Golden ages’ glitter may be gone

by Mark Brazil

The first exhibit of foreign animals in Japan seems to have been of Asian elephants imported from Vietnam in 1725 by Gen. Yoshimune Tokugawa. Originally a pair, the cow died soon after its arrival in Nagasaki, but the bull survived the overland journey to Hamagoten in Edo (now Tokyo), where it was sometimes shown to the public.

Visits by a Japanese delegation to the International Exposition of 1868 held in Paris and to the one held in Vienna in 1873 (where the delegations saw the attractions of natural history museums and botanical gardens) stimulated the desire for a similar and permanent exhibition at home. As a result, Japan’s first “zoo” (actually more of a botanical garden complete with menagerie) came into being on March 20, 1882, when the new National Museum with an attached zoo (which became Ueno Zoological Gardens) opened. This was to remain the country’s only 19th-century zoo.

That zoo’s popularity led to further openings of major zoos, in cities such as Kyoto (1909), Osaka (1915) and Nagoya (1937). By the time the Japanese Association of Zoological Gardens and Aquariums (JAZGA) was founded in 1940, there were already 15 zoos and aquariums in Japan. After this initial golden period, however, war intervened and some zoos were forced to close and many animals were destroyed.

The first 20 years after the war was a second golden age of zoos, with 23 new ones opening from 1949 to 1955, and 25 more from 1956 to 1965. The pace then slowed, but as of 1998, JAZGA had 96 members.

Zoo attendance in Japan, apart from the inevitable dramatic drop during wartime, rose steadily from the 1880s to the 1980s, peaking at more than 7 million annual visits. Since the late 1980s, however, figures have fallen back to the levels of the 1950s, with about 3.5 million visits per year.

Could Japanese zoos now be becoming an endangered species themselves?