A conduit to China, Japan dodges pressure to ban ivory sales


Daisuke Kikuchi, The Japan Times

Date Published

Defying international pressure, Japan has stopped short of deciding to shut down its market for elephant ivory, traditionally used to carve hanko (personal seals). Instead it is promising to put trade on a tighter leash.

It will oppose a resolution jointly submitted by the United States and other nations urging member nations to outlaw trade in ivory, at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg from Saturday, Environment Minister Koichi Yamamoto said Tuesday.

“Trade of wild fauna and flora that doesn’t endanger its species can help preserve the species and develop the local society,” Yamamoto said. “Japan is in a different position from other countries.”

A panel of ministries and businesses compiled a report on Sept. 16 pledging to strengthen online monitoring to prevent unregistered elephant tusks from being sold.

At present, full tusks must be registered with the Environment Ministry. However, those cut into pieces are not required to be registered.

“We won’t be making dramatic changes,” said Saeko Terada, an Environment Ministry official. “But we’ve discussed sincerely each problem put forward and how it should be tackled.”

The report compiled by the panel, comprising the trade ministry, the Environment Ministry and online shopping mall operators, including Yahoo Japan, Rakuten and DeNA Co, as well as Zen Nihon Insho-gyo Kyokai (the national association of seal makers), said it will crack down on sellers of unlicensed ivory.

It also said it will strengthen efforts to make businesses and individual sellers aware of the need to follow the Endangered Species Preservation Act. Requirements include the registration of certain products before putting them on sale.

On Sept. 2, the two ministries issued a verbal warning against Shizuoka Prefecture-based ivory dealer Nippon Ivory Co. for not keeping a record of ivory sales. They ordered it to implement changes to prevent any recurrence.

And on Sept. 16, police sent to prosecutors a case against five dealers, including officials at secondhand shop operator MALera CD Co., for allegedly reselling nonregistered ivory via an online auction website.

“There has been a series of cases recently in which secondhand shops have sold unregistered ivory. It’s similar to what we have done in the past, but this time (our monitoring) is more responsive and frequent,” said Terada of the Environment Ministry.

The ministries plan to conduct on-site inspections, she said.

Shoichi Nakajima, chairman of Zen Nihon Insho-gyo Kyokai, who took part in the council, agrees that domestic ivory trade should be regulated more tightly to meet international standards.

Although most of its member companies abide by the law, the association says the image of the ivory business has been tainted because dealers were found to be selling unregistered elephant tusks.

“Some online stores and department stores have stopped handling such items entirely,” said Nakajima. “We would like to ask more businesses dealing in ivory to strictly follow the law.”

Ivory sales have been banned almost entirely since July 6 in the U.S., and China is expected to follow suit.

Japan is under international pressure not least because experts say upholding a legal domestic market would draw illicit international trade, including smuggling.

Although international trade was banned in 1990, the U.S.-based international conservation group Environmental Investigation Agency said in June that Japanese traders are selling ivory tusks to Chinese buyers, in full knowledge that the items will be illegally exported to China.

A video the group covertly filmed shows a trader in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, saying: “(Chinese) customers are always bringing back (tusks) through their own routes.” The group calls the video proof of awareness of illicit Chinese movements.

Despite the government’s pledge to crack down on the illegal trade, lawyer Masayuki Sakamoto, an executive director at the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, says regulations are too loose, allowing ivory to be exported by the use of loopholes.

“One way to export ivory out of Japan is to mail it. The customs law doesn’t require a declaration or special permission if the item’s value is less than ¥200,000,” said Sakamoto.

“Having the government vaguely saying it will strengthen efforts won’t solve any problem. Loopholes in the customs law must be filled.”