Elephant ivory has long been used worldwide to make a host of items from jewelry, piano keys and billiard balls to art and personal seals.
Japan, which used ivory to make hanko (personal seals), was one of the biggest importers in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing in about 950 tons annually in 1983 and 1984. But as the African elephant population plunged, international trade was banned in 1990, leaving room only for domestic trade.
Despite the international trade ban, however, illegal trade continues and poaching is rampant, leaving African elephants on the red list of vulnerable species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
According to a report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), roughly 100,000 elephants were killed in the three years from 2010, prompting the United States and China to close down their domestic ivory markets.
As the next CITES conference in September nears, pressure is mounting for Japan to close down its market as well.
When did ivory start coming to Japan?
Lawyer Masayuki Sakamoto, an executive director at the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, said it is believed ivory started being brought to Japan in the Genroku Era (1688-1704) during the Tokugawa shogunate.
“Japan was in isolation, so imports were few. Ivory was a luxury item used only by people in the upper class, including the wives of feudal lords, and geisha, who had ivory combs and ornamental hairpins,” said Sakamoto.
Japan’s ivory trade rapidly grew during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) as the nation ended its isolation and started interacting actively with other countries, he said.
“World fairs and expos were held in major cities such as Paris, and Japanese ivory crafts caught the attention of visitors,” said Sakamoto.
By then, ivory had become a major material for sculpting, replacing wood.
“The sculpture industry had suddenly turned white,” renowned sculptor Kotaro Takamura, who avoids using ivory, said.
Japan soon became an exporter of ivory works, and artisans grew rapidly nationwide, mostly in Tokyo and Osaka.
The industry saw its heyday in the rapid economic growth of the 1970s, when ivory seals became extremely popular.
While wood, stone, buffalo horns, cattle horns and crystal had been used for seals, ivory became more popular because it was cheaper and not subject to a commodity tax, Sakamoto said.
As time went on, ivory seals also became known as good luck items, increasing their popularity.
But after the international ban kicked in, the domestic ivory market shrank from about ¥20 billion in 1989 to ¥2 billion in 2014, according to an April report compiled by Traffic, a research arm of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
How can one purchase ivory products in Japan now?
Online sites such as Yahoo Auction and Rakuten are the biggest platforms. A large segment of the ivory trade is on Yahoo Auction.
Thirty-two environmental groups, including the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency, have demanded that Yahoo Japan and SoftBank, which both run auction websites, ban sales of ivory products, claiming that some goods are unregistered and that their trade is illegal.
As of Friday, more than 1.4 million people had signed an online petition titled “Yahoo — stop your deadly ivory trade!” via the Avaaz website.
“The ivory trade is pushing elephants to the edge of extinction, and Yahoo is making a killing from trinket sales in Japan. Several big brands like Google and Amazon are refusing to sell ivory,” it explained.
How can illegal trade be prevented, and are there loopholes that need closing?
Applicants who register to sell products only need to provide a photograph of the items, an explanation of how they were obtained, and verification from a third party, such as a family member.
The Traffic report, however, is demanding stricter government regulations, including the tagging of all legal ivory products, both whole tusks and pieces, so they can be identified and traced. At present, tagging isn’t required when ivory is cut into pieces.
The report also calls for ivory sellers to be government-licensed and their names publicized, instead of the current registration system.
Sakamoto agrees, saying the government should oblige retailers to submit official documents for registration, including customs certificates.
“An ivory trader told me there are cases in which fake ivory is registered. This is inevitable since even experts can’t tell what’s real just by looking at a picture,” he said.
What measures are other countries taking to save the elephants?
Last September, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to close down their respective domestic legal ivory markets. In the U.S., ivory trade has been banned almost entirely since July 6.
Federal law prohibits the import or export, or trade from one state to another, of any ivory aside from that used in authentic antique goods or instruments. Many states are also considering instituting their own bans.
“The U.S. decided that maintaining a legal market for ivory would become a cloak of invisibility for illegal trade. CITES member countries including Japan tried to ban illegal ivory by strictly controlling the market, but the result was a total failure,” Sakamoto said.
China, too, is expected to announce the schedule for closing its ivory market in late 2016 or early 2017.
In Japan, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Environment Ministry are debating how to respond to the international trend ahead of the CITES forum from Sept. 24 to Oct. 5 in Johannesburg.
The ministries declined comment.
Yahoo Japan, Rakuten and DeNA Co. as well as the national association of seal makers are also involved in the discussion and expected to reach a conclusion in late August.
Tokyo has been reluctant to ban domestic trade, saying it can’t ban the sale of products legally obtained before the 1990 international ban.
“With approximately 30,000 elephants killed annually, most of the African countries are hoping for a total ban on ivory trade. Under such circumstances, it’s becoming an international trend to ban ivory trade, with the U.S., China and Hong Kong making decisions to close their markets,” Sakamoto said.
“As one of the largest ivory markets in the world, Japan should go along with the other countries,” he said.