In Tokyo, the public debut of a baby giant panda has hearts aflutter. The pandas are a boon to Japan's tourism industry, with one major economic journal estimating the impact of the baby panda at as much as 243 million U.S. dollars. But the soft power to promote international relations may be even greater.
Baby panda "Xiang Xiang" launched into her public debut this week to widespread delight in Japan.
The six-month-old panda cub has hearts soaring, and as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike saying, Xiang Xiang is helping to focus attention on the plight of the world's 1,800 remaining giant pandas in the wild.
"Xiang Xiang's growth will be a good opportunity to increase awareness toward the zoo's efforts in protecting wildlife," the governor told a crowd of dignitaries and journalists attending a special advance viewing of the giant panda cub.
The Ueno Zoo (officially titled the Ueno Zoological Gardens) pays over 900,000 U.S. dollars per year to China for the long-term loan of Xiang Xiang's panda parents, Shin Shin (mother) and Ri Ri (father). These funds are then directed toward the preservation of the estimated 1,800 remaining giant pandas living in the wild.
On Monday (December 18), along with VIPs, lucky local school children got a first peek at the still-pink-in-color baby Xiang Xiang; and on Tuesday, 1,400 competitive lottery winners were also able to get a look at long last.
Ueno Tourism Federation leader Tadao Futatsugi stated succinctly, "People in Ueno are really very happy. We are in a 'Xiang Xiang boom'."
Throughout the world, "panda diplomacy" seems to be working. Xiang Xiang's "cousin" Yuan Meng, the first giant panda born in France, recently met France's first lady Brigitte Macron for a well publicized international photo opportunity.
With more than a quarter of a million people applying for the chance to see Xiang Xiang in her debut month, she's having quite an impact on visitors, fans nationwide, and local businesses.
The Ueno District surrounding the zoo is awash in "panda fever," and it shows no signs of subsiding. Tasty treats and banners proclaiming the season of the panda are everywhere. It's "pandamonics" in action.
At Masuya Bag & Luggage Store in Ueno's bustling Ameyoko shopping district, salesman Mitsuo Sekine described Xiang Xiang's effect on business: "Many tourists come to our shop to buy suitcases and other bags. They add these panda goods for gifts or for their souvenirs. Our sales have been going up."
One enthusiastic Ameyoko cake and candy sales barker, wearing a panda hat, also credited Xiang Xiang with increasing local business activity: "So much bad news comes recently. This happy news makes our sales go up."
How long can the Xiang Xiang boom continue? Tokyo photographer Mance Thompson was optimistic: "I think it will continue because, even when pandas become toddlers, they're still kind of clumsy and they're really interesting, so I think people will continue to come and see it."