How Japan Undermines Efforts to Stop the Illegal Ivory Trade

As China cracks down on ivory sales, legal loopholes in Japan—the world’s largest market—offer opportunities for smugglers.

photographs by Brent Stirton
Published 25 Sept 2018, 14:55 BST

Like thousands of other Tokyo visitors on a recent summer day, we beelined for Asakusa, a popular tourist district. My companion and I were drawn not by the neighbourhood’s famous Buddhist temple or its renowned geisha shows but by ivory. Banned in much of the world, here in Japan ivory is still sold openly and legally.

The hunt didn’t take long. Weaving through selfie-snapping crowds, past the thunderous booms of a live drum band and the tantalising smells of freshly baked takoyaki, we stopped at random at a shop to ask for directions. We’d heard that a particular jewellery store nearby sold Chinese-style ivory jewellery. The shopkeeper shook his head: he didn’t think that place was around anymore.

“But if it’s ivory you’re looking for,” he said, “I can help you.”

Though his shop specialised in coral, he reached into a back drawer and pulled out a necklace. The intricate, matchbox-size carving dangling from its cord depicted Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, her swirling skirts surrounded by a dragon’s tight coils and a spray of phoenix feathers.

“Zoge,” the shopkeeper said, pointing to the creamy white material. Ivory. He was asking just £350—a steal.

It was very beautiful, I admitted, putting it around my friend’s neck and snapping a photo. I told the shopkeeper that I’d heard it was against the law to take ivory out of Japan. Wouldn’t we run into trouble getting it back to New York City?

“If you show this to Customs, no, not OK,” the shopkeeper said after a pause. “But many people from New York take ivory back to the United States.”

To demonstrate how this was done, he pointed at my purse and motioned inside, as though concealing something within. “Or just put it in your shirt for taking back to New York,” he said, patting his collar. “Perhaps it’s OK.”

After we demurred, the shopkeeper nevertheless handed me his business card. “Nine a.m. tomorrow, we’re open!”

International ivory trade has been banned since 1990, but exchanges like this are why countries and territories around the world—including the U.S., U.K., France, and Taiwan—have been issuing near-total domestic ivory bans. Michael Gove, British secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, says the U.K.’s ban, expected to take effect in 2019, “is one of the most effective ways we can contribute to ensuring the horrific decline in African elephant numbers is reversed.”

No matter how supposedly tight the controls, legal trade in ivory seems inevitably to serve as a smoke screen for illegal dealings. China—the world’s preeminent source of demand for ivory and the predominant driver behind much of Africa’s elephant poaching—was widely praised for closing its market in January.

China’s decision meant that Japan suddenly inherited the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest legal ivory market. Though long overlooked as a source of illegal trade, evidence is emerging that “the last ivory ban haven,” as conservationists have dubbed Japan, is just as vulnerable to abuse.

“To many people in the world, it seems that Japanese people are generally keen to comply with the law, but in reality that’s not the case,” says Masayuki Sakamoto, an environmental lawyer and the executive director of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF), a nonprofit organisation based in Tokyo.

Investigations conducted by JTEF and other groups have revealed regulations riddled with loopholes that ivory traders readily exploit, including by fraudulently registering tusks, sending ivory abroad or—as I saw—offering ivory to customers whom they believe intend to take it across borders illegally. From 2011 to 2016, Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring group, tallied 2.1 tonnes of seized ivory leaking out of Japan, almost all bound for China.

In 2011 authorities in Kenya burned five tons of ivory—including many blank hankos, or name seals, the main ivory product in Japan—recovered from a seizure in Singapore.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

In light of such findings, pressure is building for Japan to join the rest of the world in closing its domestic ivory market. “We’ve been slaughtering elephants since Roman times, but we can end ivory trade now,” says Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, a nonprofit organisation based in San Francisco. “That would be a tremendous achievement for the human race—and Japan could be leading it.”

