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Thailand's beloved elephants continue to be bridge of friendship with Japan

Thai Ambassador to Japan Singtong Lapisatepun poses for a photo before an illustration of "Hanako," an elephant gifted to Japan from Thailand after World War II, at the Royal Thai Embassy in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Nov. 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Motomi Kusakabe)

TOKYO -- Have you ever heard the story of the elephant that was starved to death at Tokyo's Ueno zoo during World War II and the animal named after her? The elephants were gifts to Japan from Thailand. In Thailand, many souvenirs are adorned with designs of these animals, which are treasured among the people, and have served to bridge the two countries. The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with Thai Ambassador to Japan Singtong Lapisatepun and delved into the story of Thailand's elephants that continued to be delivered to Japan after the war.

    A white elephant figurine made of traditional "Benjarong" Thai porcelain is seen at the Royal Thai Embassy in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Nov. 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Motomi Kusakabe)

    The elephant that perished, named Hanako, arrived in Japan from Thailand and was kept at Ueno zoo during World War II. She was among the creatures that were starved to death over concerns that large animals could escape the zoo during air raids and pose a danger to humans.

    In 1949, after the war, a new elephant was sent to Ueno Zoological Gardens by a Thai businessman who dedicated his funds to comfort the hearts of children in Japan. She was named Hanako after the wartime elephant and moved to Tokyo Metropolitan Inokashira Park Zoo in the Tokyo suburban city of Musashino in 1954. In May 2016, this second Hanako passed away at age 69 at Inokashira Park Zoo.

    Elephants have played a valuable role in deepening diplomatic ties between Thailand and Japan. In 2002, when Singtong served as a counsellor at the Thai Embassy in Japan, the male elephant Artid (a Thai word meaning "sun") and female elephant Authi (meaning "sunrise") were gifted to Ueno zoo by Thailand to celebrate the previous year's birth of Princess Aiko, the daughter of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. The elephant pair was also a token of appreciation for Japanese nongovernmental organizations' afforestation efforts in Thailand. The pair's names were inspired by Japan's national flag.

    A flag with a white elephant, which is distributed to Thai ambassadors appointed overseas, is seen at the Royal Thai Embassy in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Nov. 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Motomi Kusakabe)

    In October 2020, a baby was born between the two, and it was the first time that elephants were bred at Ueno zoo since it was opened in 1882. The calf was named "Arun," the Thai word for "dawn," or "daybreak," following a public vote between three ideas proposed by the embassy.

    In late October this year, Singtong went to see Arun ahead of his first birthday. Singtong said, "He was a rascal and running around full of spirit. Authi has an extremely strong maternal instinct, and Arun is growing up soundly."

    The elephants of Thailand are classified as Asian elephants, and have a smaller body and ears compared to African elephants. As the historical rulers of Ayutthaya (1351-1767) and other Thai kingdoms set out for battles while mounted on elephants, the animals were known as "protectors" of the country that carried kings on their backs during combat. White elephants in particular are considered sacred and incarnations of Buddha, and have been regarded as a symbol of kingship. It was believed that the greater the number of white elephants discovered during an era, the mightier the king's power. For example, King Maha Chakkraphat (reigned from 1548 to 1569), the 15th ruler of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, owned seven white elephants and earned the nickname "white elephant king." In present-day Thailand, if an elephant of this rare group is discovered, the king is notified immediately.

    The Asian elephant Arun of Ueno Zoological Gardens is seen in Tokyo's Taito Ward in this Oct. 27, 2021 in this image provided by the Royal Thai Embassy.

    An awarded order of Thailand and pin badges handed out to Thai athletes at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games also feature white elephants. The animal is also depicted on flags given to Thai ambassadors appointed overseas.

    Elephants have long been a close presence for the Thai public as well. Since the old days, people have ridden elephants deep into forests to carry out wood needed for their lives. Ambassador Singtong smiled and said, "Elephants are smart and have a kind personality. For the people of Thailand, they are like family members who you interact with in your daily life."

    Thailand has currently stopped sending elephants to foreign countries from the perspective of animal protection. However, Singtong said, "Arun, who is of the next generation, has joined the elephants of Japan. I'd like the Japanese people to continue showing them love as a symbol of Japan and Thailand's friendship."

    (Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Foreign News Department)

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