Saturday, January 9, 2010: 9:40 AM
Columbia 2 (Marriott)
Ôdachi Shigeo,’s Governor General and future Home Minister, faced a difficult situation in the summer of 1943. Having just returned from his post as Imperial Mayor of Occupied Singapore (Shônan), where he watched the empire expand and then begin to contract with terrifying speed, Ôdachi knew that the Japanese empire was on the verge of collapse. The mass death and hardships of the frontlines would soon come to Tokyo, but the capital’s newspapers were still filled with stories of Japanese triumph and conquest. As the official charged with preparing Tokyo's women and children for an Allied invasion, Ôdachi needed to mobilize a populace numb from years of propaganda and exhausted by more than a decade of war. His answer to this question was one of the most surreal and best remembered events of World War Two in Japan: the mass mediated sacrifice of Tokyo's famous zoo elephants.
In September 1943 nearly all of the Imperial Zoo’s charismatic megafauna—the big cats, bears and elephants usually associated with a trip to the zoo—were put to death. The slaughter was choreographed to shock depleted Tokyoites into a higher level of compliance, suppress dissent, and instill a heightened sense of emergency through a conscious rupture of everyday conventions. Ôdachi’s use of the zoo animals—totems of empire—to address the taboo subject of defeat marked a sea change in wartime public culture. Henceforth, women and children, not just soldiers, would be called upon to sacrifice their lives for emperor and nation. In the postwar years, this horrible episode was repackaged for a new audience. The story of Tokyo’s Poor Elephants (Kawaisô na zô) became a pacifist parable, selling more copies than any other children’s book in the country.