Interview with Elephants in Japan

April 26, 2023Lu Shegay, Ulara Nakagawa

Please welcome Ulara Nakagawa, the Founder of Elephants in Japan.

Elephants in Japan is an organization working to expose and improve the living conditions of captive elephants in Japan who need help the most. Elephants in Japan was the first organization from Japan that joined the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia, an international campaign initiated by the Institute of Animal Law of Asia. Through this interview, we would like to introduce this Member to the public and our audience. We are excited to learn more about Elephants in Japan!

"Silhouette Photo of Elephant during Golden Hour" by RENATO CONTI from Pexels

Part I: Introduction

IALA: Ulara, could you please tell us about your organization? Your organization is specifically focused on captive elephants, what was the major drive for you to found this organization and work on the issues associated with elephants?

Ulara: At inception, we were actually called “Elephants in Japan: In Memory of Hanako.” This is because our organization was originally created in honor of Hanako, the solitary elephant who was forced to spend over 60 years of her life alone, in underserved solitary confinement, in a tiny, barren, concrete enclosure at a Tokyo zoo.

Hanako made headlines around the world after I wrote a blog post about her plight in 2016, and a resulting online petition for her quickly garnered nearly half a million signatures from concerned people all over the world. Thanks to the global attention and support, in those first months of the campaign we were able to make some tangible progress for Hanako. I was able to team up with Elephant Aid International Founder, President, and CEO, Carol Buckley (who is also the founder of the Elephant Refuge North America elephant sanctuary) and we went to visit Hanako at the zoo in March of that year. During this visit, Carol wrote a welfare assessment report for the zoo staff, and we were thrilled when they agreed to her recommendations to improve Hanako’s life and began putting them into place after our visit (including things as simple as increasing the daily quality time Hanako had with her caretakers or closing the shutters of her indoor enclosure because she was noticeably cold and shivering from the wind). Sadly, however, only two months after Carol and I visited Hanako, she collapsed and died of heart disease. I decided to start Elephants in Japan in her honor, to do what we could to make sure other “Hanakos,” or solitary captive elephants in Japan and elsewhere would not have to live the long, deprived life she had to. Since then, we’ve shortened our name down to the easier-to-remember version of Elephants in Japan (EIJ).

More of the full story of Hanako and the start of EIJ is here.

IALA: Elephants in Japan provides a report of 14 elephants kept in zoos in Japan. Would you like to share with us some unrevealed information about the report? Besides, what other important achievements would you like to describe to our audience? 

Ulara: Our report on Japan’s solitary elephants is authored by Dr. Keith Lindsay, one of the best-known elephant experts in the world. Dr. Lindsay’s work began in 1977 in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, the top place in Africa to get close to free-ranging elephants. Since then his professional work with elephants expanded to other parts of Africa, Asia, and North America, and his growing expertise in the field has led to more work consulting on elephant conservation and management projects globally including working in relation to CITES to help to stop the ivory trade.

In 2017, Dr. Lindsay actually traveled to Japan for EIJ to visit firsthand each of the 14 elephants. His son, who is a photographer, went with him also and shot all of the images featured in our report and on our website. At 115 pages, the report really doesn’t leave much out. It is an extensive overview of the situation of solitary captive elephants in Japan, including detailed observations, assessments, and recommendations for each of the 14 elephants visited, and also valuable information about elephant behavior, biology, and more.

People have told us they have learned a great deal about elephant welfare and their needs in general from its contents. In fact, the report has been circulated internally at the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which subsequently issued a formal statement in 2018 that they would work to end the practice of keeping elephants solitary in Japan by bringing them together “where possible.” Heads of Japanese zoos have also received the report, and some have responded by improving the living conditions of their solitary captive elephants by adding enrichment, improving care, or proclaiming they will go “elephant free,” and not look to replace their elephants when they die. In fact, just recently, another retired zoo director of the Itsu No Mori Park, Japan, was featured in NHK news (one of Japan’s biggest media outlets) speaking out about how it is ok to have a zoo without elephants, as they need to live in large herds, not in small groups or alone confined in zoos.

More information on these types of movements and updates that have happened for Japan’s captive elephants over recent years can be found on our website, via our most recent update.

IALA: Elephants are kept in captivity and are used in entertainment across the globe, and it has been exposed that many of them are oftentimes cruelly treated. What are the most challenging difficulties have you ever faced during your animal protection work?

