to, and first cultivated by the Japanese on the Island of Kyushu. There were two distinct varieties which came about, KOKUBU, which was grown in Satsuma ( now Kagoshima), and the DARUMA variety, which was cultivated in Nagasaki. The KOKUBU tobacco spread to the CHUGOKU ( Hiroshima ,etc) and KINKI ( Osaka, etc) regions, while the DARUMA type spread to the Kanto ( Edo, etc) and Hokuriku ( Kanazawa, etc) regions. The type that became famous in what is now Ibaraki Prefecture is known as Suifu Tabako, after the Suifu region ( in the center of the prefecture).

( If you have any friends or acquaintances from Kagoshima, you will surely find that they are familiar with the term KOKUBU TABAKO- its in their prefectural song!)

Anyway, now tobacco is grown in nearly all of Japan`s prefectures ,with the production leaders being Fukushima, Iwate, Ibaraki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima.

I have already told you that tobacco cultivation in this area began in 1608. This happened at a temple called Anyo-In  (安養院) in what is now central Ibaraki. Today can now find tobacco growing almost anywhere in the prefecture. If you want to have a look for yourself in Tsukuba, go to Matsushiro, and you can see the fields along RT. 408, across from the Teshirogi Shopping Center.

After the fall of the Shogunate, and the establishment of the new modernizing and westernizing government of the Meiji Period ( from 1868), smoking cigarettes ( tobacco rolled in paper) became fashionable, thought the kiseru continued to be used by many until after WWII ( though I have never actually seen one).

Tobacco, as something to be taxed, became a very important source of money to fund the rise and spread of the new Japanese Empire. It was the Emperor Meiji who started the custom of distributing special cigarettes ( most probably containing SUIFU TABAKO!) with a small chrysanthemum emblem on it as special souvenir. This first began with the presenting of these ONSHI-NO-TABAKO (恩賜のタバコ) to wounded soldiers. This custom continued, however, until the passing of the Showa Emperor ( the Emperor Hirohito), and Japanese soldiers at the front during WWII, or anyone who was invited for an Imperial Audience , would receive a single stick of these cigarettes ( I have only actually seen ONE of these with my own eyes. An ONSHI-NO-TABAKO presented to the late Professor Joseph Luyten, who helped establish the National Museum of Anthropolgy in Osaka, and later came to live in Tsukuba.

I have heard one Japanese farmer, a veteran of the war, say that the few moments spent slowly savoring the ONSHI NO TABAKO he had received from the Emperor ( not directly) were the greatest of his life!

Times change. The current emperor does not give out cigarettess ( after having been asked to stop the custom by an anti-smoking group) and now those who have contact with his His Majesty are presented a small cake ( MANJU) emblazoned with the Imperial Chrysanthemum.

Some things, however, are the same. The Japanese government still raises huge revenues with its tax on cigarettes. That is why, in a country so passionate about the safety of food ( especially that imported from China), there is ironically little publicly sponsored discussion of the health  problems brought about by smoking and second-hand smoke. It is the Japanese government which is in fact promoting cigarette sales ( so much for the government being the staunch guardian of public health!).


It is also interesting to note that, though the farmers put in a lot of hard work growing and harvesting ( and in the past drying) tobacco,since 1895 it is the only crop that they are not legally allowed to use themselves ( except,of course if they buy cigarettes at a licensed shop), even if only drying and smoking a few leaves. The entire harvest is under the control of Japan Tobacco, which used to be the Japanese government itself. I have heard the story of how in the Meiji Period a farmer in Tochigi Prefecture was fined a huge sum for smoking one less than one leaf worth of tobacco ( the case was eventually thrown out of court).

Among the tobacco plants of Tsukuba in June

Still, if you go to the hospital for testing of almost any kind, the first thing the doctor will ask you for recording on his chart is: Do you smoke?


An e-ma votive tablet offered to a shrine in Nagareyama ( along the tx line) as a promise to stop smoking, and as a supplication for assistance in trying to do so


I have written a detailed description of my experience at the KISERU MATSURI FESTIVAL (held each September 5th) here: