FOR three generations, despite war, famine, earthquakes, and recession, the Sunamoto family has a run a shop in Tokyo selling carved ivory, tiny figurines that are a prized art form in Japan. But in the past few months, the family's source of elephant ivory has almost dried up. The Sunamotos' business, along with some 170 other ivory companies in Japan, face extinction.
``Not many customers stop in these days,'' says Hiroko Iwata, a Sunamoto shop worker.
But that's the price that Japan, once the world's largest consumer of ivory, has been willing to pay to avoid primary blame for endangering the African elephant with extinction.
After decades of buying about 40 percent of the world's ivory production, Japan officially stopped imports last January. It signed the so-called Washington treaty of the 103-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The treaty was signed reluctantly, only after asking for a loophole and then foreseeing that it would be targeted for worldwide criticism by conservationists. As the largest ivory importer, Japan was held largely responsible by wildlife conservationists for the poaching that has cut the number of African elephants to about 620,000, roughly half of the total a decade ago.
Since the import ban began, the Japanese ivory industry has been struggling to survive. Carvers are working from remaining stocks in Japan, estimated at about 150 tons, and are searching for alternative materials - or for alternative work. At its peak, the industry imported 470 tons of tusks a year.
``Production is down about one-third of what it used to be. The companies are in trouble,'' says Shigenobu Terauchi, managing director of the Japan General Merchandise Importers Association, which represents about 30 ivory companies.
Consumers, too, are buying fewer items made of ivory, partly out of a new awareness about the slaughter of elephants by poachers, but also because prices have more than doubled.
The price of a hanko, the commonly used signature stamp on which a Japanese name is etched in Chinese characters, now can reach $800 or more, say dealers. Ivory hankos accounted for about half the ivory consumed in Japan.
Over time, Japanese may need to learn to do without fresh ivory for their piano keys, chop sticks, jewelry, mah-jongg tiles, and finger picks for traditional stringed musical instruments.
``Stores are shrinking their space where they sell ivory and some have stopped selling ivory completely,'' says Mr. Terauchi. Many stores followed the lead of a Ginza department store, Mitzukoshi, which dropped all ivory sales this year. Still, demand for the authentic creamy-white look of ivory has not completely evaporated, and Japanese customs inspectors are now alert to ivory smugglers.
The world's largest inventory of tusks is in Hong Kong, where there is an estimated 600 tons left. Taiwan and China recently decided to join the import ban. With Europe and the United States holding fast to the import ban, smugglers find Japan the closest target to unload the remaining stocks.
Japanese police nabbed a Taiwanese customs officer last May, for instance. He was attempting to smuggle some 25 kilograms of ivory hankos into Japan - inside shoe boxes. Another Taiwanese was caught with ivory equal to 32 tusks, stashed inside pillow stuffing.
One accused smuggler tried to explain his ivory as being from the tusk of a mammoth dug up in the permafrost of the Soviet Union. After much testing by customs, he was proved right. Mammoth tusks, being from an already extinct species that is the hairy ancestor of today's elephant, are not regulated by the ivory treaty.
Embarrassed, the customs department has come up with new methods to distinguish real from fake ivory and elephant from mammoth ivory. Mammoth ivory has large amounts of the element strontium, which can be detected by X-ray.
Also, the Ministry of Industry and International Trade (MITI), the guiding hand to Japan's economic miracle, sponsored a trip of ivory merchants to the Soviet Union last March. The group explored the possibility of using Siberian mammoth tusks, although such ivory has been lying frozen in the snow and subsoil since the last Ice Age, when the wooly beasts roamed the planet.
MITI's sponsorship was intended to make up for its decision to support the import ban and thus threaten the livelihood of several thousand ivory workers. But the industry is small and does not have much political clout.
The Soviets, seeing the Japanese coming, doubled the prices of mammoth tusks, even though an estimated 10 million may be preserved. There were very few Japanese takers. Besides the cost, mammoth tusk is difficult to carve and often comes stained, soft, and cracked.
``It smells and cannot be made into such things as chop sticks,'' says Terauchi. ``It can only be used for making small accessories and ornaments. It's not good for hankos.''
Environmentalists also worry that a thriving trade in mammoth tusks might lead poachers to think a strong market still exists for elephant ivory. They pin their hopes on ``vegetable ivory'' as a substitute, a hard palm nut that resembles ivory. Other alternatives being tried in Japan are hippo teeth and sheep horn. Several Japanese companies claim to have invented ivory substitutes capable of being mass produced.
The Sakai Scientific Research Laboratories, for instance, devised an imitation from egg shells, using milk as a bonding agent. Nippon Shokubai Kagaku Kogyo, a chemical company, developed a polymer resin as a substitute, which can be carved photoelectrically.
Yet, as Japan's ivory stocks are still lasting, the industry has not begun to panic. Rather, it hopes for a partial reversal of the import ban. At the next endangered species conference, which will held in Japan in 1992, delegates will consider whether ivory-consuming countries that have installed adequate domestic controls should be allowed to buy tusks from African countries with large elephant herds.