A herd of elephants plods single-file across an arid scene.

Is Tokyo Ready to Step Up to Protect Elephants from Ivory Trade?

After years of contemplating Tokyo’s role in Japan’s legal domestic ivory market, officials in Japan’s largest city are on the verge of making a crucial decision – will Tokyo go further than the national government of Japan to take real action to address its role in the illegal international trade in elephant ivory?

Japan is the world’s largest remaining domestic ivory market. Although Japan’s legal domestic ivory market has been problematic for decades, it largely flew under the radar. However, it was demand from Japan that fueled the poaching crisis of the 1970s and 1980s which decimated Africa’s elephant population, cutting it in half. After the international ban on commercial ivory trade went into effect in 1990, Japan was twice given special permission to import ivory from southern African nations. This fresh injection of ivory into the market supply in Japan stimulated demand for ivory within Japan and internationally. The increase in demand for ivory within China in particular fueled an intense poaching crisis in the early 2000s. During this time Japan accumulated vast stockpiles of ivory and these stocks remain the largest in the world.

It is widely recognized that legal markets stimulate the demand for ivory, confuse consumers, and complicate enforcement efforts. In response to global concern about the second elephant poaching crisis which reached its peak in about 2011, most of the world’s leading domestic ivory markets were voluntarily closed in order to protect elephants from the trade in ivory. These include China, the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, and other historically significant markets.

However, the Government of Japan has refused to close its market and instead seems determined to support its ivory trade industry. Japan has nearly 5,800 government-registered ivory dealers, including retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers, and more than 8,500 trade facilities (many registered traders have more than one shop or facility).[1] More than 20 percent of Japan’s ivory dealers are in Tokyo. Japanese and foreign consumers are easily able to buy ivory products on the Japanese market.

Investigations and analysis of Japan’s ivory market over time have shown that the regulatory scheme governing the ivory trade in Japan is ridden with loopholes and that enforcement effort is lax to nonexistent. Japan’s open market and huge stockpiles, a global outlier, warrant continued international scrutiny.

An elephant tusk with lines cut into it.

In January 2020, in advance of the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike expressed concern about the city’s role in the international illegal ivory trade and initiated a process to assess Tokyo’s ivory market and identify a path forward. Governor Koike assembled an Advisory Council of experts to examine the ivory trade within Tokyo, analyze the existing regulations on domestic trade, and assess and propose measures to be taken by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. In her announcement about the assessment, Koike expressed her commitment to taking meaningful action to address the ivory trade within her jurisdiction and fulfill Tokyo’s responsibility to the global community as a leading international city.

With a population of more than 37 million, Tokyo is an important international city, a center of social, financial, and cultural leadership, and a major tourist destination. Pre-pandemic, Japan hosted more than 16 million foreign visitors every year, with the majority visiting Tokyo. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Tokyo Olympic Games back to 2021, and slowed tourism in Tokyo, Japan, and globally.

In 2021 before the Games finally began, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced a few short-term measures centered on raising public awareness about ivory trade. But the campaign largely mirrored existing efforts and did not introduce any new or meaningful controls and achieved very little. Without the pandemic, it is likely the Tokyo government would have swiftly enacted stronger measures before hosting millions for the Games. Instead, the short-term measures fell flat.

In March 2022, after more meetings of the Council, Tokyo’s panel of experts finally released its recommendations. The most encouraging was a recommendation for Tokyo to consider legal measures to address the ivory trade. The panel also recommended urging the national government to take more action. Since the release of the recommendations, EIA and allies have been urging the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to implement the advice of the Council, especially the consideration of legal measures to address the trade.

In advance of the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP19) to CITES in November 2023 Governor Koike appealed to the national government to “consider more effective measures as necessary, based on the situation of ivory trade and the moves of the international community,” yet no meaningful action has been taken. Despite consistent pressure at CITES meetings, Japan continues to support its domestic ivory market and the trade in ivory. In early 2023, EIA and allies reached back out to Governor Koike, urging her to implement the recommendations to take steps to close Tokyo’s market for ivory, which could be achieved through a city ordinance. With no political will for action at the national level, it is up to Tokyo to lead Japan down a progressive path forward to ensure that it does not contribute to poaching or the illegal trade in ivory.

An African elephant looks up with ears spread wide.

Japan’s open market and porous borders are already a target for international ivory consumers. Many visitors to Japan are from China, and a 2020 study found that 19 percent of Chinese tourists to Japan planned to buy ivory and that 12 percent actually did, smuggling items home on a plane or through the mail. Since China closed its domestic ivory market in 2018, traders and tourists are now finding ivory easily available on the Japanese market. Between 2018-2020, at least 76 seizures of ivory from Japan were made in other countries, mostly in China. Last year, an analysis of Chinese court cases involving ivory smuggled from Japan, conducted by EIA’s partner the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF), found a significant level of organized crime and the involvement of government-registered traders in Japan, including those who had been convicted of past ivory trade-related crimes but are still active today. As the center of Japan’s tourism and ivory trade, Tokyo must do more.

In May, EIA traveled to Tokyo and joined our colleagues from JTEF in meetings with the Governor’s office, members of the Tokyo Assembly, and other government representatives to express our concerns and advocate for Tokyo to continue its progress by closing its market. A Tokyo Metropolitan Government representative indicated that there is currently not a timeline for seriously considering an ordinance, and at this time they are focusing on more awareness campaign components. This is a very disappointing response from Tokyo. Public awareness about the illegality of ivory export is not enough – and has been demonstrably ineffective.

However, there is hope stirring in the Tokyo Assembly. In June, Assembly member Hidetoshi Tamagawa expressed concern about Tokyo’s ivory regulations and noted the need to increase attention and improve regulations on ivory trade given the expected increase in tourism in the wake of the pandemic. A clear policy ending ivory sales is the most meaningful action that can be taken.

Following EIA’s visit, an editorial by Takashi Hisama in Kumamoto Nichi-nichi Shimbun read: “Should elephants be driven to extinction for commercial use by humans? I can’t help but feel that the attitude of humans, who stand at the top of the ecosystem, is being questioned in the issue of the ivory trade. In order to protect elephants, we should hurry to draw up a road map to realize the closure of the Japanese market while paying due consideration to those involved in legitimate transactions.”

EIA urges Governor Koike to follow through with her commitment to taking meaningful action to address the ivory trade and fulfill Tokyo’s responsibility to the global community. We hope Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members will introduce and pass an ordinance to close Tokyo’s market. To secure a future in the wild for elephants, all markets for ivory must be closed – it is up to Tokyo to fulfill a commitment to other world leaders on behalf of Japan.

[1] Data compiled by JTEF from the business registration registry (in Japanese). February 2023. http://www.jwrc.or.jp/service/jigyousha/files/tourokubo.pdf