SENDAI – “Have the pandas gone back to China already?” a young schoolgirl asked last spring at Yagiyama Zoological Park in tsunami-hit Sendai.
Zookeeper Toshikazu Abe was at a loss for words.
Indeed, Japanese and Chinese leaders had agreed in December 2011 for China to lease two giant pandas to the zoo and the architectural design for the pandas’ new home had been decided. Yet the pandas have yet to arrive.
Negotiations with the Chinese side have stalled as Tokyo and Beijing continue to bicker over the sovereignty of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands.
Prospects for realizing bringing the pandas to the zoo are still nowhere in sight.
“It has been widely reported in the media that the pandas will be coming to Sendai,” the 57-year-old Abe said. “She must have thought the pandas had come and then already returned (to China).”
Back in September 2011, six months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Miyagi and other prefectures in the Tohoku region, Sendai Mayor Emiko Okuyama asked China to lease giant pandas for display at the city-run zoo to cheer up children in the Miyagi prefectural capital. It was also hoped that hosting the animals would embody reconstruction of the Tohoku region.
In response, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed willingness to lease the pandas when he and former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda met in Beijing in December of that year.
The initial challenge faced by the Sendai Municipal Government was the astronomical costs related to leasing the pandas from China, which is said to amount to hundreds of millions of yen a year, including the lease payment and other maintenance expenses.
It was resolved when a charity established by talent agency Johnny & Associates Inc. to support the disaster-hit region’s reconstruction extended a helping hand, promising in June 2012 to shoulder the expenses estimated for the initial five-year period as well as construction costs for the panda house, among others.
In retrospect, “I was surprised to see how everything was going so extremely smoothly,” said a municipal government official involved in the process.
But the plan was upset when the Japanese government purchased three of the five main islands in the Senkakus, which Beijing calls Diaoyu, from a private Japanese citizen in September 2012. As anti-Japanese protests in China increased, negotiations for the lease of the pandas became deadlocked and the Chinese side no longer responded to approaches from Sendai.
Planning for the panda house’s design has been completed but there is no knowing when construction can begin. Shunichi Sato, representative director of Johnny & Associates’ Marching J charity, said, “Under the current circumstances where prospects for realizing the lease are still far from certain, it will be difficult to start the construction.”
The Sendai Municipal Government had earmarked about ¥18.7 million in its budget for the fiscal year ending in March for the project. But with little progress in the negotiations, no budget will be set aside for the purpose in the fiscal year beginning in April, a senior city official said.
However, it does not mean the city has given up on the project altogether, Sendai officials said. The reason is that if it ever succeeds in getting the pandas, the animals will no doubt attract many visitors and help generate a positive economic effect.
Take for example what happened in the port city of Kobe.
In 2000, China leased a pair of giant pandas to the city-run Kobe Oji Zoo at the request of the local government in the hope of aiding the area’s reconstruction following the 1995 earthquake that devastated the city.
According to the zoo, it has seen a 20-30 percent increase in the average number of visitors since the arrival of the pandas.
In Sendai, municipal government officials are still holding out hope.
“We’re not going to give up on the plan. Because perhaps someday it will materialize,” a senior official in the city office said.