50 years of affection for Ueno pandas

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Twin pandas, Xiao Xiao, top, and Lei Lei, are seen at Ueno Zoo in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 4.

Friday marked 50 years since giant pandas first came to Japan from China. Fifteen pandas have been raised at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo’s Taito Ward since then, including twin cubs — male Xiao Xiao and female Lei Lei born in June last year.

Those who have been closely watching their growth for half a century say they hope pandas will continue to be a symbol of Ueno.

On Oct. 28, 1972, Kang Kang and Lan Lan were welcomed to Japan, delivered as a gift from China to commemorate the normalization of the two countries’ diplomatic relations. A five-meter-high “panda balloon,” made using a balloon of a polar bear with its ears painted black, was set up in Ueno Park. “People in Ueno must have been frantic at the time because no one had seen real pandas,” recalled Masahiro Kayano, 62, a jewelry shop owner and vice president of the Ueno-Nakadori shopping street promotion association near the zoo.

Courtesy of Ueno Tourism Federation
A picture shows a “panda balloon” set up at Ueno Park 50 years ago.

When Kang Kang and Lan Lan were put on display, Kayano joined the crowds waiting in line to see them. Kayano said he was able to see them only for a few seconds as he was jostled by the crowds of people, but immediately was captivated by the fluffy, adorable animals.

The number of visitors to the zoo, usually between 3 million to 4 million annually, exceeded 7 million in fiscal 1973. The local shopping district which used to be filled with mostly local residents was suddenly packed with tourists and visitors, and many stylish coffee shops and restaurants opened. When a new panda arrived or a cub was born in Japan, related merchandise flew off the shelves.

After Ling Ling died in April 2008 following unsuccessful breeding efforts, leaving the zoo without a panda, the number of visitors to the zoo quickly dwindled. Some children are said to have cried when they found there were no pandas only after they arrived.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masahiro Kayano

Then Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara was not interested in accepting another panda from China, saying, “It doesn’t matter if they are here or not.” Alarmed that the town of Ueno would deteriorate if no measures were taken, Kayano and others asked the metropolitan government to resume panda breeding efforts with drawings and yosegaki written messages by about 2,000 children they collected by visiting local elementary schools and kindergartens.

Courtesy of Shoko Komiyama
Shoko Komiyama holds young Ri Ri in her arms in Sichuan, China, in 2006.

Thanks to such efforts, Ri Ri and Shin Shin came to the zoo in February 2011, which then resulted in the start of another panda boom. “Ueno has developed along with pandas. I hope pandas will continue to help vitalize the town,” Kayano said.

Shoko Komiyama, a 67-year-old homemaker in Kofu, has been a panda fan since Kang Kang and Lan Lan came to Japan.

With her children nearing adulthood, Komiyama joined the Panda Protection Institute of Japan, a private organization dedicated to panda conservation, in 2005. Under a program to financially support each panda being raised at a conservation and research institute in China, Komiyama visited the facility in 2006 and selected Ri Ri as a recipient panda.

“His black and white pattern was beautiful, and his quiet character was also attractive,” Komiyama recalled. She said she became restless when she heard Ri Ri was coming to Ueno, and began frequenting the zoo from Kofu after the panda’s arrival.

Ri Ri became the father of Xiang Xiang in 2017. His partner, Shin Shin, also gave birth to the twins in 2021.

Komiyama now sees Ri Ri as having played critical role in the development of the panda family at the zoo.

“If the panda family grows further, the whole of Japan will be happier,” she said.