Japan’s Elephant Ivory Trade: Where Are We Now?
Elephants have been in the conservation spotlight for decades, and for good reason – these iconic and keystone species have suffered bouts of intense poaching for their ivory tusks and have had their population numbers slashed drastically. Unfortunately, the poaching problem isn’t over, and as long as there are legal ivory markets and the demand for ivory continues, elephants will be poached for their ivory. Japan’s legal ivory market remains a threat to a mostly consensus approach among the global community that closing domestic markets is essential to protect elephants from poaching.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and elephants have a long history with the Convention. To protect elephants from a poaching spike in the 1980s, Parties to CITES banned the international commercial trade in elephant ivory in 1989; however, many domestic markets remained open and CITES approved two special international sales of ivory from southern African nations in 1999 and 2008. Japan was the sole buyer of the 50 tonnes of ivory sold in the first sale, and was joined by China for the second sale. Elephant poaching spiked after the “one-off” CITES ivory sales, especially in the wake of the 2008 sale.
To address this resurgence in poaching across Africa, in 2016 Parties to CITES agreed by consensus to amend Resolution Conf. 10.10, Trade in elephant specimens, and include language urging Parties to close domestic ivory markets contributing to poaching or illegal trade. The new resolution language was taken seriously, and many nations and jurisdictions have taken steps in recent years to close their ivory markets including the United States, China, United Kingdom, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, and recently, the European Union, among others. Remaining open markets continue to put elephants at risk and undermine the international ban on commercial ivory trade. In 2019, to address remaining open markets, CITES Parties adopted a decision prompting countries with open ivory markets to report on how their markets are not contributing to poaching or illegal trade.
While some countries attempted to justify retaining their ivory markets and downplayed links to illegal trade, the reality is that all markets are in some way linked to poaching and ivory trade. Legal ivory markets inherently validate and stimulate demand, confuse consumers, make demand reduction impossible, and provide a legal source of ivory for international buyers and traffickers. We live in a global world with a global economy in which no country exists in isolation.
Japan’s Open Market
Japan is the largest remaining legal ivory market, and is a source of ivory that is being illegally exported internationally. As of early 2023, almost 5,800 ivory retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers, with more than 8,500 identified facilities, were registered with the Japanese government. While the number of registered businesses is down from a few years ago, the ivory industry is holding strong thanks to government support. It is impossible to decrease demand for ivory while the Japanese government encourages the trade.
Japan’s reported ivory stockpile consists of 254 tonnes of raw ivory in addition to millions of worked ivory products like hanko (signature seals). That’s a huge chunk of the world’s ivory stockpile – 31% actually (of 796 tonnes). Considering that Japan is not an elephant range state, every tusk and piece of ivory there today was imported from another country with elephants. To increase the existing stockpile, more ivory would have to come from another country’s elephants.
Does Japan want more ivory? It sure seems like Japan is open to the idea. For instance, last year Japan’s ambassador to Zimbabwe was photographed cradling a large tusk during a tour of Zimbabwe’s ivory stockpile, and Japan consistently supports proposals at CITES to reestablish international commercial ivory trade. It’s no secret that Zimbabwe and other southern African countries want to sell their ivory stockpiles internationally – and with the closure of China’s market in 2018, Japan is the only perceived viable option. By keeping its market open, Japan is signaling to the world that it is interested in obtaining more ivory to supply its market.
It is notable that since the international ivory ban’s inception, Japan has sought to end it. In a press briefing by the Ministry of Environment on October 31, 2022, a representative stated: “Japan does not believe that a complete ban of domestic ivory trade is an appropriate option for conserving elephant species, so it rather focuses on preventing illegal trade and thorough management of legal trade.” With this foundation, Japan is an outlier whose open market keeps alive a desire by some to resurrect the international ivory trade.
Japan’s Poor Controls, Contributions to International Trade, & Potential for Abuse
While stating that ivory trade management is the path forward, the Government of Japan continues to fail at effectively controlling the trade. EIA, alongside partner Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF), has exposed and consistently demonstrated how Japan’s domestic ivory market is plagued by inadequate market controls and illegal exports, clearly contributing to the illegal trade problem. Despite this, Japan has maintained that its domestic market does not contribute to illegal trade and has refused to close it.
