August, 2000

Depleting the Biosphere:
Japan and Natural Resource Consumption

Richard B. Wilcox


1. Introduction
2. Waste and pollution
3. The Mitsubishi group
4. Inorganic resource consumption
5. Forests
6. Paper
7. Illegal timber trade
8. Fishing and whaling
9. Wildlife trade
10. Elephant ivory
11. Conclusion
12. References


As a major industrial power, Japan consumes large amounts of non-renewable inorganic resources such as cadmium and oil, as well as potentially renewable organic resources such as fish, wildlife and timber. Japan does not operate in a vacuum, political decisions reflect the exigencies of the global economic system. Japan's close relationship with the United States has had a general influence on Japanese policy making. A few years ago it was disclosed that the U.S. CIA spent millions of dollars between 1958-1960 to help ensure Liberal Democratic Party political rule in Japan (Blum 2000). The LDP must be considered extremely conservative politically (not "liberal" or "democratic" in any meaningful senses) but very liberal in their policies to promote natural resource consumption, which translates into environmental destruction. Tensions within the US-Japan alliance exist as when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently blasted Japan for hunting whales, "We are deeply troubled...Whether it's for commercial or research purposes, it should not be happening, (7/30/00)." Yet the US military system is integrated into the Japanese landscape with its numerous military bases and is the leading polluter of the global environment, which, besides holding the world hostage with 12,000 nuclear weapons, produces more toxic waste annually than the top five U.S. chemical producers combined (Savage 7/00).

The preservation of the planet's biological health and diversity is a foremost imperative for the decent survival of human beings (Ehrlich 1997). As two of the leading consumers of natural resources, The United States and Japan together threaten the stable continuation of the biosphere. This paper will address some aspects of the Japanese impact.

Waste and pollution

Capitalism, being devoted to inexorable growth in production and consumption of goods must deal with the waste it produces. Thus, Japan, a country of relatively small size produces 438 million tons of garbage and industrial waste annually. In addition, the number of automobiles has increased five fold since the late 1960's to 74 million vehicles today. As one report found, "Air pollution levels exceed government health standards at almost all roadside monitoring stations" (Macintyre & Tashiro 5/00). Even though Japan has one of the best rail systems in the world, many people nevertheless desire their own automobiles in extremely overcrowded cities like Tokyo. As of 1997, the ratio of person per motor vehicle was 1.8 vs. in the US of 1.3 people per vehicle (anon. 7/20/00).

Besides the health related dangers of the ozone smog which permeates urban areas (Ashton & Laura 1999), Japan now ranks highest among industrial countries in dioxin emissions with air levels at 10 times the amount in other countries. The vast majority of dioxin in Japan is caused by the incineration of municipal waste, organic chloride waste, waste oil, medical waste as well as metal work production. The United Nations Environment Program found that Japan produces nearly 40% of the planet's airborne dioxins. Many scientists now believe that dioxins may be responsible for as much as 12% of cancer cases in developed countries (Hesse 7/17/00).

The quality of Japan's domestic fresh water supply is threatened by pollution to aquifers. Recent studies show that lead, heavy metals and solvents produced by industry have leaked into the ground with unknown consequences to the long term viability of these precious fresh water resources (Sampat 1/00).

While better recycling schemes can help to reduce the noxiousness of Japan's waste-pollution problems, the enormity of the situation points to the need for a radical transformation in the means of production of goods itself which takes ecological imperatives more closely into account (Sachs 1998).

The Mitsubishi Group

As Karliner (1997) reports, in Japan,

The best known, most prestigious, and largest keiretsu, is the Mitsubishi Group of companies. Given the size and reach of its diverse activities, and due to the fact that it is more heavily focused in polluting industrial sectors than other keiretsu, the Mitsubishi Group may well be the single most environmentally destructive corporate force on Earth.

In 1995 the Mitsubishi Corporation was ranked by Fortune Magazine as the world's largest corporation. Divisions within Mitsubishi including Motors and Chemical for example are ranked in the world's top ten with the Heavy Industries division claiming the position as "the largest industrial and farm equipment manufacturer on the planet." Mitsubishi Materials ranked 12th with another Mitsubishi subsidiary, Asahi Glass ranking as the world's largest producer of building materials. The food supply is also largely controlled by Mitsubishi:

It is estimated that Mitsubishi food companies specializing in the production, transport and distribution of canned products, grain, beef and fish, directly or indirectly feed about one quarter of the entire Japanese population.

