From Sea to Shining… Glass

Slowly working on catching up on my blogs posts… I apologize.

We just spent some time at Tokyo Sea Life Park this morning and afternoon! Again, it is not my preferred activity to look at animals in captivity, but this was not a passive experience so I enjoyed it. In the evening, we went to where Selinger 先生’s longtime friend, Emi-san, lives.

It turns out that marine life, much like the human residents of Tokyo, don’t get much living space. I was so surprised to see how small the tanks were. It wasn’t like the building itself was small though, so I’m not sure why they allotted the space they did. But I guess it’s a give-and-take because they have to display different habitats (so separate tanks), and each tank needs “breathing room” from a design perspective (can’t overwhelm the visitor too much I suppose). Meeting Tada 先生 was the highlight of today’s visit. Immediately after meeting him, he gave us all (including the senseis!) sketch books and pencils and took us to the Bluefin Tuna exhibit. His only instructions were to pay attention to the details and draw what we saw. I did not get to finish my drawing (probably for the better since it was a terrible sketch…), but it was fun! It was such a great exercise because you really appreciate and notice the fish more. We were also taken to a non-public area (I love it when we are allowed to enter restricted places) to see the top of the tuna tank. This was so we could see counter-shading in action, or how the coloring of the fish is such that it camouflages when viewed from above or below (like penguins). Afterward, to the surprise of everyone including myself, we got to touch a dead tuna! The educational context made this experience different from the the tuna I’ve touched previously (like from sushi). The cold fish died from colliding with the thick (20 cm, which is nearly 8 inches!) glass of its tank. Ever since, it has been frozen and thawed at least ten times for the purpose of having groups like us touch it.

Tada先生 was incredibly honest and sincere with us. He told us that about 30 fish die a year (which includes 25% of Bluefin Tuna). He also admitted that tanks are not very successful at recreating the appropriate ecosystems the fish need. For example, the tuna tank is about three times smaller than it should be. This was also the first time a tuna tank was made, and they thought a donut shape would be best since the fish swim in circles. However, they found out that only juveniles like to swim in circles but older tuna like to swim in straight lines. To accommodate for this, they added a wall in the middle of the tank so that some of the fish can swim in curved lines and others can swim in straight lines. In his presentation, there was also a portion about people boycotting against the zoo and the aquarium (the picture that accompanied was of people holding a sign for PetaAsiaPacific). I mentioned before that many fish die each year, which means the aquarium replaces the fish by catching more. Not too long ago, a bunch of protestors stood in front of the tank to protest against catching more tuna. What was really interesting is that Tada 先生worked at Ueno Zoo before working at the aquarium. If I remember correctly, he became an aquarist so he could focus on educating the public, which is more achievable at an aquarium than a zoo. I really appreciated how honest he was, especially coming from our experience yesterday (lots of dodging of questions and no acknowledgement of any conflict from that group of people). He talked about his struggle with the ethics of capturing animals and then keeping them in captivity. He said he justifies it by emphasizing education. While I understand this, I have a hard time thinking that this is still okay. Is education enough to say it is morally okay? It reminds me of when I took biology and we dissected around ten different animals (from sharks to frogs). There was one animal, the starfish, that my lab instructor said we might not be able to dissect because of a disease. We ended up getting them and dissecting them… I wish we had not dissected them though. Honestly, I never thought I learned more from dissecting these animals than by learning it from a book. I see the value in dissecting these animals if you’re an aspiring vet or biologist but not for someone who does not plan on studying physical bodies. I’m not saying that aquariums and zoos should not exist, but I am also not saying they are perfect.

Something cool: Later we learned that the architect of the aquarium designed the space for adults (lots of 90˚ angles and used colors like black and grey), but it turns out that most of the visitors are kids. This isn’t to say kids aren’t welcome at the aquarium; in fact, there are many displays that have varying information at different eye levels. This provokes conversation between generations, which is awesome! We were also given booklets that had an entire spread dedicated to all the programs for each age group. Lots of educational opportunities for people! He did say that it’s difficult to get high schoolers and college students involved—like Bowdoin, this place knows that the way to get us to go somewhere is by providing free food! (If they learn about a particular sea animal, they actually get to eat it haha.)

