Beloved Japan-born panda Xiang Xiang returns to China; bilateral cooperation on pandas to continue
Published: Feb 21, 2023 11:45 PM
People bid farewell to the female giant panda Xiang Xiang ahead of her return to China, at Ueno Zoological Park in Tokyo on February 19, 2023.Photo:AFP

People bid farewell to the female giant panda Xiang Xiang ahead of her return to China, at Ueno Zoological Park in Tokyo on February 19, 2023. Photo:AFP

"Good bye, Xiang Xiang!" "Thank you, Xiang Xiang!" Hundreds of Japanese fans, some in tears, were waving toward a charter flight flying in the bright sky over Narita International Airport to bid farewell to hugely popular female giant panda Xiang Xiang as she departed for her home country China, where she is set to start her search for a mate.

According to the NHK, approximately 600 fans with cameras and stuffed pandas gathered at the airport to see off the five-year-old Xiang Xiang on Tuesday.

The departure of Xiang Xiang is under the spotlight in both Japan and China with many Chinese panda fans warmly welcoming the return of the cute girl.

"We share your care and attention for the Chinese giant panda Xiang Xiang. She is an important result of the cooperation between China and Japan on giant panda protection and research, and a lovely envoy to promote friendly exchanges between the two countries," Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, replied to a Japanese reporter at Tuesday's regular press briefing.

The spokesperson revealed that China and Japan will continue to carry out cooperation on giant panda protection and research in the hope that more pandas will continue to bring joy and friendship to the two peoples. 

"We also welcome the Japanese people to visit Xiang Xiang and her partners in China," Wang said.

Upon her return, Xiang Xiang will be sent to Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, a giant panda research and breeding facility in the city of Ya'an, Sichuan, which is known as the hometown of giant pandas, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Xiang Xiang was born at Ueno Zoo in June 2017 to Shin Shin (female) and Ri Ri (male), two giant pandas on loan from China, where the ownership over the cubs they give birth to belongs.

As the first panda naturally bred and raised at the zoo in nearly three decades since You You, born in 1988, Xiang Xiang gained huge popularity among Japanese people.

She was originally scheduled to travel back to China by the end of December 2020, but her return was postponed multiple times due to her popularity in Japan and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Xinhua.

Before the departure, floods of panda lovers flocked to the Ueno Zoo on Sunday to say goodbye to Xiang Xiang on her last day before the public in Japan.

Admission to see the giant panda was limited to a preselected lottery of 2,600 entries a day. The final time slot on Sunday was so popular that there were around 70 times as many applicants as there were available entries.

Miyako, a Tokyo-based 26-year-old woman, said "Since knowing the departure day of Xiang Xiang was approaching, I went to the Ueno Zoo more frequently, hoping that Xiang Xiang's silent sleeping look as well as the happy scene of her playing around and eating bamboos could all be impressed deeply on my memory."

Miyako showed the Global Times on Tuesday her message to Xiang Xiang. "Every time when I met you [Xiang Xiang], I was so happy… I collected a lot of your peripheral products. Even in the distance, I will never forget you, I like you the most! Thank you for being born. Take care!"

Also, giant pandas Yong Ming, Ying Bin (Sakurahama) and Tao Bin (Momohama) living in Japan are set to start their journeys back to China soon, according to the Chinese Embassy in Japan.

The Embassy noted on Tuesday that the arrival of the giant pandas in Japan was a landmark event for the normalization of China-Japan relations. As this year marks the 45th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, it is hoped that driven by the "giant panda craze", more people will engage in China-Japan friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation.

Wang Wenbin also noted during Tuesday's press briefing that "We hope Japan will work with us to build China-Japan relations that meet the requirements of the new era."

Citing a Chinese proverb "amity between people holds the key to the sound relations between countries," Diao Kunpeng, a panda expert and director of Beijing Qingye Ecology, told the Global Times on Tuesday that when China shares its national treasures - giant pandas - with other countries, it is actually conveying our sincere friendship.

However, Ya Ya, a senior female giant panda living at the Memphis Zoo in the US state of Tennessee, is not as lucky as Xiang Xiang as she has been suffering from hunger and a skin disease due to parasite infections, which recently stroked the hearts of many Chinese netizens, especially after the sudden death of Ya Ya's male partner Le Le.

Many Chinese netizens suspected the pair's mistreatment in the US and they launched an online petition to urge the zoo to send the pandas back to China.