Photo/IllutrationAn ivory seizure on display at the Tokyo Wangan Police Station (Chihiro Ara)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Although Japan boasts a domestic trade in ivory that it claims is completely aboveboard, it cannot evade calls to shut down the thriving activity on grounds it encourages illegal poaching driven by high demand in China.

Since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned cross-border trade in ivory about 30 years ago, Japan has maintained its track record in this area is squeaky clean.

But every so often, an incident concerning ivory smuggling to China brings the issue of wildlife conservation to the fore and questions about whether Japan is, in effect, abetting poaching and the illegal trade in ivory.

Global NGOs and other interested parties say Japan should do more to crack down on smuggling.

In the latest incident Nov. 28, a Chinese crew member of a container vessel anchored at the Port of Tokyo was questioned as he returned to his ship with a bag and a backpack containing 605 pieces of ivory.

A sharp-eyed Tokyo Customs official noticed that when the man landed in Japan three hours earlier, he did not have the bag with him.

Police suspect 31-year-old Chen Tianbiao planned to sell the ivory in China, where he could command three to four times what he paid in Japan.

The ivory pieces were carved into blocks 10 centimeters long and measuring 1 cm on each side, to be fashioned into personal seals. The haul weighed 7 kilograms and was worth around 310,000 yen ($2,740).


According to experts, ivory smuggling from Japan to China is rampant, although authorities here rarely make an arrest. The case in November led to the man being arrested and indicted.

TRAFFIC, a British-based international NGO with a global reach, said in a Dec. 20 report that there were 113 cases of illegal ivory exports from Japan to China between 2011 and 2016, involving seizures totaling about 2.3 tons. Seizures by authorities in China accounted for 106 of the cases, the report said.

CITES, which regulates international trade of endangered wild animals and plants, bans cross-border ivory trade in principle. The United States and China are among numerous countries that have moved to ban domestic ivory trade.

A 2016 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES recommended the closure of domestic ivory markets that are “contributing to poaching or illegal trade.”

Japan, for its part, is keeping its domestic market alive by citing, among other reasons, a cultural and historical tradition for "hanko" personal seals made of ivory to sign contracts and other official documents.

Tokyo maintains that no illegal trading takes place that could encourage poaching.

The ivory now traded in Japan was imported before the CITES trade ban or imported by exception in 1999 and 2009 under CITES from four countries in southern Africa with stable elephant populations.

Even the trade of a single elephant tusk must be registered with the environment minister. Records show that 1,687 tusks were registered in 2016, with a total weight of about 16 tons.

There is no registration system for processed ivory products, but individuals and dealers must notify authorities if they intend to trade in them on a commercial basis.

When a TRAFFIC survey team interviewed 33 dealers, including those in tourist areas in Tokyo and Kyoto and at antiques fairs, more than 70 percent replied that they had no problem with ivory products being taken out of Japan.

At least one dealer affixed price tags in Chinese and Korean script, TRAFFIC officials said.

In October 2015, Chinese authorities seized about 800 kg of ivory products exported from Japan to China.

The following January, when an Asahi Shimbun reporter visited the addresses in Nagasaki Prefecture written on the shipping manifest for those ivory products, they turned out to be a private house and a public apartment building. The residents of both locations were clueless about the case.

“Perhaps they were used to camouflage the recipients of the ivory products for smuggling into China,” said lawyer Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the nonprofit Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund.

NGOs and other parties are pushing Japan to close its domestic market, arguing that continued smuggling of ivory from Japan to China could keep demand for poached ivory alive.

“The government should face up properly to the current state of affairs,” said Ryoko Nishino, a TRAFFIC program officer.

(This article was written by Chihiro Ara, Yuji Endo and Yu Kotsubo.)