Once again Japan is under fire for its trade policy. But this time the heat is on its imports, not for its voluminous exports. The World Wildlife Fund says that Japan is the world's largest consumer of endangered species. William Reilly, president of the WWF's United States branch, says that even though Japan is a signatory to international agreements protecting plants and animals in danger of extinction, the Japanese show a ``lack of serious commitment to the implementation [of the agreements].''
Japanese policy permits the import of 14 endangered species, including whales, sea turtles, and lizards, for commercial use. In the first four months of this year, an estimated 54,400 Himalayan Musk deer, a protected species native to Nepal, Bhutan, and India, were killed to support Japanese imports of musk pods used for traditional medicines, says the WWF.
``World opinion is turning increasingly impatient,'' said Mr. Reilly. When representatives of the 95 signatory nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meet next month in Canada, Japan ``will be singled out as a major violator of the treaty,'' he said.
Beyond censure, economic sanctions are possible. ``I anticipate a strong call for retaliatory measures should Japan ... remain passive,'' says Donald Carr, the chief of the Wildlife and Marine Resources section of the US Justice Department.
Japanese officials dispute the charge that they are the largest importer of CITES-protected wildlife. According to officials of the Japanese Environment Agency, the CITES secretariat ``has no data'' to back up that claim.
The officials acknowledge that there are problems in implementing import regulations, but point to a recent law providing penalties for the illegal trade.
The bill represents ``some progress,'' Reilly admits, but falls short of what is needed. The bill lacks ``enforcement teeth,'' he says, and the government has devoted insufficient resources for inspection personnel. Officials of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which enforces the wildlife trade restrictions, fail to check the often-forged permits for export of wildlife, particularly from developing nations, Reilly says.
Some of the most troubling problems, conservationists believe, are the ``reservations,'' or exemptions, that Japan take on 14 CITES-protected species. CITES allows signatory nations like Japan to use endangered species products if their governments say there are compelling domestic reasons.
The ``reservations'' protect traditional industries in Japan, such as the use of animal skins and tortoise shell to make consumer goods, and their removal involves complicated social issues. But, in response to foreign pressure, Environment Agency officials say they may remove all the reservations except on whales.
Japan has already been subject to stern international rebuke for its policy on whaling. Two years ago, the US negotiated an agreement with Japan that, beginning this year, they would honor the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) five-year moratorium on commercial whaling.
This agreement, Reilly says, has been ``betrayed'' by the recent announcement that Japan will authorize the killing of 875 whales next year for ``scientific'' purposes. The whale meat will be sold commercially.
An official of the Environment Agency, Komaru Masaki, agrees that ``there are more scientific methods for research other than whaling.'' But his agency is powerless in this matter, which falls under the aegis of the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry, a bastion of pro-whaling sentiment.
Last week at a meeting in England, the IWC passed a US-proposed resolution further restricting killing whales for scientific research and called on Japan, Iceland, and South Korea to halt their scientific whaling programs.
The vote was sharply criticized by Japanese participants. Japan is expected to continue its whaling activities.