The struggle over Japan’s ivory market
Andreas Wilson-Späth
10 November 2016


Japan has ensured the continued existence of its deeply flawed internal ivory market through sly diplomacy at the CITES conference in Johannesburg. However, reports in the Japanese media reflect growing internal criticism and suggest how the country’s destructive domestic ivory trade might be ended.

Engineering a loophole
A resolution calling on countries to close down their domestic ivory markets was adopted unanimously at last month’s Conference of the Parties to CITES, but only after Japan – with support from South Africa and others – managed to change the document to apply only to “domestic markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade”.

The aim of this political manoeuvre was to exempt Japan from the declaration because its own internal trade is supposedly well regulated. The daily Chunichi Shimbun newspaper quoted Junya Nakano of the Wild Fauna and Flora Trade Examination Office of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as saying that “the resolution text does not apply to the closure of the Japanese domestic market.”

This comes despite the fact that an extremely damning report shows Japan’s domestic ivory market to be poorly controlled, uncovering widespread fraudulent buying and selling of unregistered ivory, laundering of poached ivory and illegal exports of ivory to China and Thailand.

Critics contend that allowing within-country trade in ivory to continue in Japan and elsewhere will ensure sustained demand and fuel Africa’s devastating elephant poaching crisis.

Critical voices from within
While most stop short of condemning the Japanese ivory trade outright, recent reports in several Japanese newspapers suggest that there might be growing popular discontent.

Writing in the Asahi Shimbun, one of five major national newspapers, Tomomi Abe points out that “Yahoo! Auctions, the largest auction site in Japan, has been abused for the trade in unregistered ivory”. Abe goes on to explain that between 2005 and 2015, “the amount of ivory traded is equivalent to approximately 7,000 elephants”, that “half of the ivory items up for auction on Yahoo! Auctions between June 2014 and November 2015 did not clearly display” the necessary registration numbers, and
that “a search for “ivory” on Yahoo! Auctions yields approximately 10,000 ivory items being offered for auction now”.

Chunichi Shimbun acknowledges that “African elephants are in danger of extinction due to poaching for their ivory”, notes concerns from environmental groups about the “many deficiencies in Japan’s ivory registration system”, and highlights the use of illegal ivory trading to fund criminal and terrorist organisations.

Reporting on criminal charges brought against three men for online trading of poached ivory, another Asahi Shimbun article complains that “the government maintains the position that Japan’s domestic ivory is well-managed and thus is not subject to the closures, but in actuality there seems to be no end to the trade in unregistered ivory, and the police are dealing with one such case after another”.

Changing public opinion
Issues raised in the Japanese press point to several avenues that may be explored by those campaigning for the closure of its ivory market.

A number of newspaper articles warn that the country will come in for more and more criticism from the global community if it continues to allow domestic ivory sales. This suggests that growing international pressure may be effective in swaying public opinion, especially if China honours its commitment to close its own internal market, leaving Japan increasingly isolated – and embarrassed – on the world stage.

There are indications that campaigns designed to reduce the demand for ivory could have a major impact. The website J-Cast News points out that 80% of the country’s current ivory demand goes towards the production of traditional name seals, which are used on documents instead of a written signature. The site quotes a report published by the wildlife trade monitoring organisation TRAFFIC which suggests that “more than 80% of ivory seal owners would consider a replacement material for ivory if it becomes unavailable” and that “the market for titanium is growing as a luxury seal material of the next generation”.

Ultimately, exposing the fact that the country’s ivory market is plagued by illegal practices which contribute directly to the slaughter of elephants in Africa may be the most effective way of raising public awareness and opposition within Japan itself.

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