Interview:Elephants in Japan

From WikiAnimal

Elephants in Japan

Yvonne Luscombe talks with Ulara Nakagawa about the captive elephants of Japan.


In the Land of the Rising Sun, a poignant and compassionate organization, Elephants in Japan, has taken up the noble cause of shedding light on the plight of elephants held in captivity and advocating for their welfare. Despite Japan being renowned for its cutting-edge technology and modernity, the conditions under which elephants are kept in its zoos often appear paradoxically outdated and inhumane.

Elephants in Japan seek to challenge the status quo and educate the public about the dire circumstances faced by elephants in captivity across Japan's zoos. Surprisingly, despite being publicly funded, the majority of these institutions struggle to allocate resources towards improving the living conditions of these elephants.

One of the critical issues faced is the lack of knowledge and awareness about elephants among both the Japanese public and zoo staff. The absence of understanding about the specific needs and natural behaviors of these gentle giants perpetuates the cycle of substandard care and inadequate living spaces.

Ulara, a prominent spokesperson for Elephants in Japan, narrates a heart-rending tale about a lone elephant named Hanako. This beautiful creature endured solitary confinement for over six decades, her life marred by deprivation and neglect. Despite the organization's unyielding pressure and the attention it garnered from international circles, the zoo where Hanako resided made only marginal improvements in her conditions. Tragically, shortly after these adjustments, Hanako succumbed to a heart attack, her life marked by a profound injustice.

Currently, approximately 100 elephants languish in captivity across Japan, their confined spaces underscoring the severity of the situation. Deep-rooted cultural beliefs about animals contribute to the persistent challenges faced by the elephants.

As Elephants in Japan endeavors to expose the harsh reality faced by captive elephants and initiate change, their mission is fueled by compassion and a relentless pursuit of justice. Through education, awareness, and advocacy, they strive to create a better future for these magnificent beings, hoping that one day, all elephants in Japan will experience the respect, care, and freedom they deserve.


Audio only


Apple | Amazon | Google | Spotify


Summarised transcript

Yvonne: For many of us in Europe and other countries, Japan might seem like a distant outpost. We often see pictures of elephants kept in concrete barns, walking in and out, leaving us curious about why a highly advanced country like Japan doesn't appear to be as advanced when it comes to elephants.

Ulara and her organization have dedicated themselves to extensive research and work over the years. Ulara, can you give us an overview of your organization and the situation with captive elephants in Japan?

Ulara: Elephants in Japan is dedicated to raising awareness about the hardships faced by elephants in captivity. While our focus is on Japan, we believe there's a unique opportunity to shed light on this issue due to the relatively limited attention it receives in the country.

Our main goal is not only to raise awareness but also to educate people about elephant welfare and the actions they can take to improve the well-being of elephants in Japan and beyond.

It's intriguing how Japan, despite being a modern country, still keeps elephants in what appear to be outdated and inhumane conditions. This disconnect is notable, especially considering the country's advancements in other areas and the general compassion shown by the Japanese public towards all living beings and their receptiveness to progress.

For those interested, our website provides more detailed information on the history of zoos in Japan since the post-war era, the challenges faced in modernizing them, and why zoos, in general, may not be the ideal environment for wild animals. Unfortunately, we won't have enough time today to delve into all of this, but it's available on our website for further exploration.

Yvonne: How did it all begin, and where did they acquire these elephants? The concerning issue is the lack of space provided for elephants. If you haven't seen it, picture an elephant's width of space with enormous ditches, creating a distressing sight. There's one particular heartbreaking elephant that tries to interact with people using her trunk, and everyone worries she might accidentally fall into one of those ditches.

It's puzzling to understand this cultural discrepancy. On one hand, Japan is known for its beautiful gardens and is considered a lovely country to visit. However, there seems to be a significant gap when it comes to the lack of progress and compassion in the zoos. We've encountered bad zoos before, but this situation in Japan appears to be among the worst.

It would be interesting to know who is responsible for running these zoos. Are they all government-owned? Are they open to discussing peoples concerns?

Ulara: In Japan, the majority of zoos are publicly funded, which often leads to a common excuse when asked to make improvements – the lack of funding and resources. Some zoos, however, are privately owned, like the one mentioned where Miyako, the solitary elephant, faces a treacherous moat surrounding her, an outdated and dangerous enclosure.

It's truly disheartening to see how this situation has persisted despite the obvious need for change. Several factors contribute to this issue, starting with a significant lack of education and awareness among the Japanese public. If the taxpayers and citizens were more aware of the problem, they could potentially influence local governments to take action.

