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Fascination for pandas cultivates cultural bonds

By JIANG XUEQING in Tokyo | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-06 07:12

Takahiro Takauji poses for a photo with giant panda Xiang Xiang in Ya'an, Sichuan province, in November. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Editor's note: China Daily presents the series Friends Afar to tell the stories of people-to-people exchanges between China and other countries. Through the vivid narration of the people in the stories, readers can get a better understanding of a country that is boosting openness.

For almost 13 years now, Takahiro Takauji, 45, has made Tokyo's Ueno Zoo his daily destination, rain or shine, capturing the giant pandas through his lens.

Recalling his initial encounter with the pandas, he said: "Once I took a walk to Ueno Zoo, and at that time, the father Ri Ri and mother Shin Shin of giant panda Xiang Xiang were there. They were so cute, so similar to humans."

Having been captivated by them, Takauji made daily visits to the zoo to photograph these endearing giants, and posted their photos on his blog.

Initially, Takauji thought of doing this for a month. However, he has continued to pursue his passion till today.

In 2012, Ri Ri and Shin Shin had a baby, but it died in less than a week.

"I hoped to see their offspring again. With this hope, I persisted until 2017, when their daughter Xiang Xiang was born," Takauji said.

Xiang Xiang's arrival sparked a surge in panda enthusiasts at the zoo, while Takauji's blog saw a rise in the number of users.

Takauji is a web designer by profession. To balance his profession and passion — photographing Xiang Xiang — he goes to the zoo early in the morning, and even works while waiting in line.

He created a blog called "Mainichi Panda", at a time when not many people were sharing images of pandas online.

"I find joy in spreading these images," he said. "Some people living in Okinawa or Hokkaido can also see these photos. I want to share these adorable animals I see through my lens with more people."

Many readers leave comments on his blog, expressing their love for pandas. Some express gratitude to China for lending them to Japan. Such appreciation is a great encouragement for Takauji.

As of March 5, the number of new users on Mainichi Panda totaled 1,174,405, with page views soaring to more than 20 million. The monthly views reached nearly 500,000.

Since 2011, he has been visiting the Ueno Zoo almost every day, interrupted only by two significant events. The first was his daughter's birth, and subsequent breaks were because of the pandemic.

Takauji's blog became so popular that many publishing companies approached him to discuss publication of photo albums featuring giant pandas.

In 2013, Asukashinsha Publishing released two volumes of photos featuring Ri Ri and Shin Shin. Later, Tokyo-based Heibonsha came up with a similar album.

About 10 volumes of photo albums featuring Xiang Xiang have been published. The reception was positive, prompting a continuous stream of publications, including reprints as well as new releases.

On Feb 21 last year, Xiang Xiang returned to China, and has since resided at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base in Ya'an, Sichuan province.

As Xiang Xiang departed, it received a tearful farewell from fans at the airport.

In November, Takauji visited Sichuan along with a tour group for a "reunion" with Xiang Xiang.

"When I arrived there, not only were the surroundings exceptionally good, but also the people taking care of Xiang Xiang were exceptionally kind," he said. "I felt the happiness of Xiang Xiang and felt relieved."

Besides the reunion, Takauji tried the classic Sichuan dish, Mapo tofu; watched face-changing, a highlight of Sichuan Opera; and exchanged views with local Xiang Xiang fans on its life in both China and Japan.

Enhancing exchanges

From March 9 to 14, Takauji visited China again, this time with a group of Japanese college students.

"In Japan, the information that students can obtain about China is limited," he said. "Some things can only be felt when you are there, and some information can only be obtained when you are there. I hope the two countries enhance people-to-people exchanges."

Many Japanese people have started to learn about China and the Chinese language because of their love for giant pandas. Takauji said he believes using animal images to develop people's interest has a significant effect on improving Sino-Japanese relations.

"Historically, China has been Japan's teacher, and there are many things we can learn from China. Friendly relations between the two countries are necessary," he said.

"Everyone should deepen their understanding of each other through exchanges, especially through symbols like giant pandas. When people see pandas, they all smile. I believe pandas will be a good opportunity to promote friendship between Japan and China."

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