Published: 17:02, April 9, 2024
Japanese photographer shows love of pandas through years-long efforts
By Jiang Xueqing in Tokyo
Japanese photographer Takahiro Takauji has a photo taken with Xiang Xiang the panda in Ya’an, Sichuan province on March 12, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Takahiro Takauji, 45, has been going to Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo almost every day since 2011 to photograph pandas. Rain or shine, barring closures of the zoo, he has persisted for nearly 13 years.

Reflecting on how he first encountered giant pandas, he said: “Once I took a walk to Ueno Zoo, and at that time, the father, Li Li, and mother, Shin Shin, of the giant panda Xiang Xiang were there.

“They were so cute, so similar to humans. I was immediately captivated. And from that moment on, I started going to photograph them every day.”

He posted photos of the pandas he took each day on his blog, and then went to Ueno Zoo again the next day, and the day after.

Initially, Takauji thought of persisting for a month. After sticking with it for a month, he decided to keep going for six months, just to see how it would go. But it did not end there, and he has continued to pursue his passion till date.

In 2012, Li Li and Shin Shin had a baby, but unfortunately, it died in less than a week.

“I hoped to see their offspring again, and with this hope, I persisted until 2017, when their daughter, Xiang Xiang, was born,” Takauji said.

After Xiang Xiang was born, the number of people visiting the zoo to see pandas suddenly increased, and the users of Takauji’s blog skyrocketed.

His main job is web design. To avoid affecting his work, he insists on going to the zoo before work in the morning to take pictures of Xiang Xiang. Even while queuing at the zoo, he can work.

He created a blog called “Mainichi Panda”, as there were not many people spreading images of pandas online at the time.

“I find unexpected and irreplaceable joy in spreading these images. Some people living in Okinawa or Hokkaido can also see these photos. I want to share these adorable animal images I see through my lens with more people. With this sentiment, I have persisted in taking photographs,” he said.

Many people leave comments on his blog, praising the adorable pandas. Some Japanese, in their posted comments, express gratitude to China for lending such adorable animals to their country. The continuous stream of comments is a great encouragement to Takauji.

From Aug 14, 2011 to March 5, 2024, the number of new users on the Mainichi Panda blog has accumulated to 1,174,405, and the page views reached 20,837,710. The blog’s monthly views reached up to 500,000.

Additionally, Takauji also shares photos and videos of giant pandas on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, and YouTube.

Giant panda Xiang Xiang plays at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo on Feb 6, 2018. The photo is taken by Takahiro Takauji, a fan of Xiang Xiang. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Since 2011, he has been going to Ueno Zoo almost every day, with only two significant breaks from that practice over the years. The first break was when his daughter was born, and the subsequent breaks were due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 2020 to 2022, due to the pandemic, Ueno Zoo closed several times, and the longest break Takauji had lasted seven months. During that time, he could only dig out unpublished photos from the past to continue posting.

Persisting in photographing giant pandas has brought some changes to his life.

Takauji said, “Before, I just sat at the desk, typing on the computer. Since I started photographing giant pandas, I go out every day, my physical health has improved, and my life has become more regular. I don’t want others to say that photographing Xiang Xiang has affected my work, so my mental state has also improved, full of fighting spirit.

“Moreover, Xiang Xiang is very popular, and when I queue to see her at the zoo, I chat with the people in front and behind about her recent situation. These exchanges make my body and mind rich and joyful.”

After publishing companies saw his blog, they approached him to discuss publishing photo albums featuring giant pandas.

Initially, Asukashinsha Publishing published photos of giant pandas Li Li and Shin Shin in 2013, releasing two volumes at once. Later, several other publishers, including the Tokyo-based publishing company Heibonsha, also participated.

Approximately 10 volumes of photo albums featuring Xiang Xiang were published.

These photo albums received positive feedback, and have been continuously published – both reprints and new releases.

On Feb 21, 2023, Xiang Xiang returned to China and then resided at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base in Ya’an, Sichuan province.

When Xiang Xiang returned to China, giant panda enthusiasts in Japan not only cried but also went to the airport to bid farewell to the beloved animal. They stayed until the plane flew out of sight, before reluctantly leaving.

Although sending Xiang Xiang away made them feel regretful, they believed that Xiang Xiang would have a happy future in China.

In November last year, Takauji paid out of his own pocket to join a tour group to Sichuan, to meet Xiang Xiang.

“When I arrived there, not only was the surrounding environment exceptionally good, but the people taking care of Xiang Xiang were also exceptionally kind. I felt the happiness of Xiang Xiang in China and felt very pleased and relieved.”

Besides seeing Xiang Xiang, he ate the classic Sichuan dish mapo tofu, watched face-changing, a highlight of Chinese Sichuan opera, and exchanged ideas with local Xiang Xiang fans, exchanging notes about how Xiang Xiang lived in China and Japan.

In addition to Bifengxia in Ya’an, Takauji also visited several other panda bases. Seeing so many panda bases in China, he felt that the country is truly a paradise for giant pandas.

“When I was in Japan, I always liked China and had always wanted to visit. This time, with Xiang Xiang returning to China, my visit to the country finally materialized. I found the local people and things to be even more warm and friendly than I had imagined,” Takauji said.

Although he does not speak Chinese, once he shows his photos, others share their own panda pictures with him.

From March 9 to 14 this year, Takauji went to China again with a visiting group of Japanese college students. This exchange mainly involved interactions among college students.

Giant panda Xiang Xiang, who has returned to China, takes a walk at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base in Ya’an, Sichuan province on Nov 10, 2023. The photo is taken by Takahiro Takauji, a fan of Xiang Xiang. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

There was a segment in the visit dedicated to seeing pandas, and Takauji received an invitation from the visiting group.

“In Japan, the information that college students can obtain about China is limited. I hope that they can feel like me that China is such a vast and prosperous country. Some things can only be felt when you are there, and some information can only be obtained when you are there. I hope the two countries will enhance such people-to-people exchanges,” he said.

Many Japanese people start to learn about China and Chinese language because of their love for giant pandas. Using animal images to pique people’s interest, Takauji believes, has a significant effect in improving Sino-Japanese relations.

“Historically, China has been Japan’s teacher, and there are many things we can learn from China. Friendly relations between the two countries are necessary. War and quarrels are meaningless,” Takauji said.

“Everyone should deepen their understanding of each other through exchanges, especially through symbols like giant pandas. When people see pandas, they all smile. I believe pandas will be a good opportunity to promote friendship between Japan and China,” he added.

Although Xiang Xiang has returned to Sichuan, there are still other pandas at Ueno Zoo. Takauji will continue to go and take photos.

If there is an opportunity, Takauji said he hopes to visit various places in China and learn more about Chinese history and culture.