Inorganic resource consumption

According to Project Underground, a group that monitors oil and mineral extraction trends, Japan weighs in heavily in its consumption of metals in comparison to other countries (anon. 7/20/00).


1997 Consumption of Mineral and Percentage of world consumption in metric tons by Japan:

Mineralmetric tonspercent
Iron Ore:128,715,000
Other minerals:
Zirconium (1994):126,00014.3%
(anon. 7/20/00).

Cadmium is a highly toxic mineral and considered by some researchers to be a dangerous threat to living organisms when released into the environment (Ashton & Laura 1999). Cobalt is primarily used in high tech and military technology (Ray 2000). Japan is a major consumer of these and other minerals as noted in the chart above.


(Project Underground, anon. 7/17/00)

Japan is an importer of major quantities of primary energy sources. As of 1998, Japan was dependent on importing more than 80% of its supplies of crude oil, natural gas, and uranium. Japan's total energy needs were satisfied as follows: Oil 56%; coal 14%; nuclear power 14%; natural gas 13%; hydroelectric 4 %; with only 0.3 % coming from safer alternatives such as geothermal, solar and wind sources. Energy consumption in Japan is inordinately claimed by industry at 50%; transport 25%; residential, agricultural, and service sectors at 25%. Project Underground points out that Japan is heavily reliant on imported energy while almost completely lacking in domestic sources:

"Japan is the world's second largest oil consumer after the United States, but the country contains almost no oil reserves of its own. In 1999, Japan consumed an estimated 5.4 million barrels per day of oil. Most (75%-80%) of this oil came from OPEC, particularly Persian Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iran. China also supplies oil to Japan....

About 96% of Japan's gas is imported, all in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Most of this LNG comes from Southeast Asia, with 37% from Indonesia and 21% from Malaysia. Most of the LNG is used either for electric power generation or as feedstock for petrochemical plants. Only about 5% of Japan's urban area is served by a gas distribution system...

Japan is by far the world's largest importer of steam coal, mainly for power generation, paper pulp, and cement production. Japan also is the world's largest importer of coking coal for its steel industry. Overall, Japan accounts for about 23% of total world coal imports (anon. 7/17/00)."

Thus, Japan has paid little attention to safer and environmentally sustainable energy sources and is contributing to global warming and air pollution in its heavy reliance on fossil fuels. As of 1991, Japan led most countries except for China and the U.S. in the category of CO2 emissions from industrial processes (Seager 1995). At the time of the Kyoto Summit on climate change in 1997, Japan was accused of acting in bad faith when they attacked the European Union which had "presented the most progressive and achievable proposal for industrialized countries to reduce their emissions by 2005 (WWF 8/7/97)." Japan had originally agreed in 1996 that "legally-binding objectives for emission limitations and significant overall reductions" of greenhouse gases were necessary to combat global warming. However, the Japanese government backtracked at the conference to propose a mere 2.5% reduction below 1990 levels for Japan's own greenhouse emissions (WWF 10/6/97). Although Japan has now agreed to reduce output by 6%, most organizations and scientists are calling for reductions ranging from between 20% to 80% in order to avoid global climate catastrophe in coming decades (WWF 10/97; Retallack 3/99).


According to Seager (1995), "At current rate of deforestation most experts predict that virtually all remaining tropical forests will disappear" due to logging and other causes by the year 2035. Loss of the world's tropical forests is particularly worrisome due to the forest's rich biodiversity and critical role in global climate regulation.

Traditionally in Japan the majority of tropical timber has gone for building material with about one third for furniture and other uses. Most private homes are torn down and rebuilt on a 20 year cycle. Tropical hardwood is used as the wooden panels for poured concrete. The wooden panels act as temporary forms for concrete walls and foundations in the building process. Residential housing, apartment complexes and other buildings rely on the wooden forms which are used only 2 or 3 times and then disposed of (anon. 10/90; SCC 12/97).

