Panda diplomacy: Tears of joy as China extends Xiang Xiang's stay in Japan

A handout photo. A panda cub named Xiang Xiang (L) and its mother panda Shin Shin are seen at Tokyo's Ueno Zoological Gardens in this handout photo taken and released by Tokyo Zoological Park Society on Sept 20, 2017 .
PHOTO: Tokyo Zoological Park Society via Reuters

Panda-lovers in Japan have reacted with joy to the news that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has reached an agreement with China for a panda cub to remain in Japan for five more months, while her parents will be staying for five more years.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said on Thursday (Dec 10) that Xiang Xiang – the female cub that was born at the city’s Ueno Zoological Gardens in June 2017 and has since become arguably the zoo’s top attraction – will be staying until May.

Under an agreement with Beijing, Xiang Xiang had been due to return to China in December and, it was hoped, would breed.

Tokyo has been lobbying hard to keep the young panda, but the decision for her to stay appears to be largely a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Tokyo officials told Kyodo News.

Xiang Xiang had been expected to fly to a specialist facility in Sichuan province, but flights between Tokyo and Sichuan in southwest China have been suspended due to the health crisis.

Beijing has also consented to her parents, father Ri Ri and mother Shin Shin, to stay in Japan beyond the expiry of their original loan agreement of February. It now appears that the pandas, which arrived in Japan in February 2011, will remain for a further five years beyond February.

An official of the zoo said it had not received official confirmation from the metropolitan government about the extension, but added that the information desk had already received “many, many phone calls” to inquire about the news.

Fumio Takenaka, a housewife from Yokohama, said her 7-year-old daughter Ayano was “so happy” to hear that the panda cub would stay for a few more months.

“We have been to the zoo lots of times and the pandas are by far her favourite animals,” she told the South China Morning Post .

“We were both sorry to hear that they had to go back to China – especially the cub, Xiang Xiang – but this means that we will be able to go back to see them a few more times now.”

Social media sites lit up at the news as well, with one message on Twitter reading, “This is very, very happy news! Pandas are the cutest animals.”

Another said, “I was in tears when I first heard that Xiang Xiang had to go back in December – but now I am in tears of joy! I can’t wait to see them all again.”

In another Twitter message, a poster suggested that “panda diplomacy” might serve to break down some of the differences that continue to plague the relationship between Tokyo and Beijing .

The zoo constructed a new enclosure for the pandas last year, with larger areas for visitors to observe them at play. Demand still far outstripped the space available, however, and a strict time allocation system was introduced to give as many visitors as possible a glimpse of the creatures.

There is a daily limit of 6,500 visitors for Xiang Xiang’s enclosure alone, with slots typically booked up weeks in advance.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.