I find zoos largely depressing, but I seem to be in the minority. A 2009 study demonstrated that zoo visitors in Japan, after peering at animals for the day, reported significantly lower blood pressure and reduced stress. There’s something soothing about interacting with our brothers and sisters from the Animal Kingdom, even in a highly-regulated environment. And when those creatures are abused in any serious way, we tend to freak out. “It’s the ultimate massacre of the innocents,” according to Ackerman, who wrote a book on the bombing of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. “The animals are silent victims, supposedly beyond our ideas of good and evil.”
This empathetic impulse helps explain why two major magazines were simultaneously drawn to the story of the 2011 Zanesville “zoo” escape, the dramatic account of a troubled Ohio man who released several dozen exotic animals on his 73-acre ranch before committing suicide and the law enforcement agents who were forced to hunt down those stray beasts before they ventured off the property. Similarly, our deep connection with vulnerable zoo animals informed the writing of Yukio Tsuchiya, who penned one of the most famous children’s stories in the history of Japanese literature, “The Pitiful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War.”
Most kids in the Land of the Rising Sun have read Tsuchiya’s short picture book; since its initial release in 1951, the tale has been printed 163 different times and translated into English and French. For the last 44 years, on August 15, the critic and journalist Chieko Akiyama has even recited the story on the radio to commemorate solemnly Japan’s exit from World War II. It’s basically a national text, though not for the delicate of heart.
The story is told from the perspective of a zookeeper at the renowned Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, right before his country’s formal entrance into the war. As Tsuchiya writes, air raids were growing in frequency, which spooked the higher-ups in the Japanese Army. From the text:
“The war had become more and more severe. Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day and night, like falling rain. What would happen if bombs hit the zoo? If the cages were broken and dangerous animals escaped to run wild through the city, it would be terrible!”
A noble cause, indeed. Yet there’s one problem with “The Pitiful Elephants”: it’s not historically accurate. At all.
Ushio Hasegawa, in a 1981 article for a children’s literary quarterly, first called into question “the actual events upon which the story is based.” Other scholars of literature (PDF) and East Asian history, after reviewing primary and secondary documents from the time period, have backed up his criticisms. The book is a myth, relying on distorted interpretations of real-life events to fit his weighty, theatrical narrative.
This much is true: 24 animals from the zoo were put down in September 1943 at the behest of the Japanese military. Three of them were elephants, who starved to death. But Tokyo natives were not concerned with a bombing-induced escape; over 3 million paying customers visited the zoo in 1943, almost eclipsing the park’s attendance record, and no bombs were dropped on the city between the Doolittle Raid in April 1942 and the first B-29 runs in November 1944. Rather, it was the governor of Tokyo, Ōdachi Shigeo, who worried that his constituents were not mentally prepared for the onslaught of war he knew was quickly approaching.
On August 16, 1943, the zoo’s acting director Fakuda Saburo was called into a meeting with his boss from the parks department, who reported to Ōdachi. According to Fakuda’s diary, the governor requested that the staff “kill the elephants and wild beasts by poison.” “When he returned to the motherland to become governor of Tokyo and saw the attitude of the people,” Ueno’s former director, Koga Tadamichi, wrote in his memoir, “[Ōdachi] seems to have felt keenly that he had to open the people’s eyes to the fact that this was not the way to go, that war was not such an easy affair.” In other words, by killing their own, the government (and the army by proxy) could emphasize both the urgency of the war and the ruthlessness of the Allied Forces. A win-win deception.
In late August, the conflicted zookeepers committed elephanticide, starving their herd. Several days later, on September 4, the metropolitan government held a memorial service at the zoo that was attended by several high-ranking Tokyo officials and hundreds of school children, who had been specifically targeted as an audience. In an interview with the local newspaper that day, Fakuda lied to a reporter on hand, describing the animals’ deaths as “an unavoidable measure that must naturally be taken.” And in the ensuing days, the zoo was flooded with letters from kids expressing outrage at the foreign soldiers that ostensibly forced the Japanese to protect their citizens in such an extreme fashion. The plan worked like a charm.
Tsuchiya eventually admitted that he’d modified some historical facts to make the story more appealing for young readers. The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation published its own picture book in 1982 that told the story more authentically, but it didn’t attract a wide audience. You can flip through a preview of the original here.