OUTRAGEOUS: Why Japan Is Contributing to the Extinction of Elephants

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  • Tourists visiting Japan tend to flock to the same spots, these being popular destinations that appear in every guidebook and website that recommends places to the millions of visitors that come to Japan each year. One of these places is Asakusa, where people stroll past multiple traditional restaurants and souvenir shops until they reach Senso-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple that is the district’s main attraction. What one might not know is that amidst the hustle and bustle there are shops that sell something that is illegal in most places around the world: ivory.

    by Martin Danker

    The Disappointing Truth

    The disappointing and very depressing truth is that, after China’s historic ivory ban, Japan has become the largest legal ivory market; and sadly, the government does not seem determined to make changes. There are many loopholes in Japan’s laws that allow criminals and ivory traders to fraudulently register tusks, try to sell ivory to people they assume will transport it illegally, or send them overseas.

    Recently, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates the global wildlife trade, recommended all countries that have domestic ivory markets that encourage illegal trade and poaching to close them. However, Masasuri Horikami and his colleagues at the Ministry of the Environment dismissed the recommendation even though the TRAFFIC, a wildlife monitoring group, found that 2.4 tons of seized ivory coming out of Japan between 2011 and 2016. Keiko Wakao, Head of TRAFFIC’s Japan office, stated that the country’s role in illegal ivory trade could not be ignored any longer. Additionally, TRAFFIC has also criticized Japan’s lax domestic ivory trade controls, which traffickers exploit to their advantage, making Japan a haven for illegal ivory trade.

    How Japan Failed Elephants

    The truth is that, even though some shops and organizations claim that using ivory is a Japanese tradition, ivory did not even make it to Japan until the 1500s. Japan does not have elephants, and thus the claim that artifacts made of ivory represent Japanese art and tradition are completely fabricated in order to have an argument that will continue to support the sale of ivory. Ivory did not become popular until the 1600s, during the Edo period. During this time, ivory was used to make accessories, particularly netsuke. Since kimonos don’t have pockets, netsuke are used to fasten small purses to people’s obi belts.

    Ivory’s popularity continued to fluctuate, becoming popular in the 1800s when Japan opened its ports to foreign trade before losing its appeal once again. Popularity increased after WWII, when ivory was used to pake pipes, but the trend died in the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1967 that ivory made a strong comeback when Hikaru Sakamoto started making ivory hankos. Hankos are seals used as official signatures, and every family in Japan has at least one. As a result, he realized that making luxury hankos made of ivory would be very profitable. Sakamoto used a marketing tactic claiming that, since elephants lived many years, owning an ivory hanko would bring good fortune to those who held one. The strategy worked, and the market flourished; and by 1982 Japan had replaced Hong Kong as the largest ivory market, being responsible for the deaths of 120,000 elephants in a single decade. According to Isao Sakaguchi from the University of Tokyo, Japan was responsible for the near extinction of African elephants in the 80s. The slaughtering of elephants culminated in 1989, when the crisis had reached such a terrible point that countries could no longer ignore it. This resulted in the international ivory ban.

    However, in 1997 a sale proposal between Zimbabwe and Japan passed. Since then, Japan has continued to be a large market for ivory. According to laws, Japan’s domestic ivory market can only use ivory from elephants that were killed prior to the international ban. However, huge loopholes have shown that ivory is smuggled into and from Japan, making it one of the largest ivory markets in the world. The number of tusks in Japan has been increasing steadily, suggesting that illegal ivory is making it to the country. According to Japan Elephant Tiger Fund (JETF) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found that 30 out of 37 dealers they investigated proposed illegal activities, thus showing businesses’ willingness to break the law.

    An Ongoing Battle

    Things might be slowly changing when it comes to netsuke. Collections of these old artifacts can be found at Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum. However, modern netsuke artists like Akira Kuroiwa from the International Netsuke Carver’s Association told National Geographic that they were netsuko artists not ivory artists, and thus welcomed a ban on ivory despite it being the favorite material among netsuko artists. Kukan Okiwa, an award-winning netsuke artist who was also interviewed by National Geographic expressed that he did not want to use ivory if it was contributing to illegal trade. Instead, he is working with elforyn , a plastic that resembles ivory.

    However, the biggest challenge occurs when it comes to hankos. Hikaru Sakamoto’s tactic from the 1960s continues working, and these days people continue to buy ivory hankos. Some hanko manufacturers cite Japanese traditions when making hanko (despite ivory being used to make hankos being introduced in the 60s), and some even blindly belief that the ivory they use comes from elephants that had died of natural causes. Ergo, they think their actions do not contribute to the poaching of elephants.

    In 2019, Japan decided to tighten its laws, announcing a carbon dating requirement to whole tusks registered after July 1, 2019 (thus leaving behind the 170 tons of tusks already stockpiled in Japan). These measures proposed by the Ministry of the Environment are meant to close some of the loopholes. However, experts argue that the measures won’t actually do anything. Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of JETF mentions that ivory dealers are very clever, and thus are already prepared for the change. Experts, Masayuki Sakamoto included, mention that the Japanese government should not be praised for what they say as a very ineffective solution that won’t actually do anything to protect elephants and stop illegal activities. To put it simply, the only thing Japan should do is join countries like China and ban all ivory products.

    Retailers Takes Action

    Some retailers have taken action. Rakuten, Ito-Yokado, and Aeon have all banned ivory products (particularly hankos), Aeon giving tenants to phase out before 2020. However, Yahoo! Japan continues to be the largest platform for ivory in the world, stating that they wanted to respect Japanese culture. Despite facing a lot of pressure, Yahoo! Japan has shown no interest in changing its policies.

    The pressure to make retailers stop selling ivory hankos keeps increasing, particularly since the Tokyo Olympics will take place next year. If Japan takes no action in banning the sell of ivory products, tourists will be able to buy ivory hankos and other products and then taking them illegally to their respective countries.

    Time Is Running Out

    On average, 55 elephants are poached daily for their ivory. By continuing to maintain a legal market, Japan has become the world’s largest legal market in the world. An embarrassing to say the least. With the devastating environmental impact poaching has caused to elephant populations across the planet, all markets in the world have to close. Time is running out, and Japan has to do everything it can to ban ivory once and for all.


    For more updates on these stories, check the following organizations:

    Japan Elephant Tiger Fund (JETF)
    Great Elephant Census
    Tears of the African Elephant
    Wild Aid
    Humane Society International

    *Featured Image by sheldricktrust (Sheldrick Wildlife Trust) on Instagram
    : sheldricktrust/