Wednesday 13 December 2017

Loved but Lonely Elephants: Animal Welfare in Japan

In a previous post, I introduced Kichijoji, consistently voted the place most people want to live (sunde-mitai machi =住んでみたい街)in Tokyo. One of the biggest draws is the beautiful Inokashira Park with its boating lake (pictured), dog-friendly restaurants, and beautiful foliage. It is also only a short walk to the famous Ghibli Musueum (advance bookings only!). Inside the park is the popular Inokashira Park Zoo (shizen bunka-en = 自然文化園) which houses mainly smaller animals like monkeys, raccoons, squirrels, birds, and even freshwater fish. Until recently though the star attraction was Hanako, an Asiatic elephant, who was the first elephant (=象) to come to Japan after WWII. Hanako arrived at Ueno Zoo in 1949 as a gift from Thailand and moved to Inokashira in 1954. 

Hanako died in May 2016 aged 69, the oldest elephant in Japan. In May 2017, a statue was unveiled in front of Kichijoji Station, the cost of which was covered entirely by donations, including from Thailand. Japanese discussions surrounding Hanako focus on how much she was "loved" (hitobito ni ai saremashita =人々に愛されました). However, non-Japanese have taken a rather different view, focusing on the conditions of her captivity and her mental state. In fact, in 2015, an English-language blog about Hanako written by a Canadian resident describing the bare concrete enclosure and lack of companionship triggered an Internet petition that collected almost half-a-million signatures urging that she be moved to a sanctuary in Thailand. This discrepancy between Japanese and non-Japanese discourses on Hanako highlights how under-developed the concept of animal welfare or animal rights is in Japan. For example, the closest thing to the RSPCA in Japan is the JSPCA which is translated as Dōbutsu Aigo Kyōkai (動物愛護協会) again containing the kanji for love (愛) coupled with that for protect (護) which together mean protection or "tender care." National Geographic  and other English sites have noted that elephants continue to live in isolation at more than a dozen zoos in Japan but this is something that receives almost zero attention in the Japanese media.

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As a footnote, it is interesting to note that Hanako was named after a famous elephant of the same name who had to be put down during WWII food shortages. The only elephants to survive the war were located in Nagoya and after the war a special train known as the "elephant train" (zō ressha =象列車) was set up to take children from all over Japan to visit the elephants to lift up their spirits (the children's not the elephants'!). This was turned into a book (pictured), which has become a children's classic, and even a song and today is a popular play at kindergartens and elementary schools which use the story as a way to teach children about the war and emphasise the importance of peace.