Another concerning aspect is the limited knowledge within the zoo community itself. An example from 2016 highlights the sad reality for elephants like Hanako, who spent over 60 years in solitary confinement in a tiny, barren concrete enclosure in a Tokyo Zoo. Only getting 20 minutes of interaction twice a day with her four keepers, Hanako cherished this limited time, which was her only source of stimulation and pleasure.

Unfortunately, the keepers misinterpreted her moments of joy as anger, illustrating a severe misunderstanding of elephant behavior. The zoo's practical approach, focused on time allocation for staff and the various animals they care for, lacked specialized expertise in elephant welfare.

This anecdote demonstrates just one of the many underlying problems contributing to the unfortunate state of elephants and other animals in captivity in Japan. Basic knowledge and specialized care are essential aspects that need to be addressed to improve their welfare.

Yvonne: I can't help but wonder about Japan's reputed education system and the dedication people usually have towards their jobs. Considering this, I find myself asking, why didn't they take the initiative to learn about elephants throughout those 60 years? It seems like an obvious step to take, but sometimes the obvious can elude us.

After you informed them about Hanako's situation did they take any action? Did they change their approach in dealing with her? I'm curious to know what happened next.

Ulara: I had a positive experience during our visit to the zoo, and I genuinely believed that the staff cared about Hanako, just like we did. They showed concern, welcomed us, and even allowed media coverage of the issue. It seemed like they loved the elephant but were uncertain about how to help her. However, they were very receptive to the 24-point report presented by Carol Buckley, and right after our visit, they announced plans to implement some of the recommended changes.

Within two months, they made small but meaningful improvements to Hanako's daily life. They increased the time keepers spent with her, addressed an issue with wind exposure in her enclosure, and kept the crowds at a distance to avoid disturbing her. Although we wish the changes were more substantial, any improvement, no matter how marginal, mattered to her daily well-being.

Sadly, Hanako suffered a heart attack and passed away soon after, despite the efforts and international attention she received. Her case was pivotal in shedding light on Japan's captive elephants, as many people were unaware that around 100 elephants were living in captivity in the country.

Japan's cultural perception of animals might have contributed to the lack of awareness and knowledge about their welfare. Animal welfare is now gaining some recognition, particularly among the younger generation of zookeepers and animal welfare students at universities like the University of Kyoto.

However, certain challenges persist, such as old-school bureaucratic systems and zoo owners who view zoos as businesses rather than educational facilities. The private zoo, where Miyako the elephant resides, faces unique difficulties due to its location and the declining public interest in non-urban zoos.

Miyako's keeper, though caring, doesn't possess a passion for elephants, and this creates concerns for the elephant's future once he retires. The zoo's financial pressures and limited resources contribute to the complexities of implementing substantial changes.

As animal advocates, all of these challenges may be hard to understand, but they illustrate the multifaceted issues involved. Our primary focus is on educating the public and bridging gaps in understanding to provide support and assistance for the welfare of captive elephants in Japan.

Yvonne: If the zoo is being operated as a business and facing financial difficulties, it might prioritize animals that have high market value, like tigers, for breeding and selling. When it comes to rescuing elephants or any other animal from such a zoo, it's usually an offer made by various organizations to buy the animal and relocate them to a sanctuary. However, this kind of rescue rarely occurs because zoos are typically public properties and not profit-oriented ventures.

In the case of the private zoo with the elephant Miyako, where selling animals seems to be a priority, has anyone attempted or considered fundraising efforts to secure her release from captivity?

Ulara: Our primary goal is to secure Miyako's release from captivity, considering the zoo's financial motivations. However, engaging with the owner has proven to be incredibly challenging. We initiated a petition for Miyako almost five years ago, and every day, we've sent him hundreds of emails from people who signed the petition. Despite multiple letters and offers to provide free services for Miyako's well-being as a goodwill gesture, he hasn't responded to us at all.

Instead, the zoo owner has initiated his own crowdfunding campaign.

Yvonne: No way.

Ulara: He managed to raise around $20,000 to $30,000 through a crowdfunding campaign. With that money, he built a small pool in Miyako's already tiny enclosure, which you might not have noticed in recent pictures because it's so small, almost like a puddle. Unfortunately, this pool took away what little surface space she had to walk around in tiny circles, and the construction process likely scared her.

Miyako is too scared to use the pool, and it's barely big enough for her to fit in, probably coming up only to your waist. However, this move garnered positive press for the zoo owner, and a group of local defenders, calling themselves "Miyako fans," has emerged to support him, claiming he cares deeply for her.