How does this compare to Ueno Zoo? Well, unfortunately, we did not get a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo, so it’s a bit hard to compare. But based on the exhibits themselves, each animal was separate from the other in a taxonomic-style of categorization. At the aquarium, the separation was based on habitat type, and it was more common that multiple species lived in one tank. For example, the tuna tank contained sardines and was supposed to mimic the deep open ocean. There was also a “coral reef of Hawaii tank” containing like ten or so species of tropical fish (haha of course I would remember this one). Sorry, I realize this is a superficial comparison, but I don’t think I can compare target audiences because I am biased by Tada 先生 (I want to say that the zoo is more recreational and the aquarium is more educational but I don’t really know what programming the zoo has to offer… perhaps I can say that though because there was more writing in the text displays at the aquarium than at the zoo?).

カラオケ is hard when you have to quickly read Japanese. However, it was fun and a much-needed break to do something light-hearted with the group. Selinger先生 and Emi-san got really into it, which was awesome! I also got to wear a yukata for the first time! The fabric was so beautiful oh my goodness (apparently the pattern I had was made through tie-dying). Luckily, we got help with putting it on, as there was no way I could tie a bow that nice. For dinner, we ate a Japanese vegetarian meal prepared by Emi-san. I wish we got to see pictures of younger Selinger 先生! Oh well. Regardless, it was great to experience a Japanese home and home-cooked meal. I’m curious as to why the toilet is separate from where you wash your hands and shower/bathe. That’s how it is in our AirBnB, too, and I don’t really see the purpose? And why does the toilet run water (like a mini-sink with no soap) above it?

Tokyo Sea Life Park and Emi-san

Yesterday was a wonderful day. We started in Tokyo Sea Life Park (the surrounding park was very aesthetic, photos at the end). Then, we ventured through the aquariums, encountering VERY adorable penguin plushed animals. In the afternoon, we met Oda sensei, who immersed us in a wonderful learning experience about tuna and the aquarium’s educational efforts. We started by drawing the bluefin tunas through direct observations and catching a glimpse of the “Employee Only” mechanical rooms. Lastly, we got to touch a frozen tuna for educational purposes. Then, we continued into an engaging conversation/Q&A about marine biology conservation and education efforts.

I am not the fan of neither aquariums nor zoos, but if I had met such an inspiring educator such as Oda-san and experienced his directly involved approach, I may have headed toward a different research direction in life. All I felt from aquariums (even more so than zoos) were the unethical confinement of sea creatures for recreational purposes. While the majority of the families yesterday still went for recreational purposes, I really appreciate the efforts done by the aquarium towards outreach (especially the free part). Compared to aquariums in Houston, where $$$ is the main goal and it is impossible to schedule an educational event without an organized school field trip), I have grown to see such institutions as just another money-making agency that exploits the livelihood of sea creatures (and a white tiger) for the amusement of humanity. I do think there still exists ethical problems with containing living organisms (since we would never do that to another human, hopefully). But, knowing that one can really learn and grow to appreciate life through close contact is settling. The best part was how enthusiastic the staff were. I am glad to see that despite language barriers, the mutual feelings of “interest” and “excitement” transfer and can be enjoyed by both.

At night, we went to Emi-san’s house and had the best time karaoke-ing, trying on yukatas, and eating homemade vegetarian food. Finally the “cultural immersion” aspect as marketed by most study abroad programs. I am extremely glad to be in the suburbia where “average” people live, not just those represented in popular forms of media. It felt like home, as in Hangzhou, with the high rise and the community. Emi-san was such a wonderful host, offering us food and taking us places. I will definitely be improving my Japanese to be able to communicate with my host family this fall.

Education in Ambient Lighting, ne?

Today we visited the aquarium.

