Penguin Parade and Flying Seals: “The Cult of the Cute” in Japan’s Northernmost Zoo
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:50 PM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver)
This paper investigates the history of the Asahiyama Zoo in Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido island from the late twentieth century onwards. Founded in 1967, the Asahiyama Zoo was successful at the outset, but declined in the 1980s, as the public enthusiasm about its opening faded away. In the last two decades of the century, a number of Japan’s provincial zoos struggled with both public indifference and financial hardship. The Asahiyama Zoo was no exception, but in the late 1990s, this most “peripheral” zoo in Japan became one of the most popular in the country, entirely renewing its animal exhibits. Under the principle of kôdô tenji or “animal-in-action exhibits,” the renovated zoo showcased what was claimed to be animals’ natural behaviors. With new attractions such as “penguin parade,” the Asahiyama Zoo was acclaimed by the public media, and its instances were soon followed by other zoos in Japan. As a result, zoos’ presence in society became as highly visible as at the time of “panda boom” in 1972. It is often noted that the revival of Japanese zoos owes largely to the Asahiyama Zoo’s invention of “kôdô tenji.” Yet this account should not be taken at face value, because it understates the linkage between “kôdô tenji” and “behavioral enrichment.” This paper examines how the principle of “behavioral enrichment” was appropriated by the Asahiyama and other zoos in Japan, and how the notion of “kôdô tenji” was formulated and then promoted as an ideal model of animal exhibit. The analysis is set against the wider socio-economic contexts by addressing these particular topics: Japan’s struggle to recover from the cultural trauma of “the lost decade”; celebration of the Asahiyama Zoo’s success story by the public media; and the cult of the cute (“kawaii”) and the anthropomorphization of zoo animals in popular consumer culture.