Japan’s oldest female koala died on 27 June, aged 21 – or over 100 in human terms.
Named Yoshi when she was born at Tokyo’s Tama Zoological Park, she was moved to Awaji Island in Hyogo prefecture at the age of 5, and spent the rest of her life at Awaji Farm Park England Hill. She had been showing signs of ageing for the past decade, and stopped eating a few days before her death.
Koalas normally live for fourteen or fifteen years at most, but Yoshi came from a long-lived line. When her father died in 2005 he was 22, the oldest koala then on record in Japan. Her brother Ramu, the current record holder at 22 years 2 months, is at Nagoya’s Higashiyama Zoo.
Koalas were all the rage in Japan in the mid-1980s, part of a postwar trend to symbolise peace, understanding and friendship through animals. In 1949 the Prime Minister of India sent an elephant to the Ueno Children’s Zoo, saying “I hope that when the children of India and the children of Japan will grow up, they will serve not only their great countries, but also the cause of peace and cooperation all over Asia and the world. So you must look upon this elephant, Indira by name, as a messenger of affection and goodwill from the children of India.” To give the gift a personal touch, he named the elephant after his daughter.
Elephants were at the heart of one of the many lesser tragedies of the war, when zoo animals were killed in extremely cruel circumstances on orders from the Governor of Tokyo. In 1970 Yukio Tsuchiya and Motoichiro Takebe told the story of Ueno Zoo’s elephants in their book Kawaiso no Zo, and the wartime slaughter inspired Yasuo Maeda’s 1982 anime Zoo Without An Elephant. Animals were killed at Ueno Zoo for food; others died because of shortages of food and heating. Two of Ueno’s hippos, killed a few months before war ended, are commemorated in Yutaka Ozawa’s 1989 anime Goodbye Little Hippo. The contemporary records of these sad events, with current and later media reactions, are summed up and interpreted in an article by Dr. Frederick S. Litten, published in Japan Focus.
By 1945, only two elephants remained in Japan, at Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya. Special ‘elephant trains’ brought around 30,000 children from all over the country to see them in 1949, inspiring a book by Takashi Koide which in turn inspired Mei Kato’s 1992 anime The Elephant Train Arrived. Ueno Zoo started a zoo boom across Japan by taking its animals on tour in 1950. Interest in the world outside Japan was growing, and children and adults alike welcomed the chance to see these exotic yet loveable foreigners.
The 1970s were panda time – China’s gift of two pandas, Kan Kan and Ran Ran, to Ueno Zoo in 1972 marked the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The most famous animated outcome of the passion for pandas was Panda Kopanda, Hayao Miyazaki’s first animated screenplay, directed by Isao Takahata in 1972 and currently available on DVD as Panda! Go Panda! A sequel followed a year later and pandas remained a popular cultural icon in Japan. As late as 2004, Shuichi Oshida merged them with giant robots for a computer study project that became Mamoru Kanbe’s series Panda-Z The Robonimation.
The Anime Encyclopedia records the shift in cuddly-bear focus caused by the gift of six koalas from Australia in 1984; koalas were the new media darlings. Mysterious Koala Blinky aka The Noozles was a hit for NTV in 1984, and TV Tokyo leapt on the bandwagon with Adventures of the Little Koala the same year. Koalas achieved the same cult status as pandas before them, and that status has lingering echoes, with koala sightings still occurring in strange byways such as Minoru Kawasaki’s absurdist horror tale Executive Koala (2005.)
Yoshi was part of that trend. Born in a country far removed from her ancestral home, the offspring of trafficked immigrants, with no say in the circumstances of her life, she became a cultural icon and ambassador for international harmony. In many ways she’s an appropriate symbol for the upheavals of the twentieth century and the hopes of the twenty-first.