Ulara: Despite the progress we have made, much work remains to be done to create a better future for elephants in Japan. Many elephants continue to live alone. Many more remain in small, barren, substandard enclosures. In January 2020, Japan’s oldest elephant, Nana (Asian, F), died aged 59 at the Obihiro Zoo. Having lived alone for the past 24 years, she had been unable to stand for weeks prior to her passing. In a worrying trend, many Japanese zoos show little recognition of the ongoing problems and are maintaining plans for shipping elephants from Asia.

Notwithstanding international legislation and concerns limiting wild elephant imports, Japanese zoos are finding loopholes that allow them to bring new elephants into captivity. In 2018, the Sapporo Maruyama Zoo imported four elephants from Myanmar, opening a new elephant house the following spring. Zoocheck participated in an effort to stop this transfer. However, a signed agreement was already finalized by the time they became involved. This deal had some precedent in the Kyoto City Zoo’s acquisition of four new elephants from Laos several years earlier. Since then, the Fukuoka Zoo, once home to the now-deceased Hana, has announced plans to import four elephants from Myanmar. The Tennoji Zoo, once home to Hiroko, has also expressed interest in acquiring new elephants.

EIJ’s petition to prevent this can be found here.

Elephants in Japan will continue to support efforts to prevent further such transfers. Fundamentally, the lack of understanding between international elephant experts and the zoo community in Japan must be bridged. Elephants in Japan will work to close this divide and to inform and empower Japanese citizens so they can better advocate for positive changes to elephant keeping.

IALA: Do you have anything to share about the plans of Elephants in Japan that it intends to accomplish during 2023-2024?

Ulara: We have recently attained official government non-profit status in the United States, or 501(c)3 status, which will allow us to take EIJ to the next level via new fundraising activities and adding staff.

We continue working on awareness and impact campaigns to continue helping captive elephants in Japan, such as our most recent one bringing to light a horrific situation of neglect that led to the unnecessary suffering and death of the solitary elephant Hiroko in 2018. You can read more and sign our petition HERE urging her zoo not to replace Hiroko with any more captive elephants.

"Photo of Elephants Walking Outdoors" by FUTURE KIIID from Pexels

Part II: Japanese Animal Law Issues

IALA: What do you think are the most important and pressing animal law issues that exist in Japan?

Ulara: I personally don’t know much about the specifics of this. That said, we have been communicating with a Japanese politician, Yukio Ubukata, who supports animal welfare and has even publicly mentioned the situation of Miyako — a solitary captive elephant included in our report — on his Twitter. In the summer of 2021, he told us he had started a "Federation for Studying and Promoting Animals Welfare,” a network and collaborative group of Japanese politicians, including House Members from various parties and factions. He told us that the purpose of the group is to protect, promote, and secure the welfare of all kinds of animals and living beings, including livestock and entertainment animals — not only companion animals. We assume from this information and other information we have received in the past that Japan’s animal laws do not really encompass or address the welfare of livestock animals or those used for entertainment, such as in zoos and aquariums. At the time Mr. Ubukata also shared with us that he hadn’t been able to dedicate much time to conduct activities for his animal welfare organization and that he planned to start working at full scale after the election. One of the key activities he would focus on would include the study and drafting of the Law and Regulations for Zoos in Japan, for which he said the country has no zoo laws yet. The election was in October of 2021, and unfortunately, Mr. Ubukata did not win in his section.

IALA: What is the attitude of the government and the public towards the legal protection of animals, animal law movements, animal welfarism, and animal rights activism in Japan?

Ulara: Historically, Japan has lagged behind other advanced nations, especially western countries when it comes to animal welfare. That said, from what we are hearing from our supporters and volunteers in Japan, as well as on social media, is that the tides are positively shifting in terms of public perception and support for animal welfare. For instance, our friends at Humane League Japan, led by Maho Uehara, recently shared with us that the major Japanese supermarket chain Seijo Ishii has started its own private-label brand of cage-free eggs. And the offering was immediately so popular it sold out and was out of stock. Maho and her team at the Humane League Japan have been working tirelessly on this cause for years and it is so wonderful to see the results reaching the mainstream public.

I have also heard very recently that the new term “animal welfare” (“animaru weru-feya” as pronounced by Japanese) is being used more widely by mainstream Japanese media to address or raise these issues. Previously, the notion of animal welfare or activism had a negative connotation to it in mainstream Japanese society, but this new more ‘modern’ seeming phrase and concept seems to be creating a new perception of it as more approachable and less ‘radical,’ which is far more palatable for Japanese. Having lived myself in Japan for years I know that Japanese people are incredibly empathetic and compassionate people who are very open to new ideas, so I remain optimistic that society, its laws, and the government will catch up to reflect these values that Japanese people hold towards all living beings.

