As for whole tusks, should one be smuggled into Japan, all an unscrupulous trader needs do to exempt it from domestic laws, and thus make it legal, is cut it in half. But there’s no real need for that, Sakamoto says, because legalizing a tusk in Japan for commercial sale, regardless of its origin, is easy. Owners don’t have to prove their tusk’s age with a receipt or carbon dating analysis, nor are they required to bring it in for a physical inspection. Instead they fill out an application form, take a few photos, and get a friend or even a family member to provide a written statement vouching for the fact that they saw the tusk in the registrant’s home before 1990. The system, Sakamoto says, is the equivalent of “official laundering.”
Concerned that the number of whole tusks registered in Japan has been steadily rising—from just 408 in 2006 to 1,687 in 2016—Sakamoto and his investigative partner, Kumi Togawa, wanted to see just how easy it is to get away with laundering an illegal one. In 2015 they teamed up with EIA and hired an investigator, who called the Japan Wildlife Research Center, the nongovernmental body tasked with overseeing tusk registration, to say that she wished to register a tusk inherited from her father. She believed he acquired it around the year 2000, however, making it illegal. Rather than deter her, the agent told the investigator to say, for example, that she had seen the tusk in her father’s house in 1985, and he coached her about what to write to ensure “there would be no doubt, no problem.” He even offered to proofread her application.
Sticking to the same story about the inherited tusk, the investigator next called ivory dealers who make a business of purchasing registered whole tusks from citizens and reselling them to manufacturers. Thirty of 37 dealers suggested illegal activities, including a desire to buy the unregistered ivory directly or to help the investigator fraudulently register the tusk using fake, third-party testimonials. As a buyer from one of the largest ivory companies in Japan reassured her, “I’ve done over 500 to 600 of these cases, and no one has ever been questioned about the third party’s statement, not even once.”
Thornton was genuinely surprised by the high number of businesses willing to break the law—“When we started, I thought we’d find three or four bad apples,” he says—but ivory trade advocates were dismissive. “I don’t understand why people insist ivory regulations must be 100 percent perfect,” says Kaneko, the government adviser.
The government never responded directly to JTEF or EIA about their findings. But in early 2017 a tusk registration official at the Japan Wildlife Research Center raised alarms after discovering a number of suspiciously similar applications. Though the applicants supposedly had no connection, the carpet in the photos looked the same, the testimonials were all written in matching fonts, and the stories about the tusks’ acquisitions were nearly indistinguishable.
An investigation led the Tokyo police to two ivory wholesale companies, Raftel and Flawless, and they seized 27 unregistered tusks the companies had tried to fraudulently register on behalf of sellers. Company officials insisted, however, that they were innocent because they’d received permission from the Japan Wildlife Research Center to collect ivory prior to registration so they could ensure its authenticity. The prosecutor accepted the explanation, dismissing the cases and returning the seized tusks, according to JTEF’s Sakamoto, the Japanese media, and the Tokyo police.
To the ire of some officials, the cases were widely covered by the Japanese press. “It’s really disappointing and upsetting that these kinds of illegal transactions are picked up by the media and publicized as if the Japanese legal ivory market had all these murky areas,” says Reiji Kamezawa, director of the Nature Conservation Bureau at the Ministry of the Environment. “I really don’t think we deserve that kind of criticism.”
Ivory industry executives similarly insist that they’re victims of an environmentalist and media witch hunt. At a 2017 hanko trade fair in Tokyo, Takaichi Ivory Company, Japan’s largest hanko manufacturer, posted a notice complaining about the “relentless harassment and pressure” from conservation groups. It was a brazen assertion, considering that Kageo Takaichi, the company’s chairman and the former director of the Japan Federation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Associations, along with his son, were prosecuted in 2011 for illegally trading 58 tusks. The business was fined around $9,000, and Takaichi and his son were given suspended sentences of three and two years, respectively.
Takaichi didn’t respond to an interview request, but statements he made at his trial are indicative of the pressure Japan’s ivory dealers are under. “The thought of ivory no longer coming here is nerve-racking,” he said, and it was this “sense of impending crisis” that drove him to break the law.
It’s difficult to further judge the mood of ivory traders because they’re tight-lipped. “We don’t trust any journalists,” Shunji Koizumi, a representative from the Tokyo Ivory Arts and Crafts Association, a subsidiary of the Japan Federation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Associations, told my translator by phone. About a dozen other members likewise declined interview requests, and one manufacturer even indicated that he and his colleagues had been warned by the association and by someone at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry not to speak with journalists. Keiko Aikawa, a deputy director at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, denied knowledge of any such warning.
