Where the “Wild” Things Are

Cue dramatic music: I stayed up until 2AM last night writing this post, but when I published it, all of it was lost. So I spent another hour this morning re-writing this post. But miraculously the post last night randomly appeared! Which is great but I definitely wrote like 200 words less in my re-written post, but also sad because I was so stressed and have yet to do the reading for today.

Today, we went to the zoo! But not just any zoo–it was Ueno Zoo, the first modern zoo in Japan. I’m going to be honest and say that I’m not a fan of zoos. I went to a couple zoos 子供の時, including the relatively famous San Diego Zoo, and I think I enjoyed them at the time. But now I would much rather go to an art museum than see animals forced out of their habitat just for humans to look at them. However, we went for the purpose of intellectualizing a zoo visit, so this was a good experience!

Zoos bring animals and humans together to emphasize that they are separate. This was one of the first points in the reading that we had to prepare for today (Introduction, Ch. 1, and Ch. 6 of Nature of the Beasts by some dude named Miller). When walking to the zoo, it was clear that we were going somewhere meant to be an escape or “oasis” from the city. Tall buildings were replaced with leafy trees and instead of power-walking on narrow streets we strolled through spacious walkways. It was beautiful but so purposefully constructed to be so. In front of the zoo entrance was a poster campaigning for panda conservation. I don’t want to quote the sign wrong, but it was translated to basically say that the public should help achieve the “panda’s dream.” EW. That is a pretty problematic statement. It seems like it is a way to justify and feel good about human intervention, like “oh what we’re doing is what pandas actually want.” We have no way of knowing what they want. Part of me is conflicted because now there is no way pandas could survive the way they did before humans started intervening. Pandas have very little success in reproducing, especially in captivity, so it is very likely that they would become extinct without human help. Do humans have a responsibility to save pandas? Ahhh. I’m not sure. Through poaching and habitat destruction, we were/are the main threat to panda populations. But there are countless other species that have become/are becoming extinct because of humans and we haven’t put in the same effort to save them. Miller proposed that this is because pandas remind of us of human babies, so we have this parental drive to think they’re cute and want to take care of them. There was this quote in the reading: “[pandas] seemed to be designed… to play on human psychology.” EW AGAIN. I know he isn’t using definitive language, but this implies that pandas exist solely for human enjoyment. I do not agree with rationalizing our fascination with animals by saying their purpose in life is to please humans.

Anyway, upon entering the zoo, without hesitation, we immediately went to see the panda exhibit. I guess I’m a hypocrite because I was a bit excited to see a panda. But I will say that I was underwhelmed and could have done without seeing the panda (or any of the animals, really) that was on display. The panda just sat there, stuffing its face with bamboo, as workers tried to make us leave in order to keep the line moving. I’m not sure if I find the panda cute, but I do find panda merchandise cute! This is similar to what happened in the early 1980s to the early 2000s, when there was a panda boom, which the author describes as “when the pandas’ media value outstripped their worth as physical animals.” Our visit brought up discussion on copyrighting animal drawings, which involves anthropomorphizing it in some way (giving it a name, drawing blushing squares on its cheeks, etc).

Pandas weren’t the only animals we saw. Some of the animals I remember included a sad-looking gibbon, a Selinger-seranded elephant, some rascal Japanese monkeys, a hungry tiger, two roasting polar bears, and a few cramped candors. I was the most irked from the polar bear exhibit. In it, there were two polar bears in the open-air lying in the shade, surrounded by rocks shaped and painted to look like ice. I dunno what’s worse: taking the polar bears out of their natural habitat and putting them on a bunch of hot rocks for display, or putting the polar bears in that situation and trying to mimic their natural habitat when it is clearly not. We also saw the Japanese serow, a goat-antelope mammal that is endemic (unique to certain habitat, found no where else in the world) to Japan. In our discussion about the use of animals as diplomatic symbols, we learned that this animal was what Japan gave to China in exchange for pandas in the 1970s. The serow is not the cutest animal, but its name does lend itself for great puns.

Another aspect of the zoo that I found interesting was the use of the playground in multiple exhibits. I am not sure what purpose this served. The playground was a bit different from a public playground, as the color palette was different shades of brown and the materials used were wood and rope. This was obviously meant to make it look more “wild.” Perhaps the playground was meant to entertain the animals or to make kids (the dominant demographic in the zoo) have more interest and relate to the animals. Either way, this does not fit with the zoo’s goal of trying to separate humans from animals.

Once again, I was glad to go to the museum with a professor and my classmates. We went to the Tokyo National Museum with Selinger 先生! Not only did we look at some amazing artifacts and primary sources, but we also got the insightful expert commentary on their historical and cultural contexts. What was interesting to me was the obvious display of wealth and lack of accessibility for the viewer. What I mean by accessibility is that visitors were positioned as passive observers. The explanations were fairly light, especially in English (meaning that the audience is more for the Japanese), so it would be hard to understand what exactly you’re looking at unless you know the cultural and historical context. This was in contrast to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which displayed the “ordinary” and was made to be interactive for visitors.

P.S. I finally finished editing my Daigo Fukuryu Maru post, so if you have time (it’s a long one), please read it 🙂

Author: Karen Chan '18

Hello! I just completed my junior year at Bowdoin College as a chemistry major and recently-declared Japanese Language minor. I am from Honolulu, HI so Japanese culture has always been part of my life, but this trip is the opportunity to go beyond my classroom language experience and Japanese-food-eating experience. My interest in this project stems from my science background and my hope to eventually be a pharmacist in a hospital setting. I plan to focus on public awareness of "environmentally-caused" diseases, like Kawasaki Disease.