EIJ will continue to ensure we have a presence in Japan and do our part to provide education, connection, and inspiration for this future.

"Close-Up Shot Brown Elephants" by Tom D'Arby from Pexels

Part III: International Cooperation

IALA: What goals would you like to achieve through the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia? In which ways do you think Elephants in Japan could help the animal advocacy field within the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia?

Ulara: As mentioned above, I truly think by simply investigating, compiling, and archiving (and updating) an overview of the laws in Japan and also who is working on expanding and instituting more laws, etc would be extraordinarily valuable and useful to others groups working in Japan and Asia including empowering Japanese advocates and groups who may not fully have this knowledge in hand to do their work.

IALA: Are you seeking any global participation in developing animal law through the Elephants in Japan? Do you intend to collaborate with other countries/regions to improve the protection of animals in Japan?

Ulara: Would absolutely love and be open to any opportunities for information-sharing and collaboration in this arena. Knowledge truly is power and we have gained strength from our global network and partners who are currently more elephant welfare focused (such as biologists, academics, and sanctuary owners). Organizations in America such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and Nonhuman Rights Projects are supporters; they operate on a local level but they do help and support our work from time to time, as needed, which we are very grateful for.

IALA: Do you have any experience or suggestions to share with our members on how to advocate for animals more effectively?

Ulara: One critical suggestion I’d make from my experiences so far is to rigorously stick to the facts. When you feel super passionate about a cause sometimes you want to do anything you can to bring attention to it. It might be tempting to exaggerate or let stories take on a life of their own. However, I think actually the stripped-down, bare-bones facts are still what actually appeals to people and the media. I’m lucky because I have a background in journalism. EIJ has really leaned on science and facts to communicate the plight of these elephants to others such as by drawing from Dr. Lindsay’s expert opinions explaining how the solitary elephants’ head bobbing, swaying, and repetitive motions are in fact coping behaviours due to stress and deprivation. It is this very approach that I am certain has allowed us to be heard and accepted by Japanese groups like JAZA, or some of the zoos, or by top media outlets like the Asahi news which has covered our organization, work, and the issue as whole numerous times.

The second suggestion I credit to Rob Laidlaw, Executive Director and Founder of our partner organization, Zoocheck. He told me this when I was getting started, and it’s been one of the most resounding pieces of advice I’ve come across about being an effective advocate: 1. To make any meaningful change on an issue, hard work, a strategy, commitment of time, energy and often resources are necessary. 2. That said, anyone can do it regardless of age, background, gender, etc.

It's very important for people to understand that to take on an issue and make a meaningful impact, what is absolutely required is hard work, a strategy (i.e. plan), a commitment of time, energy, and, often, at least some resources. That may sound daunting to some people just getting started, so it's also important to also know that anyone can do it. Most everyone we know throughout the world that does meaningful advocacy is the same. We're all regular people. No one is exceptionally remarkable, uber-wealthy, or gifted with super levels of intelligence. People, ranging in age from 6 years old to 90 years old, have taken on issues of all kinds (from local to international) involving animals, the environment, poverty relief, homelessness, etc. and they are nearly always just regular people who decided they were going to take something on. And they often move the bar higher and sometimes they win. They will also find it enormously self-rewarding to know that they decided to be a participant and not a spectator in the world around them.

IALA: What else would you like to tell the audience of the Institute of Animal Law of Asia (IALA)?

Ulara: One important thing we often forget about elephants: they are wild animals. Many of us don’t get to travel to Africa to see elephants in their natural habitat. We instead see them in zoos, at circuses, or being ridden by humans in tourist destinations. All of this makes many of us forget that elephants are not domesticated animals like dogs and cats or cows and horses. They have not adapted over time to the artificial environments we force them into. They are not equipped physically or psychologically to cope in situations of captivity. 

So when an elephant is not in its natural environment – they are in an unnatural state, which means it is deprived in some way. Whether they have companionship within captive conditions, whether they are given great care and special diets by their owners, they are still in a deprived state by default. The best place for any wild animal to be is in the wild. So that is something that I’d like to remind people to consider when we think about wild animals, including elephants, in captivity.

IALA: Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. We enjoyed talking with you and discussing animal law issues that we can solve together at the Institute of Animal Law of Asia (IALA) and Elephants in Japan within the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia.

Learn more about Elephants in Japan (EIJ):

Facebook: @elephantsinjapan 

Instagram: @elephantsinjapan 

Twitter/X: @japanelephants

YouTube: Elephants in Japan (In Memory of Hanako)

Stay tuned for more interviews with other members of the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia!

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