TOKYO — JAPAN and the United States are in an environmental showdown over whether to save sea turtles or a turtleshell craft industry. At stake for Japan is a small, traditional industry that has made turtleshell crafts, called bekko, for nearly three centuries. Bekko craft produces amber-colored hair ornaments, jewelry, eyeglass frames, and elaborately sculpted pieces.
But Japan also risks further highlighting its image as a global ``eco-outlaw,'' as well as trade sanctions if it does not meet US demands to cease imports of particular species of sea turtles.
The ridley, hawksbill, and green sea turtles are listed as endangered under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Japan joined CITES in 1980, but did not comply with the trade ban for several years, citing a legal loophole in the convention in order to protect its sea turtle industries. Then, in 1987, Japan banned trade in the green sea turtle.
Four environmental groups petitioned the US government last year to urge Japan to stop all remaining trade in sea turtles. Fearing possible trade sanctions, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) reduced import of the hawksbill from 30 tons to 20 tons.
Responding to increasing criticism, the US secretaries of Interior and Commerce cited Japan in March for continuing its trade, and rejected Japan's last-minute offer to reduce hawksbill import to five tons. Once a country is cited, the US president has 60 days to respond. It is estimated that President Bush may ban imports of wildlife products from Japan, such as pearls and ornamental carp, worth up to US $200 million, unless Japan's turtle trade is stopped before May 19.
Meanwhile, bilateral negotiations continue in Washington. While Japan decided to ban imports of the ridley effective April 30, the US demands a ban on the remaining hawksbill trade.
Japan resists a hawksbill ban because they say that, unlike other species, the distinctive hawksbill cannot be replaced by plastic or leather substitutes.
THE bekko industry employs close to 2,000 people, including about 660 craftspeople, with its largest operation in Nagasaki.
``Bekko craft-making skills are not transferable,'' says Iefusa Osada, assistant chief of import section at MITI. ``If the industry fails, the craftspeople will have to find a completely different occupation, like driving a taxi cab.''
Tom Milliken of Traffic Japan, a wildlife monitoring group, asserts that the issue is isolated from other trade disputes.
``Trade in sea turtles has been at issue for quite some time. When Mexico banned the exploitation last year, Japan's continuing practices came into closer focus,'' he says. ``Japan must solve the 10-year-old dispute before it hosts the CITES convention next March in order to avoid disgrace.''
A study funded by the Japanese government in 1987 concluded that the hawksbill turtle is ``unquestionably'' endangered. But, citing difficulties in producing an accurate turtle count, MITI officials say that an import volume of five tons is unlikely to disturb the species' existence.
``The industry itself could survive with five tons a year, cutting the number of workers down to a quarter, but we simply cannot accept a total ban on the import,'' sats Fumiki Nakakoga, chairman of the Japan Turtleshell Federation.
Mr. Nakakoga says that the industry cannot afford a temporary ban. ``By the time there are enough turtles, there will be no more of us left,'' he says. ``The art of bekko, which only exists in Japan, will be lost forever.''
Mr. Milliken estimates that the dispute may be settled by US accepting gradual reduction in the trade volumes. ``However,'' he added, ``the US will insist on setting a future date when the trade will be banned entirely.''