But Japanese officials are sticking to a decades-long stance that their ivory market complies with sustainable trade and is controlled tightly enough to be exempt from calls for bans. As Masaru Horikami, director of the Ministry of the Environment’s Wildlife Division, says, “Japan is not being blamed for poaching, so at this point the Japanese government is not thinking about closing the ivory market.” He and his colleagues most recently dismissed a recommendation by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty organisation that regulates the global wildlife trade, that all countries whose domestic ivory markets spur poaching or illegal trade close them.

Predicting if or how Japan’s ongoing ivory trade will affect the survival of elephants is very difficult, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organisation based in Washington, D.C., and author of The Extinction Market. “Does ivory leaking from Japan to China satisfy existing demand, or does it boost demand so there’s more poaching of elephants in Africa? These are enormously complex questions,” she says. “What we do know, though, is that regulations in Japan are not adequate to prevent illegal export of ivory.”

As poaching rages on in Africa, some experts fear that those inadequate regulations will allow Japan to become the next leading destination for laundering ivory from recently killed elephants.


Ivory trade has made elephants walking targets since time immemorial, but the past century has seen their populations in Africa plunge from about 10 million a century ago to an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 today. Savanna elephants suffered a 30 percent loss from 2007 to 2014, and thousands continue to be poached for their tusks each year.

These giants in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park represent some of Africa's last great tuskers—elephants whose massive tusks weigh in at about a 45kg (100 lbs) or more.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

China’s appetite for ivory has been the primary cause of today’s crisis, but Japan helped set the stage. Japan has consumed ivory from at least 262,500 elephants since 1970, the vast majority from large, mature adults, according to Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a nonprofit organisation based in Washington, D.C. Japan’s ivory appetite fueled catastrophic poaching during the 1970s and 1980s, when African elephant populations were slashed by 50 percent.

Since the 1990 ban, Japanese officials have pushed to reopen the international trade, and in 1999 and 2008 they partly succeeded by instigating one-off ivory sales to replenish Japan’s domestic market. (China’s inclusion in the second sale best explains the most recent upsurge in elephant poaching and ivory trafficking, according to a working paper published by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University.)

“Japan bears the strongest moral responsibility for having re-triggered the mass slaughter of elephants by leading efforts to dismantle the ban,” Thornton says. “Dismantling that ban through the two CITES-approved ivory sales was a catastrophic error that allowed industrial-level poaching to reignite.”

Japan’s ivory industry today, Thornton adds, is “greater than any other nation on Earth.” While China had some 170 ivory outlets nationwide prior to its ban, Japan has 8,200 retailers, 300 manufacturers, and 500 wholesalers.

On their website, Japanese ivory traders refer to their craft as “an indispensable traditional industry.” But in actuality, ivory was introduced to Japan relatively recently, and its use has shifted with the whims of the day.

“We don’t have sophisticated traditional carving like China,” says Tetsuji Ida, an author and journalist at Kyodo News who has reported on ivory since 1992. “The ivory-as-cultural-heritage argument is false.”

Ivory found its way to Japan in the 1500s as an adornment for high-end furniture for feudal lords and aristocrats, as well as for musical instrument parts and tea ceremony utensils. But its popularity took off during the Edo period, from the 1600s to the mid-1800s, when Japan’s new merchant class began using it to make hair ornaments, tobacco containers, and tiny accessories called netsuke.

A collection of modern netsuke at the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum. The museum sponsors an annual competition for the best new netsuke and hosts networking events to try to reinvigorate interest in this fading traditional art.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

Kimonos have no pockets, so netsuke—which always contain a string hole—were indispensable for fastening small purses to the wearer’s obi belt. As kimono culture grew more sophisticated, fashionistas would coordinate their netsuke—the most favoured of which were made of ivory—to match a particular season or event.

“By the late Edo period, even commoners probably had at least one piece of ivory crafts,” says Kinue Asayama, general manager of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, in Kyoto. “People cherished it as a luxury.”