I honestly think it was a more educational experience (species wise) than the zoo. We did a quick aquarium round with our very own guides, Julian and Michael first, but then we really got to meet an expert: Mr. Ota. The first order of business was to go to the Tuna exhibit and draw “in great detail.” I really enjoyed this exercise, because it was hands-on and engaging. Even though I thought I did my best at capturing the tuna’s detail–I inevitably missed some of the key aspects for the tuna’s survival. The most surprising thing for me was the size and smoothness of the fish. We all know that fish have scales and would maybe feel tough to the touch. But, the Tuna’s scales are so small that it feels smooth which is great because it allows for faster swimming speed (essential for this “voyager of the sea”). YES, WE TOUCHED A TUNA FISH! (well it was dead—it had been dead for three years! Rather than eating it, the tuna’s body has been continuously used for educating groups like us).

Mr. Ota really went over the other features that make the aquarium an educational place. Certain informational blurbs are posted at different eye-levels to catch the attention of both children and adults. They also have sets of programs for student of all ages (they are arranged in a way that would interest students according to their age)-however he has noticed that high school and college students are the least frequent visitors. The aquarium has thought of ways to capture their attention, which of course is coffee and food!

It really seems that Tokyo Sea Life Park is trying its best to capture the attention of the Tokyoites. Through these programs as well as summer events.

Like zoos, aquariums have come a long way in trying to replicate habitats, however, they haven’t truly reached perfection. Mr. Ota attempted to answer the question of the ethics of animal captivity…Although sometimes he feels the habitats are not appropriate or too small (this aspect causes him grief), he feels that education is worth it, because education can rally up the cause for conservation of animals and the environment.

Blue Fin Tuna Sketch

I also want to thank Emi-San (Selinger Sensei’s life friend) for inviting us to her house for dinner. The food was delicious and the karaoke was extremely fullfilling. Thank you for preparing a night of yukata and fun for us!


6/6 Tokyo Sea Life Park and Home Visit

I have not been to zoos or aquariums for over ten years, and like zoos, I always thought them as places imprisoning animals to suit purposes of human, whether financial or political. However, our visit to Tokyo Sea Life Park convinced my of another purpose of aquariums—education.

Although both institutions have the primary purpose of exhibiting animals to the public, the spacing is incredibly different between them. While the zoo is all open space, the aquarium is dimly lit and designed for a more immersive experience. At Ueno Zoo, most visitors are families, and there were activities suited for kids, like collecting stamps for animals; whereas the average age of visitors at Tokyo Sea Life Park was much bigger, with the majority being 10-30.

Although I am not sure how to make of these observations and differences on the age groups, I was inspired and moved by Tada-San’s presentation on aquarium education programs and response to Julian’s questions. Tada-San opened the presentation with a tuna lecture, telling us to first observe and sketch tuna and then showing us to above the tuna tank to see them from above, and finally letting us touch a real tuna. This tuna education is highly interactive, and far from my exception, was not just suited for children. Part of the education program for high schoolers, the tuna section is a great introduction to get students’ attention and interest and show them the amazing biological mechanism behind each body part. It was very lucky for us to have Tada-San, who is an energetic and honest gentleman passionate about delivering aquarium education and sharing his experience. According to him, the aquarium has been trying hard to bring high school and college students to the aquarium, and thus created various programs for different groups. Looking through the brochure, it was evident that the courses were thoughtfully planned and all of them had an introduction related to Japanese cuisine.

Although the aquarium still faces ethical issues as confining animals, my concern on this level was relieved by Tada-San’s passion and dedication, as he mentioned he had been working at aquariums for over 20 years trying to show people the educational purpose of aquariums.

After Tokyo Sea Life Park, we went to visit Prof. Selinger’s friend, Emi-San’s house. Thanks to her generosity and kindness, we had the opportunity to try on Yukata, a lighter and more casual version of kimono. The visit to her house was a great cultural immersion experience, and we got to practice the manners we learned about visiting a Japanese home. We also got to see the small buddhist and shinto shrines at Emi-San’s home, and how shinto and buddhism were immersed in Japanese daily life. Although exhausted, it was an amazing day—we pretty much passed out in the bed right after going back home.