According to Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, in 1998 Japan accounted for 23.7% of tropical round wood imports, and 10.1% of processed plywood which comes from both tropical and temperate sources. Figures for imported sawn wood were not available. As of 1995 Seager reported U.N and World Resource Institute figures that Japan received "50% of the world's tropical hardwood." Other sources report that in past years Japan was responsible for consuming upwards to 70% of the tropical timber trade (SCC 12/97). In recent years, perhaps due to a combination of factors: substitution of temperate timber; China's surge in tropical timber consumption; and the slow down of Japan's economy, Japan's total tropical imports appear to weigh in at around 30% or more of the world total as of 1998 (JATAN 1991; Kohama 2/00).

Other dynamic Asian economies are also hungry timber importers. As the group Forest Networking notes, "Asia's biological heritage continues to be plundered for short-term, impermanent economic gains by the powerful few. Asia is losing forest area more rapidly than any other region. Already some 88 percent of Asia's forests are gone (Barry 8/5/00)." In the early 1990's a controversy that received considerable worldwide attention was that Mitsubishi corporation, their numerous subsidiaries, and other Japanese and Asian logging operations were heavily involved in the clear-cut forest devastation in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The deforestation there led to protests from indigenous tribes living in the rainforests such as the Penan people, but to no avail, their lands were largely devastated pushing their traditional lifestyles near extinction. The Phillipines and Indonesia had been heavily logged during the 1960's and 1970's to fuel Japan's rapid economic recovery. In the post World War II period, Japan has tapped into forest reserves throughout Southeast Asia and the South Pacific with Sarawak serving as a major source in most recent times (SCC 12/97). The Sarawak Campaign Committee summed up the tragic situation of the past two decades succinctly:

"Although it has less than 2% of the world's population, Japan imports and uses more rain forest timber than any other country in the world... In Malaysia's Sarawak state, 400,000 hectares of forest are destroyed each year due to commercial logging. Commercial loggers have often cut down the indigenous peoples' ancestral forests without any consent, and even their burial grounds have been destroyed by roadways. The indigenous peoples live off of the forest's plant and animal life, as well as water and fish from the rivers. However, logging has destroyed the forests, polluted the rivers and decreased animal and fish life, making it difficult for the indigenous peoples to sustain their life. Malnutrition, as well as eye and skin disease have troubled indigenous people, pushing them to their emotional limit. The indigenous peoples have sought help from the government, hoping for an end to the destruction, but there has been no improvement. In April of 1987, they protested by blockading logging roads. Over 600 indigenous peoples were arrested in the anti-commercial logging protests..."


Japan ranked 2nd in the world in paper consumption as of 1991 (Seager). Many sources for paper pulp involve water intensive, monocultured tree plantations which have often replaced old-growth tropical forests as in Sarawak (SCC). Not only do these plantations displace the previous dwellers of the lands who relied on the rich biodiversity for their survival, but they pose a global threat as "bioinvasion" and biological pollution into primal ecosystems as well (Bright 1998).

Swift (8/00) reports that,

Japan's per capita consumption of paper grew from 20 kg per head in 1953 to 245 kg in 1996. Eighty two percent of Japan's hardwood pulp is imported. About 200,000 hectares of publicly owned forest in Australia is logged each year and well over half - over 6 million tonnes - is woodchipped for the Japanese market.

During Japan's post war economic recovery Daishowa Corporation began to expand its operations to import woodchips from abroad. In 1967 it began to buy from Malaysia and Australia. As the Japanese economy grew during the 1970's and 1980's, so did Daishowa expand operations, enriching the now deceased former Chairman, Saito Ryoei, who accumulated an estimated personal fortune of one billion USD. Interestingly, a group that monitors the woodchip trade noted that, "Daishowa's risky corporate behaviour reflected that of the paper industry throughout Japan at the time. Japanese pulp and paper companies had an obsession with obtaining market share rather than achieve profits at a time when company earnings growth was low (BWC 1997)." This is a telling fact: the logic of capitalism is one of power, not the fulfillment of needs. Instead of reinvesting profits into ecologically sustainable technologies, Daishowa choose instead to destroy the competition even while running its own company into the ground. Though there were profitable years during the late 1980's, the company had to borrow heavily and became embroiled in scandals as with "the arrest of [Honorary Chairman] Saito for bribery and company fraud, and the resignation of his son Saito Kiminori as President" in 1994.

