MITO, IBARAKI PREF. – Cities in Japan, from Kansai to northern Tohoku, are vying to host at their zoos a giant panda to be loaned from China amid improving relations between the two nations.
A broad agreement for the panda lease was reached by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last October. It was the first visit by a sitting prime minister in nearly seven years, not including multilateral summits.
To China, the ever-popular pandas are a big part of its soft-power diplomacy. For Japanese cities and their zoos, hosting a panda would provide an image and economic boost, and attract adoring crowds.
The cities of Kobe and Sendai were considered strong contenders when the agreement was made. But two others cities — Akita and Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture — have since jumped into the fray.
“We decided to take up the challenge as we think that it could lead to revitalization of our prefecture’s northern region,” said Ibaraki Gov. Kazuhiko Oigawa in a June meeting on efforts to promote Hitachi’s panda-worthiness.
Ranked the least attractive prefecture in a national survey for six consecutive years, Ibaraki backed Hitachi when it announced in February that it was interested in having the panda at its Kamine Zoo.
The zoo is also keen to receive one of the animals.
“We have heard from children that they want to see a giant panda. We definitely want to realize their dream,” said Nobutaka Namae, the zoo’s director.
Similarly, Akita renewed its efforts this spring on behalf of its Omoriyama Zoo. Leaving no stones unturned, Mayor Motomu Hozumi sent letters to Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in an attempt to get a leg up.
“The location’s temperatures and other conditions are similar to giant pandas’ natural environment,” said Hozumi, homing in on an aspect of the pact between China and Japan that covers research into breeding of the animal.
The city says that the panda would help them bring in about ¥4.8 billion ($44.5 million) in the first year.
But how is the presence of new contenders affecting Sendai and Kobe?
Sendai, which hopes to welcome the panda as a symbol of recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, seems unperturbed, saying there is “no particular effect” and “we are simply continuing our previous efforts.”
In contrast, an official from Kobe, whose lease of its star panda Tan Tan ends in July 2020, is worried.
“The situation has become increasingly unclear. We don’t know the actual process to decide who will get the panda, so it is difficult to get feedback on how to successfully be attractive,” the official said.
Simply getting a panda does not benefit the cities if they do not have a strong economic strategy including on panda-related goods, said Akio Tanaka, president of Brand Research Institute Inc., which conducted the survey on the attractiveness of prefectures.
“Reliance on pandas merely means the public will visit the zoo and go home. It won’t necessarily improve the location’s appeal,” he cautioned.