1949 in Japan was a difficult time. World War II had seen to the attack of over 67 of its cities by the United States’ aerial bomb raids. Besides Hiroshima and Nagasaki, others like Toyama and Hitachi were also almost completely destroyed.
The after effects of the war had brought extreme poverty and a loss of economic direction to the country. Inflation had triggered the yen to drop to a fraction of its pre-war value, and reconstruction of the state was in full swing under US-led Allied occupation.
Young’uns On A Mission
One of the many tragedies of the war had occurred at Japan’s Ueno Zoo. Opened in 1882, Ueno was Japan’s oldest zoo – and much loved. In 1943, zookeepers were ordered to kill all “wild and dangerous” animals fearing their escape from the zoo during bomb raids by the Allied Forces.
This was possibly because of an incident in 1936, when a black leopard from Siam caused panic after escaping for 13 hours. The leopard was later found in a manhole on the zoo premises, but had flagged up a real cause for concern.
The fear of wild animals escaping wasn’t confined to Japan. Zoos in Germany and London also ordered the killing of many of their resident animals during the war.
Requests by the staff at the Ueno Zoo to relocate animals to safer environs were rejected. After the killings, the zoo held a memorial service for the animals in 1943, while two of their largest residents — the zoo’s elephants — were still being starved to death.
This saddened the children of Japan, many of whom took it upon themselves to change the situation after the war. In 1949, over 800 children wrote letters to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, requesting his help on their mission to bring an elephant back to Ueno.
With A Little Help From Nehru
Nehru was known for his love for children, and his enthusiasm to spread the values of freedom and knowledge to create better citizens for the world. On reading the letters, a surprised and amused Nehru was inspired to facilitate this massive present.
After considerable scouting around he found a 15-year-old elephant, later christened Indira after his daughter. Indira then began her long journey to the Tokyo zoo, in one of the first instances of ‘animal diplomacy’ between India and Japan.
In a letter that accompanied his present, Nehru declared that Indira was a gift to all Japanese children, from the children of India. He added that there was a lot that the children of Japan could learn from the elephant as a species. “It is wise, patient, strong yet gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities.”
The arrival of Indira was met with pomp and excitement. The zoo was filled to capacity, with over 10,000 people hoping to catch a glimpse of the majestic pachyderm. The scene is captured poignantly in the Japanese anime movie Zō no inai dōbutsuen (Zoo Without Elephants). In fact, the killing of elephants during the war and the arrival of new ones have been chronicled in short stories, children’s books, and movies in Japan over the years.
Happy to report Nehru’s gift sent a message of hope, peace, and reassurance to the children and citizens of Japan. Indira led a happy life at Ueno Zoo and finally passed away in 1983, at the ripe old age of 49.
The zoo is now home to animals like sea otters, king penguins, and another two elephants presented by India. The legacy of wisdom, patience, and gentle strength now lives on in Ueno thanks to Nehru’s generous gift.