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Japanese Retailers Willing to Sell Ivory Hanko for Illegal Export


Lindsay Moran, Environmental Investigation Agency, lmoran@eia-global.org

Masayuki Sakamoto, Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, yukisakamoto@jtef.jp

TOKYO, JAPAN – Investigations of Japanese hanko retailers revealed that many are willing to sell an ivory product knowing that it will be exported internationally despite most being aware that ivory export is illegal. A new report by the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF) and the Washington, DC-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Willing to Sell: Snapshot Investigations of Ivory Hanko Retailers in Japan, details results from two investigations into ivory hanko retailers.

The main findings of the investigations, which took place in summer and fall of 2020, found:

  • In three large urban areas in Japan, 38 percent of the retailers were willing to sell an ivory hanko knowing it would be illegally exported. In 2018, the same retailers had declined to sell under similar circumstances.

  • In Tokyo, 39 percent of ivory hanko retailers investigated were willing to sell ivory with the understanding that it would be illegally exported when in 2018 all had declined to sell.

  • Out of randomly selected shops across Japan, 91 percent of the retailers investigated said they were willing to sell an ivory hanko with the understanding that it would be illegally exported.

Most sellers were aware that export of ivory is illegal, yet remained willing to engage in sales to consumers who said they were intending to take the ivory out of Japan. This reality indicates that the government’s awareness campaign about the illegality of export has failed.

“As long as retailers can consider selling ivory within Japan as legal, avoid direct involvement in the eventual illegal export of it, and thus shift legal accountability to the customers, most are willing to disregard the commitment to prevent the export of ivory when presented with an eager customer and potential sale,” said JTEF Executive Director, Masayuki Sakamoto.

In one conversation, a retailer told the investigator: “It's okay to sell. Our company is just not liable when the customer decides to take it overseas…Our Hanko Association says it is just safer not to sell to foreigners…After that, it is up to the customer, but we just have to inform you that dealing with ivory in that way is prohibited.”

EIA Senior Policy Analyst Amy Zets Croke said: “Since 2018, EIA has documented more than 70 seizures of ivory items from Japan in China alone. In nearly all cases, it was China’s customs officials, not Japan’s, who discovered the illegal ivory. The Japanese authorities must close the domestic ivory market and do more to deter, identify, and stop illegal exports.”

The findings are especially concerning given the results of a study by WWF and Globescan on ivory consumption by Chinese travelers. According to the report, 19 percent of travelers to Japan planned to buy ivory and an estimated 12 percent of them actually did purchase ivory during their trips. These ivory consumers brought their ivory home to China, which has had a domestic ivory trade ban in place since January 2018.

Last week, TRAFFIC released new findings revealing a 100 percent drop in ivory sales on Yahoo Japan after the retail giant ceased selling ivory in November 2019. The group repeated its earlier appeal to the Government of Japan to implement a top-down approach to close its ivory market and end its role in the illegal international ivory trade.

Sakamoto said: “Our snapshot investigations raise concerns about retailers’ willingness to sell ivory for export and the failure of the government’s awareness campaign to deter illegal exports. The national government of Japan has been relying on the private sector to commit to compliance with Japanese and international laws, when retailers are just selling their items to make a profit. That’s the reality.”

“Tokyo is arguably the epicenter for Japan’s ivory trade, accounting for 18 percent of Japan’s ivory facilities. As an international city, and especially considering Tokyo’s plans to host visitors for the rescheduled Olympic Games in 2021, Tokyo should set a precedent by taking active steps to implement a ban on ivory trade,” Croke said.

“The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Advisory Committee on the Regulation of Ivory Trade, established in 2020 and tasked with examining the existing regulations and proposing measures to address illegal trade, presents the perfect opportunity to instigate the implementation of a ban on ivory sales within Tokyo,” Sakamoto stated. “Japan’s illegal exports are clearly contributing to and exacerbating the problem of international trade in ivory.”

Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreed by consensus in 2016 that domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching or illegal trade should be closed as a matter of urgency.

EIA and JTEF are calling on the Government of Japan to close its domestic ivory market and effectively enforce its laws banning ivory trade and export.


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