When Cuddly Pandas Were the Real Diplomats

When Cuddly Pandas Were the Real Diplomats

By Amanda Weiss


Because for a brief moment in time, China and Japan got along.

By Amanda Weiss

As crowds gathered on Nov. 4, 1972, to catch a glimpse of two adorably rare creatures making their debut at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, an orangutan named Miyo unfurled a welcome banner. A curtain was then pulled aside to reveal two anxious giant pandas — Kang Kang and Lan Lan — and Japan fell head over heels in love, both with the bears and what they represented: Sino-Japanese friendship.

Such a positive reception to China’s cultural diplomacy seems unimaginable today, as the two nations have suffered a 30-year decline in warm, fuzzy feelings: Just 14.8 percent of Japanese citizens reported that they felt close to China in 2016, compared with a whopping 78.6 percent in 1980. The reason for the earlier burst of goodwill harks back to 1972, when China and Japan thawed their cold war chill by normalizing relations — a deal Beijing sweetened with a gift of two giant pandas.

That’s it! A panda pattern! That’s it! A panda brand … Oo! This is Japanda!

Hisashi Inoue, playwright

The arrival of the bamboo-eating bears sparked a Japanese craze called “the Panda Boom.” In his book The Nature of the Beasts, Harvard professor Ian Miller reports that Kang Kang and Lan Lan inspired unprecedented media attention. “Panda kisha” (panda journalists) reported on the event, people camped outside the zoo’s new “Pandamon” (Panda Gate) and a reported 10 billion yen in panda merchandise was sold within three months of the fuzzy diplomats’ arrival. Zoo visitors waited in line for hours for a mere glimpse of the bears, who inspired playwright Hisashi Inoue to write, “That’s it! A panda pattern! That’s it! A panda brand … Oo! This is Japanda!”

There were lots of oohs and aahs, but the Panda Boom was not all fur and games. Miller says the pandas suffered in captivity: Zookeepers failed to prepare the correct kind of bamboo, and spectators used bullhorns to encourage the pandas to keep moving. The chaotic environment took its toll: A strained Lan Lan fainted just three days into the exhibition, with Japanese newspapers reporting her collapse with headlines such as “Panda Down!”

Reflecting on the political meaning of “panda diplomacy,” Miller suggests that the bears signified it was “OK to be interested in China again.” Shigeto Sonoda, professor of sociology and Asian studies at the University of Tokyo, adds that the pandas were perfect diplomats because they didn’t speak, “unlike politicians, who frequently make a slip of the tongue.”

But there were limits to panda power, says Yusi Zhang, author of Revolution and Pandas. Although Zhang agrees the pandas were used to great effect by Beijing, she argues that the panda obsession “was a dream that the Japanese saw inside themselves.” She sees the boom as more reflective of local interest in pandas as icons of peace, nature and “kawaii,” or cutesy consumer culture. 

Panda positivity, Sonoda notes, couldn’t overcome a lack of contact between the populations of China and Japan, whose citizens still weren’t allowed to travel between the countries. And indeed the goodwill generated by the black-and-white furballs quickly crumbled. By the late 1980s, when conflicts over political differences, economic exchanges and even wartime remembrances led to increasing disillusionment, the honeymoon was over for Sino-Japanese relations.

For a long time, though, visiting the pandas was a way of expressing goodwill toward China, says Timothy Tsu, professor of Japanese studies at Kwansei Gakuin University. Zhang similarly notes how the pandas had undeniable symbolic meaning for older generations in Japan, who continue to remember the bears fondly.

Kang Kang and Lan Lan passed away just a few years after they arrived in Japan. But they were there long enough to serve as innocuous cultural ambassadors who enabled the people of China and Japan to look at one another, if only for a short time, in friendship.