When Japan opened its doors to the West in 1853 and transitioned into the Meiji period, demand for ivory escalated, thanks to foreign visitors who loved Japanese arts and crafts. A new ivory carving industry sprang up to mass produce sculptures of elegant women, humble countryfolk, and smiling children. “As demand got bigger, the ivory pieces got bigger,” Asayama says. “Western merchants came to buy ivory sculptures, and Japanese art dealers established branches outside of the country.”

For the Japanese, however, ivory was losing its lustre. As westernisation came into vogue, netsuke, Buddhist sculptures, antiques, and other ivory trinkets were sold to foreigners, and most new products were manufactured specifically for export. This came to an end when World War II broke out, but the ivory market, rather than fade into oblivion, evolved soon after the fighting ended. Tobacco was its new entry point.


Kyoichiro Tsuge, a pipemaker, had just returned from the front line after WWII when he seized on a business opportunity. Almost everyone in Japan smoked, but the paper cigarettes the Americans supplied lacked filters, making them difficult to enjoy until the very end. Ivory cigarette holders, Tsuge realised, were the answer. Ivory didn’t burn, and because a tusk is nothing more than an elephant’s tooth, it produced a pleasant teeth-on-teeth feel when held in the smoker’s mouth. The fad spread quickly.

Tsuge expanded during the 1950s, putting his 120 carvers to work making souvenir ivory pipes for the thousands of Americans stationed in Tokyo. Decorated with Japanese motifs such as Mount Fuji, maiko (geisha in training), and dragons, the pipes—which cost £23 to £38 , about a month’s salary for an average Japanese at the time—proved best sellers. Tsuge often sent his son, Kyozaburo, to make weekly deliveries to the U.S. entertainment palace in Ginza, a place normally prohibited for Japanese.

Demand for ivory pipes dried up after the Americans left, and paper filters replaced cigarette holders. But once again the industry conceived of a new use for ivory—one that has since served as the driving force behind Japan’s consumption.

Hikaru Sakamoto, a travelling salesman from Yamanashi Prefecture, was selling jewellery to wealthy households when he noticed that his customers made expensive purchases using low-quality wooden hankos, or signature name stamps. Given that everyone in Japan needs a hanko, luxury hankos, Sakamoto realised, could be an even bigger profitmaker than jewellery.

In 1967 Sakamoto founded Soke Nihon Insou Kyokai, a hanko company specialising in ivory. Although he wasn’t the first to produce ivory hankos, he did pioneer an ingenious marketing scheme. Some Japanese believe that certain high-quality hankos can positively influence their fate, and Sakamoto capitalised on this superstition by taking out ads claiming that because elephants live long lives in tightly knit family groups, people who own ivory hankos will enjoy similar longevity, fortune, and harmony. What the “Diamond Is Forever” campaign did later for engagement rings in the West, Sakamoto’s ivory message did for hankos in Japan.

“Very much like eating whale meat, using ivory hankos was something made by industries and PR agencies,” Tetsuji Ida says. “Definitely this is not our culture, not our tradition, and has no relation with a principle of sustainable use.” (By “sustainable use” he means trade in animals and their parts that doesn’t harm their populations.)

Indeed, the booming hanko trade came at the expense of African elephants, which by this time were being slaughtered en masse for their tusks. In 1982 Japan overtook Hong Kong as the world’s largest ivory consumer, importing more than 2,700 tons of ivory—the equivalent of 120,000 elephants—in a single decade. An estimated 70 percent of Japan’s ivory at that time was illegal, from poached elephants, and at least half of it was being used to churn out more than two million hankos annually.

“In the 1980s Japan was so notorious, not only in terms of the volume of ivory it consumed but also for illegal trade,” says Isao Sakaguchi, a professor of international relations and global environmental governance at Gakushuin University, in Tokyo. “Japan was responsible for the near extinction of African elephants in most of their range states.”