The challenge now is that he received significant media attention and financial support through the crowdfunding campaign. It's unclear if all the money went into the small pool or if he might pursue other money-making schemes. This creates a new resistance for our efforts to help Miyako.

We still believe there's hope for Miyako, and our goal remains to get her into a larger, group setting that could significantly improve her well-being. However, the situation has become more complicated and challenging compared to the Hanako case. We're consulting with partners and others to figure out how to navigate this issue, especially when the zoo owner is not receptive to our efforts.

Yvonne: One thing that comes to mind is the power of social media, where people like myself are connected globally. Every day, we receive messages from advocates worldwide, sharing concerns about various issues. If we come across something like Miyako's situation, we can quickly gather numbers to express our dismay and urge for change. It's surprising that more people in Japan haven't seen or responded to this distressing situation. It can be frustrating when you need widespread support to create an impact, but the response is not as strong as you hope for.

Sometimes, organizations might make moves to pacify public outcry without actually addressing the core problem. Social media users, often referred to as "keyboard warriors," can be instrumental in voicing concerns and advocating for positive change. While they can help build awareness and address issues, they can also play a role in calming heated situations.

It's indeed astonishing that the zoo owner garnered significant media attention and funding for a tiny pool while ignoring the larger issues with Miyako's living conditions. It highlights the need for increased awareness of elephants in captivity in Japan. It seems like we in the West are more familiar with elephants from countries like Thailand and other parts of the world, but not Japan, despite there being around 100 elephants in captivity there.

Regarding the elephants in Japan, I'm not certain if they are all old or if they still acquire new ones. The number of captive elephants in Japan is staggering, and it's crucial to bring more attention to their plight and advocate for their well-being.

Ulara: The battle we face now is not all darkness and negativity, but rather an effort to sort things out and highlight the situation. On a positive note, there has been a growing trend towards going elephant-free in Japan. After the Hanako Zoo incident, our organization, initially named Elephants in Japan in memory of Hanako, focused on solitary elephants, of which there are currently 12 in the country, including Miyako, whose situation is quite dire.

Some zoos in Japan have transitioned to being elephant-free, and when the last elephant dies, there's a trend to convert the enclosures into art exhibits instead. This progress is an opportunity to applaud the efforts of the international community in raising awareness. The support we've garnered from people worldwide has been instrumental in making a difference, and collecting over 2.5 million signatures for solitary elephants in Japan showcases the potential power of social media.

While social media activism can be a powerful tool, we need to be cautious not to create an "us against them" situation. The reality is that animal welfare challenges exist in many countries, not just Japan. Diplomacy, respect for the culture, and education are crucial in raising awareness and effecting change. There are compassionate people in Japan who, with the right education and awareness, can create a tipping point towards better welfare practices.

However, it's essential to approach the situation with delicacy, considering cultural differences and empowering local advocates within Japan. Advocacy is not as prevalent in Japanese culture, and some local defenders might view criticism from international activists as unwarranted. Building bridges and working with local advocacy groups and organizations like JAZA (Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums) is vital in spreading awareness and education.

We recognize the challenges ahead, and our focus is on education, awareness, and collaboration to bring positive change to the lives of captive elephants in Japan.

Yvonne: Absolutely, you make a great point. It's challenging because animals cannot advocate for themselves, and if we stay silent, change may never come. Waiting for 200 years without improvement is not an effective approach. However, there's reason for hope and optimism as we see positive shifts within the system. The education initiatives, such as inviting Dr. Lindsay to speak at the university and the emergence of a new term for animal advocates, indicate that positive changes are happening.

The evolution of attitudes towards animal welfare is an encouraging sign. It shows that people are becoming more aware and willing to take action. It may take time, but progress is being made, and we must continue to support these educational efforts. Empowering local advocates within Japan is vital in effecting long-term change, and as a united international community, we can play a significant role in making a difference for captive elephants and other animals in need.

Ulara: Indeed, progress is being made, and even some of the less conservative major newspapers in Japan, comparable to the New York Times, have covered the topic of elephants in captivity. They featured stories about Miyako and cited Dr. Keith Lindsay as an international expert, bringing valuable input to the issue. Thanks to the global community's support, awareness has been raised, and people are starting to take notice.

However, there are still challenges to overcome, and one of them is the ongoing importation of elephants into Japan. Despite a ban on importing wild elephants, there's a concerning trend of bringing in groups of four elephants through Myanmar. These elephants are claimed to be captive but might actually be wild, exploiting a potential loophole. Although there have been delays due to the pandemic, one group of four young elephants has already been brought into the country, and there are reports of more zoos planning similar imports.

