End of an Era: Yahoo! Japan Ceases Ivory Sales

Yahoo! Japan’s new policy prohibiting the sale of elephant ivory products on its shopping and auction platforms went into effect November 1st, fulfilling an announcement Yahoo Japan made in August 2019. After years of justifying sales of ivory, Yahoo! Japan’s decision to change its policy was based on evidence that ivory purchased on Yahoo! Auctions was being illegally exported to China, thus contributing to the international illegal ivory trade crisis. As Japan’s leading retailer of ivory and a wholly Japanese-owned company, Yahoo! Japan’s public withdrawal from the market sends a message to consumers, and to fellow retailers, that there is a serious problem with Japan’s ivory trade.

EIA had been appealing to Yahoo! Japan to end ivory sales for a decade – adopting different campaign approaches; releasing exhaustive reports and appeals, including a series of letters to Yahoo! Japan and leading investor SoftBank, some with support from more than 40 international non-government organizations; and sparking global public engagement through action alerts and petitions.

With our partners at the Japan Tiger & Elephant Fund, EIA has monitored Yahoo! Japan’s ivory sales over years, with a particular focus on the last five. In 2015, Yahoo! Japan witnessed its largest sales of elephant ivory products in terms of volume of ivory sold, value, and quantity of whole tusks. Ivory sales on Yahoo! Japan Auctions netted nearly US$7million (¥715 million) in 2015. On a single day that year, Yahoo! Japan’s shopping site carried approximately 6,000 different ivory ads worth more than US$2.5million. Between 2009 and 2017, there were almost 130,000 closing bids for ivory on Yahoo Japan Auctions, including close to 1,800 whole ivory tusks. Yahoo! Japan’s role in Japan’s ivory market was paralleled only occasionally by its online retail competitors, but since 2017 there has been no match.

Direct competitors Rakuten and Mercari banned elephant ivory product sales in 2017, following internet giants Amazon and Google. Shortly thereafter, Japan’s Ito-Yokado also ceased ivory sales in its shopping centers. AEON a leading retail company in Japan, banned ivory sales in its stores in 2015; it will end all sales by 180 ivory-selling tenants in its 50 malls by March 2020, before Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Yahoo! Japan and other retail leaders in Japan have recognized that legal ivory sales serve to shroud and supply illegal activity; they realize that their reputations, as well as that of Japan, are on the line leading up to Tokyo 2020. Ten million international visitors will flock to Japan to cheer on their countries’ athletes. As a recent Olympic sponsor Yahoo! Japan’s policy change may well have considered the potent risk of Olympic tourists purchasing ivory souvenirs and illegally exporting them.

Since 2018, when China’s ban when into place, EIA has documented 28 seizures of ivory from Japan made in China as of October 2019. Most of the seizures occurred in 2019 after China’s Customs officials increased efforts to monitor illegal mail shipments, thereby identifying more illegally imported ivory after implementation of focused searches. Clearly, Japan’s officials have failed to control the flow of ivory illegally leaving its shores. Further still, internally, the Government of Japan’s ivory trade controls are so porous that illegal, undocumented ivory has been successfully laundered onto the legal market for decades. It is precisely this broken system that Yahoo! Japan and others are opting out of.

As decided at CITES CoP18 in August, the Government of Japan must report to the next meeting of the Standing Committee on what measures they are taking to ensure that Japan’s ivory market does not contribute to poaching or illegal trade; the burden of proof has been shifted to them. Unfortunately, the next meeting of the CITES Standing Committee falls after Tokyo 2020 launches in July. Still, Japan’s open domestic ivory market stands to come under increasing international scrutiny in the lead up to the Games as stakeholders urge Japan to demonstrate its efforts to control the trade.

Yahoo Japan was once an outlier among its industry peers, but now all of Japan’s major retailers are stepping back from the trade in ivory. In spite of this, the Government of Japan continues to cling tightly to a dying industry, justifying the continuing existence of an open domestic ivory market. The European Union is now moving towards market closure following CITES CoP18, following in the footsteps of the United States, United Kingdom, China, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Taiwan, France, Australia, New Zealand, and others. We hope the Government of Japan will change course and relinquish a dwindling – and yet still destructive to elephants – ivory industry. The bottom line: it’s just not worth it.

EIA would like to thank and commend Yahoo Japan for taking this step to eliminate its role in Japan’s ivory trade. We welcome Yahoo Japan’s complete withdrawal from the ivory market, and urge the company to continue its progressive path and cease its sales of all whale, dolphin and porpoise products as well.