“This is the dawning of the age of aquariums”

Oh man. Where do I even begin. There’s so much I want to say about today. Put simply, it was absolutely incredible. Even the title of this post I had a lot of trouble deciding. I ended up settling on this modified lyric from “Age of Aquarius” by 5th Dimension. If you haven’t guessed already, we visited an aquarium, Tokyo Sea Life Park. And as I think you’ll see in this post, I think now more than ever, amidst an ever-changing world filled with climate change, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss, it’s imperative that we inspire care for animal life and conservation in people. And that’s where aquariums come in.

I guess maybe the best place to start is a little context. Last night, I read several chapters (15-18, 23) from A Fascination for Fish by David C. Powell. Powell is an aquarium design consultant and has worked with numerous aquariums around the world, notably Monterrey Bay Aquarium. The chapters I read dealt with the inception of Monterrey Bay Aquarium: from designing exhibits to collecting animals to aquarists at work. Chapter 23, the last chapter, served as a reflection on Powell’s experiences with aquariums and his thoughts on aquariums and their purpose. I’ll get to that in a little bit. I mentioned this to Selinger-sensei on the way to Tokyo Sea Life Park, but I thought it was a very publicly-accessible reading, in contrast to “Ciliated Sense,” which I discussed in a previous post. To be honest, it made me seriously consider the possibility of becoming an aquarist. One thing that really struck me about this reading was Powell’s description of aquarists. It’s not just about “feeding the fish”; yes, that’s involved and knowing the specialized feeding needs (something I can kind of relate to being a vegetarian in Japan) of different species is incredibly important. It goes beyond that to having a fascination with the animals you’re working with and being able to “read” them; that is, being able to tell just by looking what a particular animal needs.


We began with a walk-through of Tokyo Sea Life Park, perhaps on the surface no different than the other tourists and local aquarium-goers. I’m going to be completely honest here: I was worried my peers and friends wouldn’t get all that much out of just walking through the aquarium. I love learning about animals, especially marine organisms, so visiting zoos and aquariums for me is more than just marveling at the animals. But, based on everyone’s reactions to the Ueno Zoo the other day (notably, after the panda exhibit), I was worried everyone wouldn’t be too interested. Maybe it was just being outside in the sun.

I was absolutely wrong. Something about the aquarium captured the interest of everyone, and I found myself explaining what marine biology of the animals I knew alongside Michael (we spent a solid 5, 10 minutes in front of the hammerhead exhibit, the very first one of the aquarium). I don’t know if I really expressed this to anyone during the day, or if I’ll even be able to capture the feeling in words here, but I was just so relieved and thrilled that everyone was taking so much interest. Last night, I was talking with Aridome-sensei about how much time I thought we’d need in the aquarium (at the time, I didn’t know how big or small it was; turns out it’s about the size of Maritime Aquarium). I realized during lunch that we probably could’ve spent more time at the aquarium, frankly. Oh well, all the more excuse to come back, right?


The highlight of the trip for me, though, was our meeting with Tada-sensei, head curator at Tokyo Sea Life Park. I’d corresponded (through Aridome-sensei; 多い質問をほんやくしてくださってありがとうございました!) with Tada-sensei prior over email, so he’d be able to prepare himself with the questions I’d sent him beforehand. But first, he gave us an educational program on bluefin tuna (クロマグロ; kuro maguro) that the aquarium designed for elementary and middle schoolers. He surprised us all by handing us sketchbooks and pencils and taking us to the tuna exhibit. He wanted us to get a feel for the observation and attention to detail needed in his line of work and in biology in general. He gave us 5 minutes to sketch tuna as they swam by, and then talked to us about many of the adaptive features of tuna. He even took us behind the scenes, above the tuna exhibit, to show us firsthand how countershading works (basically, many marine species are dark colored on their dorsally and light-colored ventrally. When seen from above, tuna are hard to see because they blend in with the dark, deep water. When seen from below, their light coloration lets them blend in with the sunlight streaming down). I was actually able to pick up on a lot of what he was saying in Japanese, through a combination of language and my own knowledge of marine biology, so it was really cool to be able to help with translating those elements! Finally, he took us back to the presentation room and brought out a dead, frozen tuna for us to explore by touch.