Our partner organization, zoo check, based in Canada, has been working behind the scenes to stop these deals. However, the lack of local advocates in Japan makes it difficult to monitor government actions and potentially intervene earlier. Having a group of advocates familiar with Japan's laws and government workings could be a powerful asset in driving change more swiftly.

While it may take time for such a group to emerge, we remain hopeful that more people in Japan will become aware and involved in advocating for the welfare of captive elephants. Their voices and understanding of the system could significantly accelerate progress and bring about meaningful change for these elephants.

Yvonne: Okay, you know, it's a valid concern whether the government will ever address the issue of animals in captivity. Will they ever engage in discussions about it? I wonder if we could present it under a biodiversity or climate heading to garner more attention. Or perhaps the government has no interest at all in the welfare of wildlife? It's a question worth considering.

Ulara: No, I don't believe that's the case at all. As far as I recall, there is an animal welfare law that undergoes review every four years. Various groups lobby for amendments to include companion animals and animals in captivity. Additionally, we had a conversation with a Japanese politician who supports animal welfare and was running for office. In 2020, he mentioned our report on his Twitter and informed us about a federation he started to study and promote animal welfare. This group includes politicians from different parties and aims to protect and secure the welfare of all animals, including livestock and entertainment animals, not just companion animals.

Unfortunately, he didn't win the election, but having someone like him in the government could be a game-changer. Bridging the gap between such individuals and creating a cooperative network of knowledge without fostering an "us versus them" mentality would be essential for driving positive change.

Yvonne: I understand you're looking for someone to step up and take charge. After all, this represents a whole country. The way people treat animals is quite important; it often becomes a basis for judgment, no matter where you are in the world. People might comment on how things are done in America, the UK, Canada, or Australia when it comes to wildlife and how animals are treated.

During the pandemic, with more time at home, people have become more aware and interested in these issues. Still, there's a long way to go in addressing these problems.

One last point to consider is the situation with elephants. We've seen around 14 elephants confined to these terrible barns and concrete slabs. However, are there more elephants living in better conditions? Do they have some space to roam, perhaps not as extensive as safari parks but at least some grassy fields and suitable habitats?

Ulara: There are definitely better zoos in Japan. We've actually explored those options too. Our main goal was to establish communication with the private owner of Miyako Zoo. If we could do that, we would propose transporting her to one of these superior zoos. The thing is, getting her to a sanctuary is quite costly. I'm not sure if you've delved into the expenses during your other interviews, but it's not a cheap endeavor.

Yvonne: It's not cheap, there are always individuals willing to step up and contribute to the cause. I must admit, both celebrities and regular people display remarkable generosity toward it.

Ulara: Yes, there are indeed better zoos in Japan. We've also explored options like a sanctuary in Thailand, specifically Carol's sanctuary, but it might be a longer journey for her. However, going back to Thailand would be more suitable for her. The concern is her health, though, as it could be risky.

Given Japan's small size, we thought about land transportation to a better zoo or a transitional environment to see how she adapts. But it all depends on the private zoo owner's receptivity, which seems to be challenging since he's focused on his own PR campaign.

We don't want to be seen as outsiders telling Japan how to handle its animals, so we need local support. We know the country doesn't want bad PR, especially after the impact of COVID on the 2020 Olympics. The Tokyo Zoo, being a tourist destination, showed more receptivity compared to the Utsunomiya zoo, which caters to locals and requires a complicated journey to reach.

We're not giving up, and we have plans for future campaigns. We recently sent a letter with 116,000 signatures to the Tennoji Zoo in Osaka, urging them not to replace their elephant, which died under terrible conditions. Our ultimate goal is to establish an elephant sanctuary in southern Japan.

We have the support of experts like Dr. Keith Lindsay, who emphasizes the need for significant changes in Japan's zoos to ensure better welfare for captive elephants. Elephant enclosures should be larger and more complex to allow social groups to form naturally. All solitary elephants should be moved to join others, and breeding elephants for captivity must stop. Developing true elephant sanctuaries in Japan is worth considering as well.

We hope to build bridges with local communities, educational institutions, and the government to create a global effort for positive change in Japan's treatment of elephants. Our long-term goal is to move at least one elephant, which will trigger a tipping point and raise awareness for the cause.

Yvonne: Absolutely. Thank you very much for joining me today and I hope that we can pick up again another time with everything that's been going on because it's a really valuable insight for a lot of people around the world. Thank you very much.

Ulara: Thank you so much. We really appreciate you showing an interest and and helping us tell the story.

See also

External links