Andrew Upton ’12 was awarded Honorable Mention in the Environmental Report Category of MontPhoto 2020 for his photo, “The Beggars,” depicting captive Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinereus) in an otter café in Tokyo. MontPhoto, an international contest begun in 1997 and based in Lloret de Mar, Spain, rewards excellence in nature photography by amateurs and professionals worldwide.
After graduating with degrees in Asian Studies and History, Upton moved to Tokyo to pursue language training and worked for the Japan Academy Prize winning animation studio MAPPA. He began sketching and photographing nature while in Tokyo, as part of his long-held interest in visual storytelling and natural history. Upton’s inquiry into wildlife conservation began when he encountered the exotic animal trade in Japan’s pet stores and animal cafés. Located at the epicenter of the now global culture of kawaii (cuteness), these businesses and their customers often ignore, obfuscate or justify the illegal and unethical nature of animal trafficking that support the industry to satiate demands for kawaii.
Aonyx cinereus are the smallest of the 13 otter species and are native to South and Southeast Asia. The species is IUCN Red Listed as Vulnerable and on CITES Appendix I that bans international trade of listed species/genus. Upton’s investigation found that some otter cafés in Tokyo keep as many as 18 individuals in cramped cages, with limited access to fresh water in which to swim, or proper nutrition.
“As highly social animals, this prolonged caging, as well as the removal of “cute” juveniles from family groups, has serious impacts on the otters’ psychological state. Most of the café customers remain willfully ignorant of these abusive conditions and the illegal trade that they fuel,” Upton says.
By providing viewers with an unvarnished look into the world of Japan’s wildly popular otter cafes, Upton says that he presents a counter narrative to that of the “cute domesticable otter” that pervades the internet.
Upton’s overarching mission in his photojournalism is to provide non-human animals with a platform to tell the story of their predicaments as they fight to survive the Anthropocene. He is currently collaborating with his former advisor, Associate Professor and Chair of Asian Studies Lisa Yoshikawa, on a project on endangered species in Japan’s outlying islands. He now works for an animation studio in Los Angeles, Calif.
Upton’s work with Asian small-clawed otters can be seen here: