American furs are a hit in Japan, but will the love last?

A volunteer for Animal Rights Center of Tokyo, holds up a placard before the Anti-fur rally in Shibuya, Tokyo, Oct. 26, 2014. Approximately 300 people marched.
A volunteer for Animal Rights Center of Tokyo, holds up a placard before the Anti-fur rally in Shibuya, Tokyo, Oct. 26, 2014. Approximately 300 people marched. McClatchy

At the Northern World fur shop in Tokyo, where the most expensive garment sells for $30,000, owner Shoichi Mizuno proudly displayed a rack of coats made with American mink imported all the way from Washington state.

“I don’t know which farm, but all of them are from Seattle. . . . I love Seattle very much,” said Mizuno, who’s run his shop at the same location for 25 years, selling $300,000 worth of merchandise there in 2013.

With Asia now ranked as the world’s hottest fur market, Washington state is cashing in, as the value of its exported mink fur skins more than doubled in the past three years. The state has a long history of shipping furs to Japan, dating to 1791, when the Lady Washington became the first American vessel to make landfall there, delivering a load of sea otter pelts.

But while U.S. fur traders cheer their sales, some Japanese store owners fear that the best days for the industry may be over.

Mizuno is particularly worried, saying sales have stalled this year and that the industry has taken a hit, from a slow economy and the growing power of Japan’s anti-fur movement.

“This is a very bad thing,” said Mizuno.

Not for everyone, of course.

Two days later, when asked to respond to Mizuno’s assessment, Chihiro Okada smiled broadly.

“He’s right,” she said, with a black “no fur” sign painted on her face in Japanese as she prepared to lead more than 300 fur protesters in a miles-long march past the high-end fashion shops in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late October.

She ticked off some recent successes for the anti-fur movement, which staged 15 other similar protests throughout Japan in October.

Among them: Earlier this year, Tokyo Disneyland banned the sale of all fur goods, including bags and hats made with fox and rabbit fur; Japanese fashion giant Uniqlo and some other retailers began selling jackets and boots featuring “faux fur,” or fake fur; and more Japanese fashion magazines began touting fake fur, as well.

Protesters make their case

Beyond concern for the welfare of animals, Okada predicted that fur sales will decline even more as consumers become more environmentally conscious.

“In Japan, we import furs from America, Europe and China,” she said. “The problem is when they make the fur smoother they use chemicals, and that destroys the environment and the water quality and contaminates the soil of the land.”

Tomoaki Nakamura, the chairman of the Japan Fur Association, downplayed the moves by Japanese retailers. He said it required fur from 60 minks to produce one long coat and that some stores simply couldn’t afford them.

“They appeal to the customer by saying, ‘We don’t use fur,’ instead of saying, ‘We can’t,’ ” said Nakamura, who also sells fur coats from Washington state.

Thousands of shoppers who jammed into the streets of downtown Tokyo got a glimpse of the anti-fur protest, which included a man in a truck wearing a dog costume with bloody arms, holding up a sign that showed a caged animal.

Hideaki Nagai of Tokyo, one of the protest organizers, said the United States shouldn’t be sending fur to Japan and that he had no sympathy for those who’d lose their jobs if fur consumption declined.

“If the consumer gets to know how cruel the fur business is, then they just stop buying those items,” he said. “I think it’s necessary that when the demand is dropped, they disappear.”

Yukiko Inaida, who marched wearing bunny ears and purple hair, said she mostly objected to the treatment of the animals, complaining that they’re kept in small cages and that even dogs and cats are sometimes used for fur.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for the animals to sacrifice for our fashion,” said Inaida, 48, of Saitama Prefecture, who works at a cable-making company.

‘Critical’ market for Washington state

The dispute has ramifications on both sides of the Pacific.

After surpassing Europe, Asia now accounts for 35 percent of the fur industry’s business, with sales in Japan, China and Korea more than tripling in the past decade, according to a study commissioned by the International Fur Federation, a trade group based in the United Kingdom. It estimated the industry’s global trade value at $40 billion, providing more than 1 million jobs.

In the United States, the industry produced more than 3.5 million mink pelts last year, with Wisconsin ranked first, followed by Utah, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Washington state, the value of exported mink fur skins jumped nearly 21 percent last year over the previous year. It more than doubled from 2010 to 2013, going from $190 million to $382 million, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Mink fur ranked last year as the state’s 17th top export, but it’s just one of many products sent to Japan, the state’s third top foreign market, behind China and Canada.

Donald “Bud” Hover, the director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said Japan was the state’s No. 1 market for agriculture, importing $1.6 billion worth of products last year. Wheat ranked first, followed by frozen potatoes, hay, frozen seafood and processed vegetables. State officials are trying to sell more onions and wine in Tokyo, as well.

“The Japanese market is a critical one for us to maintain profitability in agriculture,” said Hover, who went on a trade mission to Japan last year. “The hay market, for me, is a particularly personal one because I’m a hay grower.”

Chris Voigt, the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, said that while Japan had been a difficult market for fresh potatoes, the state had made great strides in promoting its frozen potatoes there.

“You walk into a McDonald’s in Japan and it’s a 95 percent confidence factor that the french fries you’re eating were actually produced in Washington state,” he said.

‘We have sold too many furs’

George Brady, a fur trader and trapper who’s also the mayor of Pateros, Wash., said a good fur skin was worth from $80 to $120. He said that while prices had dropped in 2014, it was because of a surplus of fur, not a loss of interest in it. He maintained that most consumers ignore the anti-fur protesters these days.

“It doesn’t seem to be much of a force,” said Brady, vice president of the Washington State Trappers Association. “They still go out and protest and complain and stuff, but most of the younger people are a little more savvy, and if they want fur they tend to buy it.”

Brady said the anti-fur movement had become “a religion,” with many protesters believing it was wrong to use any animal products.

“I can’t argue that,” he said. “If you really feel that way, don’t use those products.”

Mizuno is eager for a public debate, saying it would be a mistake to ignore the protesters and allow their claims go unchallenged. He said using fur was consistent with Japanese values, noting that every June the Japan Fur Association sponsors a Shinto ceremony called “Service for Fur Animals” at Tokyo’s famous Sensoji Temple, pledging to not waste any fur and to take good care of their animals.

“In the Buddhism way, we are allowed to kill animals, but we are not allowed to waste them, so we have to use everything, not only meat but outside hairs and skins and everything,” Mizuno said. “And if we do it, we are allowed.”

Nakamura said fur sales in Japan might have peaked 35 years ago, when the country had a stronger economy and consumers could afford more luxury items.

He holds out little hope that Japan’s talks with the United States over whether to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation trade pact, would do much to improve business. While a top goal of the talks has been to get rid of tariffs, he said fur buyers could avoid a tariff of 20 percent on manufactured fur coats by simply importing the fur skins and finishing the products in Japan. Raw fur skins have no tariff at all, he said.

“At this moment, frankly speaking, it doesn’t affect us that much,” Nakamura said.

Mizuno sells all sorts of coats, made from the furs of fox, rabbit, weasel and even one made from cat fur he got from Korea. But he said business had been sluggish, and he fears that the Japanese market may be saturated after showing great success from 2000 to 2012.

“We have sold too many furs for 13 years,” he said. “Everything is still going cheaper, but materials are getting higher, so we don’t get a profit.”

This is the third in a weekly series examining the trade relationship between the U.S. and Japan. Next Monday: U.S. wine takes on Japanese sake.