More fun than a tube of monkeys

Recently, performing primates have made a big comeback in Japanese show business, thanks mainly to the Nikko Saru Gundan (Nikko Monkey Army), and the human/monkey comedy team Taro-Jiro. Both acts are the latest additions to the traditional Japanese performance art known as saru-tsukai, which almost died out in the latter part of the 20th century.

Saru-tsukai normally uses Japanese macaques, but Momo-chan, a trained performing chimpanzee, is also A superstar. Momo-chan, who hails from Nasu, in Tochigi Prefecture (where the Nikko Saru Gundan also lives), seems to have it better than her toiling macaque cousins. She is allowed to walk about freely without a leash.

This week, on the animal variety show “Dobutsu Kiso Tengai (Surprising Animals)” on TBS, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m., Momo will introduce her “apprentice,” a younger chimp named Botan, in a series of “experiments” that will attempt to show the veteran can teach something to the rookie; and vice versa.

In a food test, Momo will be given a rice cracker and Botan will watch her eat it. By doing so, Botan understands that rice crackers are edible. However, in a related test, Botan will be given a sweet that Momo is known to dislike. Botan eats it while Momo watches. Will Momo suddenly develop a liking for the sweet?

Earlier the same day, on the nature special “Kyoi no Africa Ruijinen Kiko (Marvelous African Primates Journey)” on Fuji, Feb. 23, at 4:05 p.m., animal behaviorist Genichi Itani travels to the Republic of Congo to conduct research at a preserve for a close relative of the chimpanzee called the bonobo.

Bonobo are, in fact, considered the apes that are closest physiologically to humans. Many ape species share nearly 99 percent of their DNA information with humans, but the exceptionally tame and intelligent bonobo share a fraction more than others. Itani is trying to develop a theory of where the human race is headed, in terms of evolution, by studying where we came from. In Kinshasa there is a preserve that houses about 20 bonobo, which have been made homeless by poaching and the recent civil war, which caused the local zoo to shut down.

In addition, a camera crew will visit Itani’s own chimpanzee research center in Okayama Prefecture. The special will also air some extremely rare footage of wild chimpanzees that live on the savanna in Tanzania.

One of the most famous chimps in Japan is Ai, who has learned an impressive number of hand gestures at a Kyoto University animal research facility in Inuyama, Gifu prefecture. In 2000, Ai gave birth to a daughter. The new addition, which was named Ayumu, will turn 3 in April, which is roughly equivalent to 5 in human years. That means Ayumu is ready for kindergarten.

On this week’s “NHK Special” (NHK-G, Mar. 1, 9 p.m.), Ayumu will demonstrate what she’s learned for the cameras. Having spent almost all of her waking hours with her mother, Ayumu has picked up some of her hand gestures, and after only nine months was able to solve simple problems on a specially outfitted computer.

About a year ago, Ayumu began spending a lot of time with other chimps her age, and she devised a method for extracting honey with a tube completely on her own. Neither her mother nor the other chimps used such a method. She also seems to be coming up with her own games. The researchers are trying to figure out why Ayumu’s ability to learn is so much faster than that of her mother or her peers.

Speaking of chimps, “Michael Jackson, Behind the Mask” will air Feb. 24 at 9 p.m. on Nihon TV’s “Super TV.” The two-hour documentary includes lots of interviews with the King of Pop as well as footage filmed over the last eight months. It mostly goes over things that already have been covered heavily by the rest of the media. Still, it’s bound to be scarier than the Grammys, which will be handed out earlier in the day.