Much-loved giant panda forced to leave Tokyo zoo where it was born as China recalls debt

Xiang Xiang, a beloved giant panda born in a Tokyo zoo in 2017, bid farewell to Japan and was sent to China on Tuesday.

China had loaned Xiang Xiang’s parents – Ri Ri and Shin Shin – to Japan as a part of its panda diplomacy.

Sunday was Xiang Xiang’s last day with the public. At least 2600 fans of the giant panda bid farewell to the idol of Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. The zoological park had organised a lottery for the admirers of Xiang Xiang since the demand to see the animal was so high.

Local reports said the fans of the giant panda were teary-eyed to see it for one last time and many held up their cameras to capture Xiang Xiang’s image on their phones.

China sends giant pandas to several counties as a goodwill gesture – often labelled panda diplomacy – but it maintains its ownership over the animals and any of their offspring.

Xiang Xiang was originally supposed to be returned to China in December 2020 but it was delayed due to the pandemic. Reports suggest that she is being sent back to China for breeding purposes.

Reuters reported that Tokyo Ueno Zoo’s first naturally-conceived panda Xiang Xiang was also the first born there for years. Another baby panda died shortly after birth in 2012.

Xiang Xiang’s parents are still at the zoo, as are her younger twin siblings.

Among the hundreds of teary-eyed fans of the giant panda on Sunday, was Keiko Nakamura, a 59-year-old homemaker from the city of Okayama, who has been staying in Tokyo since November to see the panda and made sure to visit almost every day before the lottery system came in. She told Japan Times: “I don’t know if I can live without Xiang Xiang.”

Kodai Yasuda, 38, came from Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture with his baby, who he had dressed in a panda outfit.

“I’m glad we could see her on the last day and, while it is sad, I’d love it if she can become a mom over in China.”

Some 60,000 people applied for 2,600 spots to see her on Sunday, it was reported.

“Xiang Xiang is not only cute but charming and funny,” a visitor named Yukie told Reuters.

“She’s so attractive that if you see her once, you want to see her more. I don’t think there is any panda like her in the universe.”

The visitors were given only a few minutes to quietly say goodbye to Xiang Xiang.

On Tuesday, a crowd gathered at Tokyo’’s Narita Airport to take photos, wave and shout as the plane carrying Xiang Xiang took off.

“I wish Japanese-born pandas could stay in Japan,” Takamichi Masui, an auto parts maker who travelled from Mie, in central Japan, told the Associated Press. “So many people who came today and fans are sad to see her go. When I saw [Xiang Xiang], I got teary. I wish Xiang Xiang could stay, though I understand it’s difficult.”