Unavailability of Ivory constrains survival of Japanese traditional music

Koto Musical Instruments

Koto is a stringed musical instrument, about 190 cm in height. Long known as the national instrument of the country, since early centuries, it has been popular in the realms of traditional Japanese musical history.

The classic appliance is placed on a stand and is played by plucking the strings with the help of ivory plectrums, tsume. Allegedly, a koto requires 13 ivory bridges and three ivory plectrums to enhance its musical quality. Another traditional musical instrument, Shamisen, which resembles a guitar requires ivory for its bridge and for the plectrum.

Although many Japanese music enthusiasts are worried about conserving their traditional music form, they wish to do so without imperiling the elephants. The mammal forms an important part of their ecosystem and they do not wish to harm it in the name of culture.

Domestic trade of ivory is still prevalent in Japan, however the international ban issued in 1989, makes international transport of such musical instruments cumbersome due to strict custom handles. Moreover, artists face the dilemma, since synthetic substitutes of ivory don’t match the sturdy quality of the real ones. They are difficult to replicate; plastic, wood or ceramic replacements also hamper the sound quality of the instrument.