One member of the Japan Federation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Associations did agree to talk. Pipe tycoon Kyozaburo Tsuge no longer deals in ivory, but he was made an honorary member for the influence he wields and for his family’s prominent history in the industry. Tsuge’s personal ivory collection numbers more than a hundred sculptures in addition to countless netsuke, pipes, canes, tobacco holders, full tusks, and more. “With ivory, for me it’s not just about money,” he says. “What I’m really concerned about is the artistic, historical, and almost spiritual value of the work.”
Ivory manufacturers are “very worried and very nervous” about the direction the trade is going in Japan, Tsuge says. “People who are sticking to the legal side of the trade are feeling threatened because of the way they’re being treated.” As far as he and his friends are concerned, Japanese ivory traders aren’t the problem. “Everything is registered, everything is legal, everything is trackable in Japanese businesses,” Tsuge says. “But because there are so many other countries that don’t follow the rules, Japan is under suspicion and is suffering from the same restrictions and tightening of regulations.”
By “other countries,” Tsuge really means one country.
“It’s definitely just the Chinese,” he says, adding that for Japanese traders, “there’s a danger of being pulled into smuggling business with Chinese people or getting caught along with them.”
This is more than speculation. When EIA hired two investigators to pose as Chinese buyers intent on taking ivory out of Japan, all four wholesalers they approached were ready to do business. All, in fact, reassured their potential buyers that they’d made deals with Chinese in the past. “We sold so many ivory tusks [to the Chinese] that ivory has been vanishing from Japan,” one dealer bragged. Working with Chinese had caused the price for ivory to “surge,” another added.
According to an unpublished analysis of China’s reported ivory seizure data undertaken by the Elephant Trade Information System, a tool CITES uses to track trends in the illegal ivory trade, from 2011 to 2016 Japan ranked fourth—behind Nigeria, Tanzania, and Vietnam—in terms of top source countries for ivory coming into China. During that period, Traffic Japan tallied more than a hundred seizures of illegal ivory totaling 2.15 tons. “This could be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the volume of ivory coming from Japan to China,” says Tomomi Kitade, who heads the office.
While shipping ivory overseas is illegal, selling it in Japan to foreign buyers is not. Last November, the Tokyo police arrested a Chinese sailor trying to board a China-bound vessel with 605 ivory hankos. The investigation led the police to another Chinese national and to Masao Tsuchiya, director of the All Japan Ivory Center in Tokyo, both of whom were arrested earlier this year. Tsuchiya argued that he had no idea his Chinese customers intended to take the ivory he sold them out of the country. The prosecutor dismissed the case.
Despite the newly imposed ivory ban in China, demand there remains strong. Traffic’s China office has found that illegal sales continue online and that tourists are still buying ivory abroad to smuggle home.
“If neighboring countries with weak law enforcement—including Japan—don’t close their legal and illegal ivory markets, we will not be able to curb the illegal trade flowing into China,” says Zhou Fei, the head of Traffic’s China office. Of Japan’s record 24 million visitors in 2016, the majority came from East Asia, and Chinese interest in visiting Japan increased 130 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to a Trip Advisor analysis.
For now, Japan has not answered that call. In an EIA report scheduled to be published on October 8, investigators found that nearly 60 percent of more than 300 hanko vendors they approached had no qualms about customers taking ivory out of Japan. Several even offered to mail the ivory abroad themselves, which is illegal.
It’s impossible to ascertain how much ivory remains in Japan, but officials insist that the industry will naturally close once those reserves run out. On the contrary, conservationists warn that as the stash is depleted, the temptation to smuggle in tusks from newly poached elephants could become irresistible.
This may already be happening. In 2015 Huang Qun, former director of the Judiciary Identification Center of the National Forest Police Bureau, in Beijing, examined a seizure of more than 1,300 pounds of tusks from Japan that appeared to have come from recently killed elephants. The enamel was moist, and the tusks were free from cracks and mildew, while their outer surface had deep deposits of grime. The tusks could have originated from the 2008 legal sale, but generally, Huang says, “these characteristics pertain to recent tusks, not more than five years old.”
Despite signs of cracks in Japan’s ivory controls, the official position remains the same: Japan is not considering closing its ivory market. “There’s no way we should be denying the rights of people who legally own ivory to engage in legal transactions of that ivory,” says the Ministry of the Environment’s Reiji Kamezawa.
“Keeping the ivory trade alive,” Tsuge adds, “is something that the government and the ivory association agree on.”