News of the poaching crisis didn’t connect with many ivory hanko producers and users, however. Africa and its problems seemed a world away, and, according to Sakaguchi, by the time poached tusks reached Japan, they’d been laundered into legality, often through fraudulent permits issued by exporters in Africa or Hong Kong.

Takashi Mochizuki, the representative of his family’s company, Mochizuki Mitsugu Shoten, a major hanko distributor, still shudders when recalling the day 30 years ago that a French television crew showed up at his business in Rokugo, a town famous throughout Japan for its hanko production. “When they started broadcasting, they first showed hanko stores in this neighbourhood, but soon after that, they showed images of dead elephants!” Mochizuki says. “That was something I couldn’t accept.”

More reporters began turning up after that, all “with an intention to show Japan as the place where ivory from elephants killed by poachers ends up,” he says. But, he adds, for him and his neighbours, elephants are “a precious, holy thing. Our tradition is not killing animals but just taking ivory from ones that died naturally somewhere. We’re not part of that elephant-killing business.” To this day Mochizuki and others in the ivory industry stand by that assertion.

Rangers in Kenya removed the tusks of this bull elephant killed by a spear to prevent the ivory from entering the illegal trade.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

With press coverage of the poaching crisis reaching a fever pitch in the late 1980s, the Japanese government finally relented. In June 1989, four months before the international ivory ban went into effect, Japan temporarily halted ivory imports. Industry representatives pressured officials to oppose heightened protections for African elephants at a 1989 CITES meeting, but the best they could do, government officials said, was abstain from voting.

“The tragedy for African elephants started in 1989, when the Conference of the Parties at CITES supported the blanket ban of ivory,” says Yoshio Kaneko, a member of the CITES Secretariat from 1985 to 1990 and an adviser to the Japanese government on ivory and other wildlife-related issues. “Southern African countries that had succeeded in conserving elephants through sustainable use of ivory lost income and were unjustly penalised.”

Rather than implementing a blanket ban, Kaneko says, countries with healthy elephant populations should have been allowed to continue to trade ivory and use the proceeds from those sales for conservation. “They lost income that otherwise they were able to receive on a regular basis and invest in long-term management programmes,” he says. “I don’t want to see countries with conservation success stories penalised by others.”

According to the Ministry of Environment’s Masaru Horikami, trade in ivory is “about following the spirit of CITES” concerning sustainable trade of wildlife. Legal ivory sales can play an important role in motivating communities in southern Africa to conserve elephants, agrees Nobuo Ishii, an ecologist and conservationist at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and a member of the Japanese CITES delegation since 1989. “If we close our market, we cannot help African countries anymore.”

JTEF’s Masayuki Sakamoto has heard these claims for 30 years. He rejects the idea that a legal ivory trade can help save elephants. “Ishii and other ivory trade advocates just repeat abstract principles, like ‘Range states should be supported,’ and ‘If animals lose their value, incentive for conservation is decreased,’” he says. “On a theoretical level, yes, I agree that there are many options for sustainable use of wildlife, but for ivory these opinions do not stand up to reality. History tells us that it’s impossible to control trade at a level that doesn’t drive elephants toward extinction.”

Tetsuji Ida agrees. “No one can claim there is no illegal ivory market in Japan,” he says. But sustainable use of ivory and other wildlife products continues to be “a principle of the Japanese government.”


For Sakamoto, the celebration over the 1990 ivory ban was short-lived. Known by some as the godfather of ivory issues in Japan, he has watched ivory dealers there lobby the government to reopen international trade ever since.

One of the loudest voices belongs to the Japan Federation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Associations, a group of ivory-manufacturing businesses, many of them family run. Some have roots dating to the late 1800s, when the group arose to help facilitate the logistically tricky task of sourcing ivory from Africa and India. Today the association’s 50 or so members control much of the legal trade and manufacturing of ivory in Japan and, according to Sakamoto, enjoy a close relationship with the government.