The combination of Japan’s lax ivory trade controls, porous border, and lack of political will to prevent illegal trade makes its ivory market attractive to traffickers. A report prepared by EIA and JTEF for CITES CoP19 in 2022, Ripe for Abuse: Japan’s Ivory Market, summarizes the problems with Japan’s market controls, highlights how the controls can be easily circumvented for trafficking, and expands on how Japan’s market is already being abused and will continue to be until Japan closes its market.
Japan’s legal domestic ivory market is facilitating the smuggling of ivory to China via Japan’s legalized ivory dealers, undermining China’s ivory market closure. A recent report by JTEF identified and analyzed Chinese court cases of illegal imports from Japan. Many cases involved organized criminal groups and smuggling executed via planned operations to move ivory products from Japan to China for resale.
CITES CoP19: Domestic Ivory Markets & Japan
In November 2022, the 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP19) to CITES was held in Panama City, Panama. Domestic ivory markets were on the agenda and Japan’s market came under international scrutiny once again. A document (Doc. 66.3) submitted by nine elephant range states called for Parties to urgently implement CITES Resolution Conf. 10.10 (Rev. CoP19) by closing all domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade. Burkina Faso and Nigeria publicly singled out Japan for its exceptionally large open ivory market and called on the country to close its market to protect elephants.
Additionally, the document included a proposal for the CITES Secretariat to work with the MIKE-ETIS Subgroup (MIKE and ETIS are CITES programs to review elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade) to conduct an analysis of ivory seizures linked to countries with legal domestic ivory markets, which would help CITES Parties make informed decisions about market closures. The Parties adopted an amended version of the proposal, which included changes proposed by the CITES Secretariat so that the seizure analysis will be conducted “if feasible” and “subject to external funding.” A progress report for the analysis will be discussed at the next meeting of the Standing Committee, SC77, in November 2023, and the results of the analysis will be released and discussed at SC78 and CoP20. This analysis is an important development that will build on EIA’s evidence of ivory seizures linked to Japan and allow for objective, evidence-based decisions regarding the closure of domestic ivory markets.
CoP19 also agreed to renew a set of decisions directing Parties with domestic ivory markets to report on measures they are taking to ensure their markets do not contribute to poaching or illegal trade. Japan’s previous reports on this matter have fallen short, and analyses by EIA and JTEF highlight how Japan’s measures are ineffective. The Standing Committee will review the responses received by Japan and other Parties at its next two meetings and make recommendations as appropriate.
Legal domestic ivory markets undermine the effectiveness of the decades-old ban on international commercial ivory trade – there is no way to have a well-controlled domestic market that acts in isolation from the rest of the world. Elephant poaching is down in some areas, but it’s not over – and it won’t be until the demand for ivory ceases, and the demand for ivory won’t stop if governments continue to support the trade in ivory products.
In 2022, the European Union responded to international concern over its legal ivory market by implementing a trade ban with narrow exemptions. The policy change was made not because there was evidence of the trade being linked to recent poaching, but primarily because the EU wanted to eliminate the potential for its open market to fuel the demand for ivory in other countries and undermine international enforcement and demand reduction efforts. The EU’s logical assessment of how ivory markets are inextricably linked directly contrast’s Japan’s perspective that its market acts in isolation and is not contributing to poaching or illegal trade, and thus it does not need to close its market.
However, within the Tokyo jurisdiction, Governor Yuriko Koike is acting to address Tokyo’s ivory market in lieu of meaningful national-level action. As a major international city, Tokyo is a city others look to for leadership. After initiating an assessment of Tokyo’s ivory trade and receiving recommendations from a designated panel of experts, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is pursing next steps, including the consideration of legal measures to address its ivory market.
By closing its market, Japan would signal that the trade in ivory and killing of elephants is unacceptable. Market closure would also streamline enforcement by eliminating legal cover for illegal ivory and support ivory demand reduction efforts. As the last large legal market and a potential trafficking target, Japan has an opportunity to proactively take steps to eliminate its ivory market now, before evidence inevitably emerges that directly connects its market with ivory from recently poached elephants. Japan must no longer turn a blind eye to its contribution to the illegal ivory trade, and must do its part to protect elephants by finally closing its domestic ivory market.
 Data compiled by JTEF from the business registration registry (in Japanese). February 2023. http://www.jwrc.or.jp/service/jigyousha/files/tourokubo.pdf”
 254 tonnes now including 174.99 tonnes of registered whole tusks as of December 2022 and 79.3 cut pieces owned by the registered dealers as of March 2021
 CITES. https://cites.org/eng/prog/terrestrial_fauna/elephants (as declared by 28 February 2021)