By Stephen Hesse
Next time you attend a shamisen performance, neither you nor most anyone else there will likely notice the elephant in the room. And those who do probably won’t have given it much thought.
We’re not talking about a flesh-and-blood, 2-ton elephant, of course, but the bachi (large plectrum) used to play the traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument.
The best bachi are made from hard tusk ivory, and “Japan is the only country where a strong demand for ‘hard,’ or forest, elephant ivory still exists,” Dr. Tomoaki Nishihara wrote in an article in the July-December 2012 issue of the elephant-research journal Pachyderm.
“Historically, Japanese ivory carvers have produced most of their items from ‘hard ivory’ from Asian elephants and from forest elephants of Central Africa, which is preferred to ‘soft ivory’ from the savannah elephants of eastern, western and southern Africa.
“The major ivory items made in Japan are hanko (personal name seals) and musical implements such as bachi, preferably made of hard ivory,” Nishihara explained there.
However, a global ban on ivory sales took effect in 1989 under the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and as Japan could no longer legally import it, stocks soon started to run low. Then, in 1999 and 2008, CITES allowed one-off sales of ivory from African nations. These allowed Japanese dealers to stock up — but only with soft ivory from savannah elephants, as that was the only type permitted in the sales. More....