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Explaining 'pandamonium' and its history at Ueno zoo

This Nov. 5, 1972 file photo shows an aerial view of the roughly 1-kilometer line on the first day of viewing for giant pandas Kangkang and Ranran in Ueno taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter. (Mainichi)

A panda cub was recently born at Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo for the first time in five years, creating a panda boom. But why are Japanese people so fascinated by pandas -- and why particularly on the ones kept in Ueno?

When I heard that the birth of the panda cub was causing such a commotion in Ueno, I remembered the book "Kakumei to Panda" (Revolution and Pandas), by 30-year-old Zhang Yusi. Hailing from Nanjing, China, Zhang earned her master's degree from the University of Tokyo, and currently oversees a streaming internet program at TV Asahi. "Revolution and Pandas" explores how the Japanese project their stereotypes about China; the subject of her master's thesis.

"In 1960s Japan, China was seen as a 'country of revolution,'" Zhang explained during an interview near the entrance to Ueno Zoological Gardens on June 23. "But in the 1970s, it became the 'country of pandas.' The turning point was the Asama-Sanso hostage incident led by the Japanese United Red Army in February 1972. When the scene of U.S. President Richard Nixon visiting Chairman Mao Zedong was broadcast on television, the members of the United Red Army who saw it remember their shock. Their dream of a revolution had been shattered."

Before the Nixon shock had time to wear off, the Cabinet of Kakuei Tanaka took power in July 1972. A few months later, the then-prime minister was off to Beijing to realize the historic Joint Communique of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People's Republic of China to normalize bilateral diplomatic relations. What did the Chinese government send to Japan as a symbol of friendship and goodwill? Two giant pandas named Kangkang and Ranran.

The fever on the first day of their exhibition at Ueno zoo was carried on the front page of the morning edition of the Mainichi Shimbun on Nov. 6, 1972, with the headline "I want to see the pandas! A 1-kilometer line in Ueno." In the middle of the page was an aerial photo of the line that seemingly stretched forever. While the viewing time for the pandas was limited to only one minute per guest, hopeful visitors continued to wait patiently in line for two to three hours in silence.

Zhang Yusi stands in front of a banner hung on the Ueno Marui department store celebrating the birth of a panda cub in Ueno, on June 23, 2017. (Mainichi)

"When I was researching documents relating to pandas, that aerial photo was what surprised me the most," said Zhang. "When I came to Japan in 2009, there were a lot of hostile feelings toward China. I started learning Japanese when I was in junior high school, but I didn't grow to like Japan in the beginning. Although that is also related to Nanjing's complicated history with Japan. But the more I researched, the more surprised I was that a time period when Japan-China relations were so warm existed.

"Japanese probably saw harmony between nature and prosperity in China's pandas. The Japanese economy was at its peak, and the country had embraced American consumerism, but Japan was also plagued by pollution. I think Japanese saw in Ueno an ideal world, a utopia -- while business prospered, wild animals like the pandas also lounged around in their bamboo forest," Zhang explained.

But in the 45 years since the Joint Communique, Japan's image of China has changed. China is now seen as a threat or new money. "It's a shame," reflected Zhang. "Revolution and pandas are also stereotypes, but as someone working in the Japanese media, I'm also contributing to such stereotypes."

There was a period of time when the media widely covered the "binge shopping" of Chinese tourists in Japan. As a young Chinese television director, Zhang had experienced the coverage first-hand. "I got frustrated at least once every two days," she remembered. "When covering binge shopping, it was like commenting how much Chinese people loved Japanese products had to be included as a set." Zhang said she felt as though Japan needed to reassure itself that it was the envy of other countries. While binge shopping has fallen out of the public eye, she said there will always be some other negative stereotype to fill the void.

It was then that I thought to ask Zhang if she even liked pandas.

"I do," she answered. "But pandas are unlike other animals. China also sent pandas to its allies such as the Soviet Union and North Korea, and when Nixon visited China, a panda was also promised, and it created a kind of panda diplomacy.

"The political power of pandas many have faded, but this time, both Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made official comments about the birth of this cub. There are no other animals like pandas, and while cubs may be born in other places, like in Wakayama, this birth has become such big news precisely because it happened at Ueno zoo in Tokyo, which is the center of politics and media," Zhang continued. "Because it also happens to be the 45th anniversary of the joint communique, I get the feeling the pandas' political side is showing itself once again." (By Takuma Suzuki, Tokyo Evening Edition Department)

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