Tokyo's new panda cub to get time in the spotlight starting next month


The giant panda cub born in June at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo is scheduled to be shown to the public beginning next month, with throngs of visitors expected to line up for a glimpse of the critter.

The zoo is planning to put the female cub, named Xiang Xiang, on display starting Dec. 19 — a Tuesday — in hopes of avoiding a huge crowd around the panda enclosure that would be expected with a weekend kickoff.

Zoo director Yutaka Fukuda said the final decision on the display will be made following the cub’s six-month health checkups.

Xiang Xiang is in good health, becoming the first baby panda to survive this long at Ueno Zoo since You You, which was born there in 1988, officials said.

When You You was first displayed to the public on Christmas Eve in 1988, about six months after its birth, the zoo saw a surge in visitors, with around 12,000 people eager to get a glimpse of the male panda cub on that first day.

This figure continued to grow, reaching a single-day peak of about 70,000 a month later.

Xiang Xiang has drawn more attention than You You, with the zoo constantly releasing videos and photos showing the baby panda’s growth over the past five months, a trend largely due to the power of the internet.

Because such information was scarce in the late 1980s, “it’s hard to project how many will come to see (Xiang Xiang),” a zoo official said.

The country — and in particular Tokyo’s Taito Ward, where the zoo is located — celebrated the birth of the healthy female cub on June 12. Xiang Xiang arrived about five years after her mother, Shin Shin, lost another cub within days of its birth.

Nearby businesses hope the baby panda will draw tourists and stimulate the local economy.

Hayato Chiba, a senior official from an organization comprised of local shopping arcades, said the number of customers has already risen since Xiang Xiang’s birth and is likely to grow further when she is displayed.

“Everyone is waiting eagerly” for the day Xiang Xiang will be shown to the public, Chiba said.

The organization is preparing 5,000 panda-design key holders as a gift to shoppers. Some 3,000 similar items proved tremendously popular when they were distributed following the announcement of Xiang Xiang’s name in September. The panda cub’s name was selected out of more than 320,000 suggestions from the public.

Several local businesses have based their marketing plans around having pandas at the zoo for many years, after visitors to Ueno shopping areas saw a 15 percent drop in 2008 following the death of Ling Ling, the zoo’s only panda at the time, according to Masahiro Kayano, secretary-general of the Ueno Tourism Federation.

“Since then, we became united as a town to protect pandas,” Kayano said. “When Xiang Xiang is put on display, our town will become one with the zoo to welcome visitors.”

The tourism body is planning to create a map introducing shops selling panda goods and serving panda-themed food, while also looking to develop an app that lets users take commemorative pictures with Xiang Xiang.

The zoo has begun preparations for the cub’s display, with staff walking around the enclosure in a manner similar to visitors as part of a plan to familiarize Xiang Xiang with crowds.

Anticipating an increase in the number of children visiting, the zoo has also decided to close a smoking area near the panda cage to make the zoo entirely smoke-free.