Sakamoto conducted his own research on Japan’s lax trade controls—but his findings were no match for international politics. In 1997 at a CITES conference in Harare, Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe—goaded by Japanese officials and industry representatives—pressured other governmental attendees to support an ivory sale to Japan. When the proposal passed, Sakamoto watched in defeat as the Zimbabweans burst out with their national anthem and the Japanese leaped from their chairs with fists clenched in triumph.

Masayuki Sakamoto, executive director of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, has been investigating the ivory trade in Japan since the early 1990s. He’s one of the loudest voices calling for the country to close its ivory market.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

“I was sorry that my effort was not enough,” Sakamoto says. “We had failed to stop Japan from undermining the international ivory ban.”

After the meeting, he visited Chobe National Park in Botswana, where he saw African elephants in the wild for the first time—an experience that still conjures strong emotions in him. During a safari in an open vehicle, the matriarch of a family of elephants—threatened when the car cut between the elephants—charged.

“The earth actually shook,” Sakamoto recalls. “I felt that I would be killed and that if I was, it was fate because I couldn’t work hard enough for the elephants.” The driver reversed just in time, and Sakamoto, shaken, made a silent vow: “In my heart I told the elephants that I will continue to fight for them.”

That fight has been a formidable challenge. Almost immediately after CITES approved the first ivory sale, of 50 tonnes, to Japan in 1997, Japanese officials began lobbying for a repeat event. This time, though, Japan wasn’t alone. Now China—which previously had resigned itself to allowing its ivory industry to fade—began to seek the right to resume trade.

“Japan and China have always had a very frictional, competitive relationship,” says Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit animal welfare and conservation group. “If you keep giving ivory to Japan and ignoring China—well, as a Chinese, I also felt it was not fair to favour Japan over China.”

But Gabriel also knew that allowing the second sale would be “a disaster for elephants.” Her research showed that China’s market was grossly underprepared—and that Japan’s ivory regulations were even worse. Once again, such concerns were dismissed, and despite protests from 20 African elephant range states, the second sale was held in 2008, with 60 tonnes of ivory going to China and 39 to Japan. The poaching crisis immediately ignited, and China has dominated ivory headlines ever since.

Yet Gabriel, Sakamoto, and others fear that Japan is a slumbering giant in terms of its potential for illegal trade—one that may reawaken now that China has closed its market. “Illegal ivory dealers will definitely try to find a new legalised market to be used as cover,” Sakamoto says. “Japan should prepare for that.”

Unlike in the West, where ivory became a stigmatised symbol of death and greed after the 1990 global trade ban, in Japan ivory’s image was tarnished but not destroyed. “Most consumers here don’t recognise the domestic ivory issue,” Sakaguchi says, referring to regulatory loopholes and illegal trade. “The level of awareness is still very low for Japanese people.”

In China, ivory symbolises wealth and prestige. In Japan, it’s “not about showing off status but about everyday use,” says Airi Yamawaki, co-founder of Tears of the African Elephant, a nonprofit organisation based in Tokyo and Nairobi.

The continued interest Japanese have in ivory is further obscured by the fact that much of the trade now happens online. According to a JTEF analysis, the number of closing bids for ivory on Yahoo! Japan auctions rose steadily from fewer than 4,000 in 2005 to more than 28,000 in 2015, dipping to a still significant 16,000 in 2017. (The drop was probably a result of negative media attention surrounding ivory and increased policing by Yahoo! Japan, which is not controlled by Yahoo Inc.) A 2015 JTEF and EIA single-day survey of Yahoo! Japan and Rakuten, a popular e-commerce site, likewise revealed some 12,200 ads for ivory—about 10 percent of which indicated, illegally, that the material could be shipped overseas.

Ivory tea ceremony utensils, musical instrument parts, Buddhist prayer beads, and jewellery are still produced in Japan, but much of the enduring interest traces back to the original hanko PR blitz. With its stock of around 700,000 ivory name seals, the hanko industry is responsible for an estimated 80 percent of current ivory consumption. Hanko use has declined in daily life since the 1980s, but when it comes to big life events—purchasing a house, getting married, or inheriting property—name seals are still a necessity. For many, ivory remains the “premier grand guru” and “king” of hanko materials—as the industry aggressively advertises.