A major source for woodchips has been the temperate forests of East Gippsland, Victoria, Australia which were described by one biologist to be "perhaps the most diverse range of temperate forest ecosystems on earth." BWC note that "Over 300 rare and threatened species are found within the region's 1 million hectares of forest" including the pride of Australia, the koala. In 1997 Australia supplied 28% of Japan's imported hardwood chips (BWC 1997). Currently Nippon Paper Industries is planning to merge with Daishowa to rescue it from its financial failures and continue woodchipping operations in Australia (Swift 8/00). Marubeni Corporation has also been alleged to be involved with the Suharto family of Indonesia and the illegal, unsustainable cutting of mangrove forests for the Japanese pulp market (BWC).

Illegal timber trade

According to Greenpeace-Japan (Fukuda 6/00), many transnational corporations are now targeting the South American Amazon ecosystem for a timber bonanza as the world's forests disappear. Greenpeace (8/00) claims that "logging companies are spearheading forest destruction" there and estimates that 84 % of Amazon timber is consumed by the domestic Brazilian market while 80% of the logging is illegal. In 1996, Eidai do Brasil Co., (then a subsidiary of Mitsubishi) became "the Amazon's largest exporter of processed wood." Greenpeace now has evidence that Eidai is exporting illegal timber from the Amazon to Japan via Mitsubishi (Fukuda). Wood consumption leads to more forest destruction than just the trees being cut down-- "of 36 deforestation 'hotspots' in Amazon, 72% are linked to the logging industry...In 1998, 27 million ha of Amazonian forest became vulnerable to fire as the forest was opened up (Greenpeace 4/99)."

Japan is involved in illegal timber sales in the state of Para. Para contains about 25% of the Amazon's forests and upward to 280 tree species. Despite being host to a massive timber industry, Para suffers from ubiquitous poverty. Belem, the capital city and harbor is the main timber port "and sells to markets in Europe, the USA and Japan." Because the Brazilian government environment agency, IBAMA, is pitifully underfunded, Greenpeace and IBAMA have teamed up to track the exact route of illegal wood being exported from Brazil. The Brazilian government is unable to control the trade because of the huge profits involved and because IBAMA has just one inspector per forest area the size of Switzerland. Greenpeace has used ultra-violet technology to expose Eidai whose illegal timber is used in plywood production and sold in local Brazilian markets. Eidai was recently fined 1.8 million USD for illegal logging while an employee of theirs was caught trying to pay a 300,000 USD cash bribe to an IBAMA official (Greenpeace 8/00).

Fishing and whaling

While much of Japan's sustenance has traditionally come from ocean fisheries, today most fishing grounds are endangered along with the habitats that support them. The immediate ocean fisheries surrounding Japan stretching from Southeast Asia northward to the Bering Straits and eastward to the Hawaiian Islands was considered as of 1993 by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization to be overfished and exceeding maximum sustainable yield. The ocean coral reefs that provide habitat for fish along the shores of southern Honshu, and the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu are considered to be in critical condition with loss imminent (Seager 1995).

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) 1992 Top three country catch (in tonnes),

  1. China 15,007,450
  2. Japan 8,460,324
  3. Peru 6,842,700
(WWF 1996).

Japanese fish import/consumption:

(Infofish 7/00).

According to the Marine Stewardship Council Initiative, Japan consumes 30% of the world's ocean fish catch (MSCI 1990s). The Worldwatch Institute (6/20/98) reports that a majority of the world's fishing grounds are in decline with 60% of important fish species "either fully or overexploited." FAO estimates that "35% of the world's 200 major fishery resources are showing declining yields, and over 69% of known stocks are in need of urgent management (TRAFFIC 4/00)."

