Africa: Japan to Come Up With New Law On Illegal Ivory


Allan Olingo, The East African

Date Published

Japan is this week expected to make an announcement on its controversial policy that allows ivory trade, at a time when the country’s top leaders and business people are in Africa for the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development TICAD VI.

The country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, Industry and Environment said it is working with relevant stakeholders, including Cites, auction sites including Yahoo Japan, Rakuten Ichiba and an association of seal makers to have a common policy before the end of the week, ahead of next month’s Cites forum in Johannesburg.

Japan has in the past three years been in the spotlight for its weak laws on illegal ivory and failing to crack down on illegal registration of ivory.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in a petition letter last year to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said that the country had imported ivory acquired from more than 250,000 poached African elephants since 1970. Japan has also twice been allowed — in 1997 and 2008 — to buy ivory from Zimbabwe and Namibia despite the 1989 Cites ban on international commercial trade in ivory.

In 2011, Tokyo police presented evidence against Takaichi, Japan’s largest ivory manufacturing company, showing that was for trading in more than 60 illegal unregistered tusks, part of 1,600 illegal tusks that had been intercepted. The officials got away with a fine of $12,500.

A report released early this year by the EIA accuses the country of turning a blind eye even as its traders continue to register tusks that are of undetermined origin, including illegal ivory imports, increasing the risk to the lives of African elephants.

And in a recent television interview aired in Kenya, Airi Yamawaki, co-founder of Tears of the African Elephant, said that the use of ivory in Japan is widespread. It is used by just about everybody.

“By law, in Japan, almost everyone is required to have a Hanko (personal signature), which is registered by municipality. One has to have this seal in order to open a bank account, sign contracts, agreements, open a new business. The Hanko shops, which are from all over Japan, offer a wide range from wood to ivory,” Ms Yamawaki said, adding that people chose the ivory seal because it is perceived to offer good fortune to the person or business, hence fuelling the ivory trade.

Statistics from National Geographic show that as at 2014, Japan had registered 6,000 tusks, up from 500 in 2010. Yahoo Japan also closed sales worth $7 million in 2014, up from $2 million four years earlier, showing that the trade in ivory in the country had increased.

Eighty per cent of the ivory used in Japan is for Hanko and musical instruments such as the samisen, which requires one tusk to make one pick. This makes the ivory consumed by Hanko more pronounced than that used in making traditional music instruments.

The other reason is that while wood, buffalo and cattle horns are the alternatives used for seals, ivory is the first option because of its affordability, not being subject to a commodity tax.

“China gets all the attention because they are the biggest consumer of ivory, allowing Japan to get away with it. When Japan made its regulations about the domestic use of ivory post-1989, poaching wasn’t as rampant as it is now. Poaching has taken on an international criminal link, yet Japan hasn’t amended its laws. We have ivory connected to crime, money laundering and terrorism,” Ms Yamawaki said.