Japan’s Rakuten Closes the Door on Ivory Sales

By Amy Zets Croke, EIA Policy Analyst

Rakuten Ichiba, Japan’s number one e-commerce platform and one of the world’s leading internet retailers of elephant ivory products, is finally banning ivory sales. A global company with origins in Japan, Rakuten, which means “optimism” in Japanese, believes in the future and has “an understanding that we can make the future better by what we do today.” Its recent move to ban ivory product sales illustrates its dedication to protecting the environment, include the world’s precious elephants, for the future.

Rakuten’s policy change came into effect on July 1st. According to Rakuten, ivory merchants were informed prior to the official policy change. All ivory products will be included under the new policy, which eliminates any loopholes and will make enforcement easier. No new ivory products can be added, and the phase-out period for merchants will be about a month long, similar to when Rakuten banned whale and dolphin products from its site in 2014 following the International Court of Justice Ruling against Japan’s “scientific” whaling. Though Rakuten has made the policy public, the company has yet to release an official statement.

EIA has previously brought attention to Rakuten’s ivory sales, second only in scale to Yahoo! Japan’s ivory sales. In 2015, EIA documented approximately 6,400 ads for ivory products for sale on Rakuten Ichiba’s shopping site on a single day, with a sales value of US$2.6 million. Rakuten previously banned advertisements for the promotion of ivory sales and in August 2016 issued a new wildlife-related policy to fully comply with the laws regulating ivory trade. Though Rakuten had taken steps to further regulate its ivory product sales, banning ivory product sales was the only way to eliminate its role in the ivory trade and solidify its stance against illegal wildlife trade.

Rakuten was founded in Japan in 1997, making 2017 its 20th Anniversary, an important year for the company as it further expands its brand. Rakuten’s global reach is vast: it has more than 40 major consolidated subsidiaries on several continents, numerous clients and affiliates, and is an investor in the well-known Pinterest and Lyft. For at least the next four years, Rakuten will also be the sponsor of FC Barcelona, one of Europe’s most beloved soccer teams. Rakuten made its decision to ban ivory product sales as a global enterprise, demonstrating its influential international presence.

Global momentum is building to close domestic ivory markets to protect elephants from the trade in ivory. Last year, nations party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) unanimously agreed to a resolution calling for the closure of domestic ivory markets in countries with legal markets linked to illegal trade or poaching. The United States, China and other nations have committed to closing down their domestic ivory markets and internet retailers such as Google, Amazon.com, Alibaba, Tencent, Taobao, and eBay have already established policies to ban ivory sales on their platforms. However, Japan’s legal domestic market remains open in spite of significant evidence of illegal ivory trade.

Japan’s domestic ivory control laws are weak and completely ineffective in preventing illegal trade. In 2015, EIA reported that Japan’s whole tusk registration scheme served as a major loophole to allow undocumented illegal ivory tusks to be legalized with fraudulent declarations. A series of EIA investigations have exposed rampant illegal activity, complacency and facilitation of illegal activity within the Japanese government-appointed organization that controls the country’s domestic ivory market, and evidence of thriving illegal exports to China. Recently in Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department revealed it had new evidence of illegal trade in ivory tusks by a trader linked to the tusk registration scheme.

Unregistered, and thus, illegal, ivory can easily be laundered and make its way onto the Japanese market. Selling in Japan’s loophole-ridden control system, no retailer is safe from participating in the trade in illegal ivory. Closing platforms and markets eliminates loopholes for laundering illicit ivory and reduces the demand for ivory – an essential component to stop elephant poaching and ivory trafficking.

In banning ivory sales, Rakuten has demonstrated real industry leadership globally and in Japan in the fight against wildlife trafficking. EIA welcomes Rakuten’s game-changing policy and looks forward to working with Rakuten and other like-minded companies keen to take steps to protect the world’s precious elephants.