In June—in an effort to dispel mounting criticism, and citing a desire to strengthen controls—Japan tweaked its regulatory laws for ivory trade. Rather than regulate ivory products directly, though, officials have chosen to increase their supervisory power over traders. The country’s 300 manufacturers and 8,200 retailers must now register their businesses every five years, making it possible, for the first time, for the government to reject an application to trade in ivory. Traders also must register all the whole tusks in their possession, and as in the past, they must self-report all their sales on a paper ledger. Maximum fines have been increased from $9,000 for an individual or business to $905,000 for a business or $45,000 for an individual. Meanwhile the Ministry of Environment hired four new field officers tasked with controlling trade in endangered species.
JTEF’s Masayuki Sakamoto calls these measure window dressing. “I know the practices of this administration, so I don’t believe they will conduct a serious supervision over the dealers,” he says. “The purpose of this ‘supervision’ is to protect the industry.”
EIA’s Allan Thornton says that “there’s absolutely nothing in the new law that makes a molecule of difference.”
Japanese officials disagree. As Horimaki at the Ministry of the Environment says, “We believe the amended law will do the job.”
“WE DON’T HAVE TO USE IVORY”
Some Japanese ivory users have come to see a domestic trade ban as inevitable—even welcome. “We aren’t ivory artists; we’re netsuke artists,” says Akira Kuroiwa, chairman of the International Netsuke Carvers’ Association. “We don’t have to use ivory.”
Very few Japanese today create large-scale ivory sculptures of the sort produced in the Meiji period, but netsuke craftsmanship has made something of a comeback among a small group of artists and collecting enthusiasts, including Princess Hisako of Takamado. Most artists now use a variety of materials, including wood, deer antler, metal, water buffalo horn, plastic, and stone—but for many, ivory still reigns supreme, according to Atsushi Date, chief curator of the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum.
“The material itself is beautiful, the color is warm, and it has enduring hardness,” says Kukan Oikawa, an award-winning netsuke artist in Tokyo. Yet Oikawa has no interest in using ivory if there’s a chance it contributes to illegal trade. “That would betray my customers and my art,” he says.
Like Kuroiwa and others, Oikawa suspects that ivory’s time is running out, and he’s preparing accordingly. In his studio, he hands me a small wooden box. Nestled inside is a tiny, strikingly lifelike white rabbit with shining red eyes. It looks indistinguishable from ivory, but it’s elforyn—a type of plastic—and one of several materials Oikawa is exploring as a substitute for ivory. “I want to find a material that looks like ivory but isn’t ivory, to keep this technique of carving alive,” he says.
Some hanko manufacturers agree with this thinking. A few have already opted out of selling ivory hankos, while others, including Soke Nihon Insou Kyokai, the company that first kicked off the ivory hanko craze, are considering alternatives. “Since we can’t really deny that Japan is part of the illegal market, I think we have to follow the way the world is going,” says Takumi Isono, head of the sales promotion department.
Yahoo! Japan, the world’s largest online platform for ivory, hasn’t budged on the issue (a company spokesperson cited the need to “stay respectful of Japanese culture”), but other major retailers are leading the way. Rakuten, the e-commerce company that Sakamoto previously investigated, banned ivory in 2017, and Aeon, a prominent retail group, has already phased ivory out of its shops and given its mall tenants until 2020 to do the same.
“We’re just following our own standards for biodiversity conservation and sustainability,” says Haruko Kanamaru, head of Aeon’s corporate citizenship department. “We’re going along with the international community in moving forward with this.”
Some officials agree with this sentiment, though they generally keep such thoughts to themselves. “If everyone in the larger international community is moving forward, what’s the use of us staying back here, calling for an ivory market?” says Hideka Morimoto, a vice minister at the Ministry of the Environment. “I’m upset that this tiny group of people who are profiting from illegal ivory trade are overshadowing all the things Japan is actually doing to protect wildlife, and ruining our reputation.”
Sakamoto believes external pressure is the best hope for changing Japan’s policies. Before stepping down as the U.K.’s foreign secretary in July, Boris Johnson urged Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister, to enact an ivory ban, and U.S. officials have also been engaged.
“We’ve encouraged Japan, as we have with other countries, to reduce illegal ivory trade by closing its ivory market,” says Judy Garber, principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. “Maintaining a domestic ivory market can contribute to masking illegal trade and complicate all our joint efforts to wipe out wildlife trafficking.”
Whether Japan heeds this message or remains one of the world’s last ivory trade havens remains to be seen. But in the meantime, thousands of elephants continue to be poached for their tusks each year. As Masayuki Sakamoto says, “It’s crucial for the international community not to let Japan slip now, because elephants won’t be given another chance.”