Japan will ask China to provide new panda bears to Ueno Zoo during the summit between President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda next week in Tokyo, a Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday.
The request will be made to replace the Tokyo zoo’s superstar Ling Ling, a 22-year-old giant panda who died Wednesday morning.
Ling Ling was the last panda owned by Japan.
The pandas at Ueno Zoo have long symbolized the normalization of bilateral ties with China in 1972, when China provided a pair of the rare animals.
An agreement to supply new pandas could be one of the few bright points of the high-profile summit.
Despite the two leaders’ eagerness to convey that bilateral ties are improving, a spate of food-poisonings linked to dumplings from China and the communist country’s bloody crackdown on Tibet have damaged public sentiment toward Beijing recently.
The Tibet issue has drawn particularly heavy attention to human rights issues in China, forcing the Japanese government to smother the Olympic torch relay with heavy security during its run through Nagano last month.
Also, little headway has been made on thorny issues related to gas-field development in disputed economic zones in the East China Sea, despite repeated talks ahead of Hu’s visit from next Tuesday to May 10.
“If new pandas ever come (to Ueno), we will give them a big welcome,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference Wednesday.
For Beijing, pandas have been a powerful diplomatic tool in winning over public sympathy.
When China presented a pair of pandas to Ueno Zoo in 1972, a “panda boom” was sparked and greatly helped improve Japanese sentiment toward China.
Beijing recently offered to give pandas to Taiwan to win empathy toward the mainland, and whether to accept the offer became a hot political issue in Taiwan.
If new pandas do come to Tokyo, they won’t be cheap.
To rent a panda, China usually charges the recipient zoo an annual fee of around $1 million, according to Yoshiaki Sagawa, a public affairs official at Ueno Zoo.
And feeding a single panda costs about ¥10,000 a day, Sagawa said.