A major cause of over exploitation is that rich industrialized countries use fish for non-food uses such as animal feed and oils and they do so in greater quantities than direct human consumption accounts for in most of the Third World. Worldwatch recommends:

Governments should reduce industrial fleets by half, require the use of less ecologically destructive gear, and ratify important international conventions like the 1995 U.N. Convention on Highly Migratory and Straddling Fish Stocks (6/98).

As of 1998, Japan, along with many other major fishing nations had yet to ratify the aforementioned treaty. In conjunction with over fishing of targeted species is the enormous waste of what is called by-catch. Large scale fishing operations threw back about 22% of global fish catch for 1993. Unwanted fish or marine species are thrown back into the ocean as they are either dead or dying. 44,000 albatrosses are killed annually by Japanese tuna vessels operating in Antarctica due to their use of indiscriminate fishing methods (Weber 7/94).

TRAFFIC (4/00) notes that, "As high-seas fishing is by definition carried out beyond the jurisdiction of any State, a framework for international jurisdiction and control is necessary," and recommends fishery protection through international treaty organizations. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which was created in 1994 and:

provides coastal States with sovereign rights in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone with respect to living marine resources. UNCLOS also outlines the responsibility of fishing nations and competent international organisations to co-operate in the conservation and management of shared highly migratory, transboundary and straddling species.

Other organizations that could help to administer high seas conservation include the Convention on International Trade in Engandered Species (CITES), the International Whaling Commission (IWC), FAO and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The urgency for major fishers to follow international law was recently emphasized in a report from P. Brown, "A quarter of the world's fish catch now comes from pirate boats" in violation of international law. Highly valued species such as the endangered tuna can fetch up to as much as 45,000 USD per specimen. "Pirate ships are regularly registered in countries such as Panama, Honduras, Belize and Cyprus to avoid fishing regulations but are owned by companies in Europe, the United States and Japan." Although there are international treaties on the books to prevent outlaw fishing, conservation bodies lack the financial resources to enforce the rules. Japan is a major destination for illegal tuna because of the high prices it can garner:

One boat suspected of carrying illegally-caught bigeye tuna worth up to 1m is being held in the Japanese port of Shimizu while officials investigate the origins of the catch. Greenpeace tracked the Japanese owned and crewed freezer vessel flying the Panamanian flag from the Atlantic where it was filmed loading the tuna from two other vessels, one flying the Belize flag and the second a Cambodia flag (Brown 8/15/00).

From an animal rights perspective, the consumption of whale and dolphin meat (a Japanese delicacy) may be viewed as no worse than the consumption of beef. The beef industry is prevalent in the West (and now in developed Asian countries as well) and is at any rate profoundly destructive to the terrestrial environment (Durning & Brough 1991).

Meat Consumption(kg per person per year)
United States4431481123
Source: USDA (Worldwatch 1990s).

Having presented this caveat, Japan's record in international whaling does not bode well for protection of marine biodiversity, which in addition to hunting is under severe threat from loss of food source due to over fishing, habitat destruction, climate change, boat traffic and pollution (Von Bismarck & Trent 1996). In the area of cetacean and whale slaughter, Japan remains a conspicuous operator on the world scene and the major destination in the world for whale meat. For a century Japan and other nations contributed to the decimation of the world's largest whales. Species such as the blue, fin, humpback and right whales will probably never recover healthy populations even though their hunting has been officially banned since 1986 (Hoyt 1994). Japan continues to carry out "scientific" whaling of minke whales every year but cannot provide a convincing basis for which these hunts take place.

At a recent meeting of the International Whaling Commission, "a proposal by Ireland that would have allowed a limited catch of coastal whales, in exchange for giving up high seas whaling" was rejected by Japan (Greenpeace 5/99). Japan's decision to hunt sperm whales in violation of CITES which lists them as a high priority on the endangered list (appendix I) is an indication that cetaceans in Japanese waters are depleted from over hunting and that Japan wishes to resume full scale commercial hunting of various species in international waters. This policy threatens the precarious status that most species of great whales must now endure. Furthermore, the large factory trawlers that sperm whale hunting require are a violation of the rules of the IWC which allows for scientific whaling, but not commercial whaling (Thornton 6/00; McKie 7/00).

