Animal Welfare in Japan

Although, in Japan, consumer boycotts occur rarely and ethical products are currently few and far between, parts of Japanese society are waking up to the potential of ethical consumers to drive social change. Japanese campaigners have seen the ability of ethical buying in Europe to hold the line against some of the remorseless pressures placed on social standards from global businesses everywhere.  

Ethical consumerism has even found interest in the Japanese government, whose Consumer Affairs Agency is halfway through a two-year research project into ethical consumption. And, in 2014, a group of academics set up a multi-stakeholder project called the Japan Ethical Initiative (JEI). Comprising of campaigners, corporate responsibility specialists and academics, the group has an ambitious program which includes working on ethical procurement programmes, creating educational materials for schools and training for businesses, and even, potentially, the ranking of corporations based on their ethical practices, like those in Ethical Consumer.

The role of Tokyo as host for the 2020 Olympics has also created space for the JEI, amongst others, to argue for the event to become a demonstration ethical project in line with the International Olympic Committee’s mission to “create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”[1]

What about the animals?

Against this backdrop, animal campaigners in Japan were disappointed to find no mention of Europe’s vibrant animal welfare campaign movement in the interim report of the Consumer Affairs Agency’s ethical consumption project, released in June. They felt this omission reinforced the idea that these issues were either unimportant, or were of no interest in Japan. For example, when Elkington and Hailes 1990 ‘Green Consumer Guide’ was translated into Japanese, the sections on animal-friendly choices were absent.

Japan’s animal campaign groups are tiny compared to those in the UK. It does not have anything like our well-established RSPCA, nor indeed any formal animal welfare laws for farmed animals.[2] According to campaigners, even the World Organisation for Animal Health’s codes are often ignored. The World Animal Protection Organisation rates Japan (along with the USA and Canada) as a D in its Animal Protection index, the lowest in the G8 apart from Russia.[3]

95.2% of eggs in Japan are from caged hens and there is little awareness of the availability of free-range eggs. 88% of sows farrow in gestation crates (where they cannot even turn around) of the type that have been banned in the UK and restricted elsewhere. Many of the other particularly disturbing practices targeted by campaigners in the West – such as Angora rabbit farming or live plucking of geese for down – have not yet made it into the consciousness of most consumers in Japan.

Small steps forward

It is not all bad news and some progress, coupled with growing awareness, is visible in a few areas.

Fur – Campaigners against fur, both domestically and internationally, have forced some clothing brands to announce that they will no longer use it. Compared to 10 years ago, imports of fur into Japan are down by 80%. Nevertheless, some 1.6 million pelts were still imported into the country last year.

Animal testing – In 2012, the Japan Anti-Vivisection Association (JAVA) won an award in the Lush Prize consumer awareness category for its boycott campaign against Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido. Its ‘unusual-for-Japan’ street protests had led the company to announce an end to its animal testing program for products.

This, and the presence of overseas brands like Body Shop with its Leaping Bunny logo and Lush with its Fighting Animal Testing campaign, have meant that consumer awareness of animal testing in the cosmetics industry is at around 30%. Nevertheless, unlike Europe’s animal testing ban, there are no laws proscribing the practice on the horizon, or even rules setting welfare standards for animals in laboratories, like we have in the UK.

Diet – Despite a history of Buddhism in the country, a prevailing food culture dominated by fish makes it difficult for vegetarians and vegans. Nevertheless, around 5% of people follow meat-free diets – which is roughly the same as most other countries of the world.[4] Tokyo, particularly, appears to be witnessing a recent small boom in veganism of the kind that is being observed, at least anecdotally, in many big cities in the West. There is also a growth of dedicated vegetarian restaurants and a ‘vegan mark’ being used by some of these.


  1. IOC Olympic Charter 2016 p 11 
  2. There are some for cats and dogs 
  4. India is the big statistical outlier of vegetarianism, practised by around 30% of the population