By Kane Pride
What animals come to mind when you think of Japan? Could it be the raccoon-like tanuki? World-famous shiba dogs? What about Nara deer or Yakushima macaques? As in most countries, the native animals here have had a significant impact on the development of culture, tradition, and superstition. Many have been depicted in Japanese art dating past the Edo period. Back in the good old days, it was safer to capture a tiger with ink and paper, than to risk it tearing out your throat wrangling it back to its pen using sharpened bamboo sticks.
Humanity has always had an eye for danger. As your ancestors knew, some animals were best left alone. Common sense has always been a necessary ingredient for staying alive. That being said, there are exceptions. For example, the U.S. is well-known for outlandish pets and illegal exotic animals. Look no further than Joe Exotic in the hit docuseries “Tiger King.” Give it a watch and you might learn more about it than you ever wanted to know.
Circling back, how does Joe Exotic relate to Japan? What if I told you that Japan has its own Tiger King? Not one person so famous that you could put a name and a face to them, but instead thousands and thousands of small-time “average Joes.” Like the U.S., Japan has developed an appetite for illegal pet imports and it only gets weirder from there. Tanuki? Shiba? Nara deer? Forget those. In certain pet shops across Japan, you might find anything ranging from emus to crocodiles. On average, Japanese illegal imports of exotic animals has steadily increased since 1985. According to a 2018 study, 20% of these are mammals, 71% are made up of reptiles, and the remaining 9% is divided between insects, birds, and arachnids.
In 2009, a company employee found a nylon bag containing a Siamese crocodile near the entrance of a pet training center in Chiba Prefecture. Accompanying the bag, a note said: “I lost my job in March and can’t afford to support him anymore. I was told by a pet shop that they can’t accept him without ‘proper authorization.’ His name is ‘Gen.’ Please take care of him.” In another case, penguins, meerkats, monkeys, alligators and more were discovered to be on sale at NOAH the inner city zoo in Yokohama in 2012.
In my personal experience, I have seen an American groundhog and an African meerkat on sale in Kagoshima and Isahaya pet shops, respectively. In Kagoshima, I was shocked to see a groundhog halfway across the world from its home. As a Pennsylvania native, I can attest that these fat, furry creatures common to the state are not meant to be pets. Groundhogs are a species that needs to hibernate in winter, and they would be incredibly unhappy in domestic captivity. Discovering one in a pet shop is what sparked my curiosity about the current state of animal laws in Japan. What are the penalties for importing illegal pets? How widespread is the problem? Of all places, why Japan?
According to Crossing the Red Line, a 2018 report on illegal pet smuggling in Japan, there is weak enforcement against importing exotic animals. The penalties for getting caught are light enough that they do little to deter would-be smugglers. For example, the maximum sentence ever given for smuggling appears to be up to 22 months in prison, combined with a 800,000 yen fine. This comes out to roughly 7,600 USD, small change for any serious smuggler selling animals worth 14,000-33,000 USD on average.
Given that 65% of smuggling cases involve airlines, Japanese customs data provides a good window into the prevalence of such activities. Between 2008 and 2018, there were 78 customs seizures involving 1,161 different animal species. No more than ten seizures were made in any given year. According to wildlife organizations like TRAFFIC and WWFJ, such a level of seizures for a major consumer country means a low detection rate. As a result, the actual rate of smuggling is believed to be much higher.
Why Japan? The lax laws make it an easy destination to offload smuggled animals.What can be done about it? That falls to the Japanese government and people with voting rights to decide. The best I can do is write this article and bring attention to the issue. So, if you know of any pet shops near you, why not stop by and have a look inside? Most likely you’ll see some cats and dogs, but other times you might be surprised. Then, you can spread the word, too.