Wildlife trade

While the United States is the largest consumer of wildlife, Japan has one of the highest per capita rates of consumption in the world (Brown 1994). For example, in 1996, Japan imported 54% of the world trade total in tortoises, 42.5% of birds and 21.6% of apes (Ishida 1999). In Japan, penalties for illegal traffickers in wildlife and wildlife derivatives are weak and ineffective while public education of the issue is lagging at best and sometimes misleading (Kiyono 1997; Sakamoto 1999). Thornton angrily elucidates Japan's record (4/00):

Despite joining CITES in 1973, it took Japan seven years to finally ratify the treaty following intense international and domestic criticism. Even then, Japan held more reservations on species than any other nation. It also failed to enact new legislation to implement CITES and regulate domestic trade...In 1984 other CITES signatory nations took the exceptional action of adopting a resolution condemning Japan's appalling record. In 1987, a full 14 years after signing the convention, Japan finally brought into force a new national law to implement domestic measures complying with CITES.

Depletion of wild species is of profound ecological concern. Of the planet's extant species as of 1990, half will have become extinct by the year 2050 according to current trends (Seager 1995). There is now a wide scientific consensus that a mass extinction episode caused by human activity is occurring on Earth (Greenwire 1998). Japan itself is ranked 10th in the world among countries with threatened birds with 6% of its native bird species threatened with extinction (Tuxill 5/98). Almost half of the Japanese archipelago's 174 species and subspecies of mammals face severe risk from extinction and are in immediate need of protection (Hanawa 1990s).

While threats such as deforestation and global warming bode catastrophic consequences on the horizon, the direct harvesting of animals for uses as pets, traditional medicines (TMs or kampoyaku), meat and curios are of immediate concern for preserving biodiversity.

Global commerce in wildlife is estimated to be somewhere between a 5 billion to 17 billion USD a year industry with an estimated 25% of species sold illegally (Smith 1998; Maas 4/00). Almost all classes of life forms are traded including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and various flora. Asia is a central market with Western and Asian organized crime syndicates among the prominent movers of living wildlife and animal derivatives. According to the non-governmental Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), "Hardened and extremely dangerous criminals from the Mafia, the Triads, the Yakuza, the drug cartels and others are implicated in illegal international trade in wildlife" (Bowles 1994). The main body that monitors and attempts to regulate international wildlife trade is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, since 1993, Japan has illegally imported more that 8,000 animals (Ishida 1999).

According to Maas (4/00):

The world-wide trade in wildlife...includes amongst a wide range of species 30,000 primates and 8-20 million birds. During the various stages of the trade process the mostly wild-caught animals suffer persistently high mortality rates as a result of poor welfare. Even before wild birds for example leave their countries of origin 50% die as a result of capture and improper treatment. A further proportion dies during international transport. Even those who survive suffer from the effects of cruel capture methods, rough handling, transport, improper housing and husbandry, including crowding, confinement and restraint.

Elephant ivory

According to TRAFFIC, from 1960 to 1989 Japan consumed no less than six thousand tons of ivory which is roughly equivalent to 600,000 elephants. While there were once millions of elephants roaming Africa and Asia, today Africa itself hosts only a few hundred thousand while the Asian elephant is teetering on the edge of extinction. While ivory consumption throughout the world has an ancient history, the economic boom in East Asia and especially Japan during the 1970's and 1980's had a drastic impact on elephant populations. Many factors weigh on the long term survival of the African elephant but it was the unsustainable ivory trade which led to the 1989 international ivory ban (Nash 1997).

But by March of 1999, CITES member states decided to allow a shipment of approximately 60 tons of ivory from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to Japan. This ivory is supposed to have come from culled elephants and not from illegally poached ones. However, some critics have argued that;

(a) culling itself is a pliable science and often relies on arbitrary and ideological estimates (Styles 1997; Hoyt 1994); and

(b) there is no way to insure that illegal ivory was not part of the ivory sale (EIA 1997).

Prior to the sale, elephant poaching incidents in Kenya and Angola, as well as the attempted smuggling of 221 pairs of tusks from South Africa to China emphasized the fact that allowing legal ivory trade opens the possibility for an illegal shadow trade. The fact that Namibia has been documented dealing in illegal ivory further undermines proponents' claims for a regulated trade (IFAW 1999; Vadjon 1999).