According to Japanese authorities, hankos and other ivory products sold in Japan are either antiques or legally made from tusks imported before the 1990 ban or from the two sales. That Japan’s market is suddenly under attack by conservationists is unfair, they say, because ivory regulations here are on a par with, if not better than, those elsewhere.

“The Japanese trade policy is the same as other countries,” says Junya Nakano, director of the Office of Trade Licensing for Wild Animals and Plants at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “We prohibit international trade of ivory and allow only some very small exceptional cases of domestic trade in pre-convention [trade ban] and one-off sale ivory.”

Masayuki Sakamoto browses ads for illegal ivory on Yahoo! Japan’s retail site, which is not controlled by Yahoo Inc. Japanese law requires that whole tusks be registered with the government and that registration documents be displayed—which this ad doesn’t do. A number of prominent Japanese e-commerce sites and businesses have banned ivory, but Yahoo! Japan says it has no intention of following suit.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

Japan’s problem, according to Hirochika Namekawa, principal deputy director of the Global Environment Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is one not of ivory controls but of communication. “Maybe it’s a matter of Japan not being as good at public relations as other countries,” he says. “But in terms of regulations, Japan is very strict, just like the U.K. and U.S.”

Other countries, however, have enacted or are in the process of enacting near-total ivory trade bans. “The extent of ivory sales in Japan is an order of magnitude greater than the U.S. and U.K,” says author and researcher Felbab-Brown. For Japanese officials to compare their ivory trade controls with the U.S. or U.K., EIA’s Allan Thornton adds, is “a preposterous and unsubstantiated claim.”

For one thing, Japan requires that only whole tusks intended for commercial trade be registered with the government. Ivory hankos, carvings, and trinkets are not regulated. Nor are cut pieces. This is why, Thornton says, many past shipments of illegal ivory seized en route to Japan have contained tusks cut into two or three pieces; once those pieces make it into the country, no controls exist to prevent them from being sold.

Japan’s international postal system also works in traffickers’ favor because it exempts imported items with a declared value under £1,500 from normal regulations. Ivory detected in one of those shipments is not seized. Instead, if left unclaimed, it’s returned to the sender. During the past few years, Japanese customs have mailed back hundreds of pieces of ivory, including sculptures from China, cut pieces from Nigeria and Zimbabwe, and tusks from France, according to Japan Customs.

Because of these “huge loopholes,” Tetsuji Ida says, Japan “cannot say with 100 percent confidence that we don’t use any illegal ivory coming from African countries.”

An anti-ivory poster at an Earth Day event in Tokyo. The Japanese public responds best to softer messages, preferring not to be confronted with images of butchered elephants or statistics about African rangers killed protecting wildlife, according to Airi Yamawaki, co-founder of Tears of the African Elephant. “There’s a phrase here: ‘Put a lid on something that smells,’” she says. “That’s exactly what we do for ivory.”
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

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 legalising 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 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 Japan’s tusk registration office 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 publicised 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 £6,800, 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 tonnes. “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.

A teacher of English in Nagano Prefecture, who asked not to be identified because a friend later told her it would be "bad" to show the world that she owns ivory, bought ivory hankos for her children after a travelling salesman told her they’d bring good luck. She spent £3,400 on the hankos and a couple of other good luck charms but says it was money well spent. “I believe a hanko can decide a person’s fate, so I wanted the best for my daughter and son."
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty For National Geographic

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 neighbouring 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 590kgs 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 £3,400 for an individual or business to £700,000 for a business or 334,000 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.”


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 colour 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.”

This investigation was assisted by a grant from the Abe Fellowship Program, administered by the Social Science Research Council and in cooperation with, and with funds provided by, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at . Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to
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