Following that, Tada-sensei began to answer the 9 questions I had posed to him via email as well as other questions we thought of on the spot. I’ll probably include those in a separate post, for sake of flow and length here, but a lot of what he talked about echoed ideas I had read about in Powell’s A Fascination for Fish. It was fascinating to see and hear parallels between Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Tokyo Sea Life Park. Selinger-sensei later told me that Tada-sensei thought I had raised really important questions and that some in particular (especially my question on the ethical capture and keeping of animals in captivity) were incredibly difficult to answer. Selinger-sensei assured him that these questions weren’t meant to be severe or critical in nature, but rather since I, myself, am considering aquariums as a potential career path, these are the very questions I am asking myself. And, she told me, Tada-sensei said that he could really pick up on my enthusiasm and fascination (incidentally, he’d extended the original hour and a half meeting to two hours).

What struck me most, though, about Tada-sensei’s talk was how honest, sincere, comprehensive, informative, and engaging it was. In particular, I was moved by Tada-sensei’s own emotional investment in his work, that he thinks education and inspiring awe and conservation (echoed also by Powell in chapter 23) is by far the most important of the aquarium’s goals. I recall a particularly relevant, though long, passage (though, there’s many and it’s hard to pick) from A Fascination for Fish that I think is at the core of aquariums and their mission:

We may have only one chance to turn a visitor’s head toward conservation and conscience and away from complacency–a chance that is offered through our exhibits. For an exhibit and a visitor to make a connection, those of us designing displays and defining messages must be cautious.

Do we assume the visitor knows nothing and it’s our obligation to explain as much as we can? At one time, I would have answered yes to that question. My original goal was to bring as much factual understanding as possible to the visitor, to describe every detail of a creature’s existence, from feeding to spawning to its relationship with the other creatures in its environment. And I expected the visitor to absorb all this eagerly.

Now I see things quite differently. I’ve come to realize that perhaps our true goal in the aquarium world is to inspire awe, to create a sense of wonder and appreciation that will grow into caring. Communicating facts is all well and good, but without a sense of caring we have accomplished little.

David C. Powell, A Fascination for Fish

Put simply, these ideas resonated strongly with me.

And, Tada-sensei was extremely honest in admitting that Tokyo Sea Life Park’s exhibits aren’t enough, he thinks, for its inhabitants, especially size-wise. Still, I thought the exhibits quite well replicated the natural environments they were portraying, even if they were small and cramped as Tada-sensei thought. Tada-sensei also apparently has been to Monterrey Bay Aquarium and thinks it’s the best in the world and uses that as something of a role model or exemplar. Talking with Tada-sensei I think solidified the sense I had gotten from reading A Fascination for Fish; that is, I think becoming an aquarist is something I really want to pursue. But, I think something else that resonated with me about reading about Powell’s experience with Monterrey Bay Aquarium, visiting Tokyo Sea Life Park, and talking with Tada-sensei is that there’s still so much to learn about this marine and aquarium world. And I want to leave you with a passage from Powell’s last chapter that I think was really inspirational for me and hopefully for you, the reader, and for anyone reading A Fascination for Fish interested in marine biology and aquariums:

When meeting young, eager marine biologists, I do my best to steer them in a direction that will give them as much satisfaction as I’ve had in my work. When they ask what they can do to get started, I pass along commonsense tips: Get an education. Learn to dive, so you can experience the underwater world firsthand. Volunteer if you can. Keep learning, diving, and working with the animals you love.

David C. Powell, A Fascination for Fish

So, will I become an aquarist in the future? Perhaps. I’m excited to intern at Maritime Aquarium this summer (an Education internship; Animal Husbandry was rather popular and full) and experience this aquarium world on the other side firsthand. I plan to follow Powell’s advice and see where it takes me. So, stay tuna’d.