Japan's system for monitoring the illegal trafficking of parts from endangered animals (such as tigers) has been shown to be highly flawed (Ridgeway 6/99). In particular, the elephant ivory signature seals (hanko) which are the main consumer item in Japan are small and easily smuggled into the country. Anti-ivory trade advocates have argued that weak regulation and penalties and moderate to high profits can provide a strong motive for smugglers of ivory. One study showed that consumer demand in Japan is potentially two times higher than the amount of legal ivory now in stock. It is therefore plausible that as long as ivory sales are lucrative, illegal methods for laundering will be exploited in disregard of domestic and international laws (Sakamoto 1999).

As TRAFFIC reported prior to the recent renewal of ivory trade, "Seizure information worldwide points to regular, organised smuggling of semi-worked ivory blocks, used in making hankos, aimed at the Japanese market. Once within Japan, these blocks can enter the manufacturing and retail levels virtually undocumented (Nash 1997)." The Report of the CITES Panel of Experts on the African Elephant similarly concluded that:

The control of retail trade is not adequate to differentiate the products of legally acquired ivory from those of illegal sources. With the system as currently implemented, it is unlikely that the import of [inzai] could be reliably detected. More inspections are needed, including physical checking of the stockpiles. A method needs to be devised to allow the verification of scraps and wastes produced.

According to Sakamoto (1999), in order for Japan to comply with CITES recommendations, inspectors must be able to "trace every step of transactions from ivory products in the retail market, such as hankos, back to legally imported raw materials." Sakamoto underlines some key contradictions within the ivory monitoring system. For example, ivory registered in manufacturers' ledgers is according to weight while retailers and wholesalers record ivory by the quantity and physical description of the item. This inconsistency could make it possible for additional, illegally laundered ivory to enter retailer/wholesaler hands.

Since the time of the 1999 CITES-sanctioned ivory sale, the Southern African nations have been pushing hard for renewed ivory trade on a regular basis. However, much evidence now shows that the legal trade is operating as a cover for an illegal shadow trade. In a report entitled "Lethal experiment", the Environmental Investigation Agency (Thornton 4/00) found that Zimbabwe has a long record of illegal ivory dealings and questionable conservation methods. Contrary to claims so often made in defense of ivory trade, it is not at all clear that the money being made from legal ivory trade is being ploughed back into conservation efforts. The report also found:

The EIA report concludes that:

The Japanese government has repeatedly shown a lack of political will to enforce controls on the domestic ivory trade. Further CITES- approved ivory imports by Japan will only provide increased opportunities to launder poached ivory.

Indeed, just prior to the CITES meeting in Nairobi of April, 2000, "Police arrested a Japanese national and a British national of Hong Kong origin on suspicion of smuggling about 500 kilograms of ivory into Japan by ship via Singapore" (anon. 4/00). It turned out that the Japanese national was "a board member of one of the major organizations of ivory industry in Japan"-- and as authorities are not allowed to confiscate illegal ivory-- the booty was sent onto the ivory organization's office in Japan. The huge quantity of illegal ivory was being smuggled at the time of the debate in Nairobi on whether to reopen the trade and may have been carried out in anticipation of a resurgent Japanese ivory market. Unsurprisingly, the people who lobby at CITES meetings to reopen legal trade are the same individuals who control and benefit from the illegal trade in Japan (JWCS & ALIVE 5/00). CITES decided not to lift the ivory ban in 2000 but ivory trade proponents have vowed to attempt to lift it in 2002 (Shigwedha 4/28/00). While the international ivory ban has not solved the problem of Japanese domestic ivory consumption, lifting the ban would certainly exacerbate the practice.


What can one say about a country which consumes inordinate amounts of natural resources in flagrant violation of various international laws not to mention good will? Clearly the first step in alleviating the egregious effects of massive resource consumption is to educate the public about the scale of the problem. This will not be easy since the media and educational system are basically run to serve elite interests, and not the common good. Concerned people will need to step out, make their voices heard, and work for political changes that will lead to a saner and more sustainable system. If we do not, the continued disintegration of the global environment will bear predictably grim consequences for all to endure.


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