Hideki Arami, 56, carves an ivory hanko, or personal stamp, at his shop in Tokyo on April 15, 2019. Arami, a third-generation hanko carver, says hard ivory from the center of a tusk is the best material to make hanko. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

The best ivory for carving a hanko, or a personal seal, comes from the center of the tusk. That is where the ivory is firm and flawless, says Hideki Arami, a third-generation hanko carver who has a small shop in Tokyo’s busy Shibuya district.

Japan is home to the world’s largest legal market in ivory, driven by demand for hankos: the small stamps Japanese use in place of signatures for anything from opening a bank account to signing an employment contract.

But pressure is mounting from both outside and inside Japan to close down a market that activists say contributes to illegal elephant hunting. 

Since China closed down its domestic ivory market at the end of 2017, African nations have pleaded with Japan and the European Union to join a global coalition to follow suit. Their petition will be heard at a key meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) beginning May 23 in Sri Lanka. 

Japan’s government, though, is digging in its heels, arguing that its domestic ivory market is controlled and contained, using materials imported decades ago and not contributing to the poaching epidemic. 

But some officials acknowledge that the issue is damaging the nation’s image. At the same time, some figures in the business, arts and sporting worlds are starting to call for change.

“I don’t want our descendants, our children and grandchildren, to say, ‘There used to be elephants on this planet, right?’ ” said business consultant and professor Seiichiro Yonekura, who has joined a campaign led by WildAid and Tears of the African Elephant.


Ivory hankos, or personal stamps, for sale in Tokyo on April 5, 2019. The card says, “This seal is proof that the product you have bought is certified by the government in accordance with the Endangered Species Conservation Act.” (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

Hankos have been used for centuries. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the idea of making the whole stamp out of ivory took off, inspired by a belief that ivory would bring good fortune.

As the economy boomed, Japan imported hundreds of tons of ivory every year, mostly for hankos. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) estimates that 262,000 elephants died to supply ivory to Japan since 1970. Demand for ivory from the hard center of the tusk meant poachers targeted the biggest animals with the biggest tusks, often killing the matriarchs that bind elephant society together.

As elephant populations plummeted, CITES agreed to a landmark ban on the international ivory trade in 1989. But that did not affect domestic ivory markets.

Japan didn’t give up, lobbying hard for two “one-off” sales of ivory from southern African stockpiles in 1999 and 2008. The second sale, of 108 tons to China and Japan, was a disaster, conservationists say.

Peter Sand, the first secretary general of CITES, says he has “no doubt” that this sale provided cover for a dramatic expansion in the illegal ivory trade in China and a surge in poaching.

In 2016, CITES agreed that any legal domestic ivory markets “contributing to poaching or illegal trade” be urgently closed.

Japan argued that it was exempt from the ruling because its market used previously imported stockpiles and asserted that there is no evidence that freshly poached ivory was still entering the country. 

That may be true, but it is also clear that Japan isn’t looking very hard, experts say.

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that ivory held in Japan is being illegally exported to China in significant amounts, according to wildlife trade experts TRAFFIC. In other words, Japan’s ivory market is contributing to illegal trade, undermining China’s ban and undermining a global effort to make ivory processing a relic of the past.

The fact that the Japanese market is maintaining the status quo is seriously undermining ­China’s efforts to enforce the closure of its ivory market,” said TRAFFIC’s Tomomi Kitade. “And the regulatory framework of the Japanese market is also far too insufficient right now to ensure that no illegal ivory is coming in.”

Owners of whole tusks are supposed to register them with authorities before selling them, but in practice that simply means getting a relative or friend to write a letter saying the tusk was in the owner’s possession before the 1989 ban. 


An ivory carving of a boy and a water buffalo for sale in Tokyo on April 5, 2019. Japan has the largest legal ivory market in the world, but pressure is mounting for the government to close it down. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

In a bid to deflect criticism, the government will require carbon dating to register tusks starting in July, seeking to prevent newly poached tusks from entering the market. But that won’t apply to existing stockpiles, or to cut pieces of ivory. All traders need to do to avoid the controls is cut a tusk into pieces, which is exactly what many have been doing.

“Every supposed element of control is easily sidestepped by ivory traders,” said the EIA’s Allan Thornton. “Japan’s completely out of touch with the international community on this.”

Masayuki Sakamoto of the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund says 113 ivory shipments amounting to more than two tons were seized going from Japan to China between 2011 and 2016, with only seven of those seizures made by Japanese customs officers and the rest by Chinese authorities.

The Elephant Trade Information System, which tracks the illegal ivory trade for CITES, noted Japan’s “poor performance” in law enforcement, putting it on a par with Congo. 

When police discover illegal ivory trading, prosecutions are rare and punishments weak, experts say.

Japan’s defense of its ivory trade has become caught up with some of the arguments it uses to defend whaling: that wildlife should be used sustainably, and that no animals are off-limits. 

Some Japanese bureaucrats may feel that giving ground on ivory could undermine their case when it comes to whales. But Tetsuji Ida, a leading environmental journalist, said several senior officials in the Ministry of the Environment would like to see Japan close its ivory market.

Conservationists are wary of igniting the same nationalistic backlash that has undermined efforts to end Japanese whaling. Drawing on their success in China, where former NBA star Yao Ming fronted the anti-ivory campaign, they are enlisting local opinion leaders: Yomiuri Giants baseball player Yoh Daikan, fashion model Rola and television presenter Christel Takigawa have joined campaigns led by Humane Society InternationalTiffany’s and WildAid.

The retailer AEON and the ­e-commerce site Rakuten stopped ivory sales in 2017, but Yahoo Japan has not, and online ivory sales are booming.

In July 2020, Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics, and Japan’s hanko association is advising members to take full advantage of the tourist boom. While hankos can also be made of wood, buffalo horn and titanium, there is every reason to suspect that dealers will be offering their premium product: ivory hankos.

An undercover survey by the EIA last year found that more than half of hanko dealers were prepared to sell customers ivory hankos knowing that they wanted to take them out of the country.

Hideka Morimoto, vice minister of the environment, acknowledged that “the ivory issue” is hurting Japan’s image but said the ministry wants to evaluate whether the recent tightening of regulations is having an effect before considering firmer action.

But conservationists hope Japan, after pulling out of the International Whaling Commission, will realize the benefits of having a positive wildlife story to tell the world ahead of the Olympics.

“As the last major legal market, we hope that Japan can join the global community in ending legal sales of ivory as soon as possible,” said WildAid founder Peter Knights, arguing that such a move would win Japan “great acclaim globally.”