Japan has more penguins in captivity than any other nation on earth, but for 82 days this spring it was one short.
Penguin Number 337, a 1-year-old Humboldt penguin, caused a sensation after escaping from the Tokyo Sea Life Park in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward on March 4.
Spottings of the fugitive in and around Tokyo Bay were reported by many Japanese media outlets throughout March, April and May, until the bird was finally tracked down at the foot of a bridge across the Edogawa river, about 10 kilometers from the aquarium, on May 24.
The delinquent bird eluded two keepers for a further six hours, but was finally manhandled back into the rank and file of Japan’s population of 3,800 captive penguins late that afternoon.
Japan lost a media star, but it was only the latest chapter in the country’s long infatuation with the flightless birds.
“The craze reminded us of how much Japanese love penguins,” said Kazuhiro Sakamoto, deputy director of the aquarium.
Penguins were raised in Japan for the first time in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), according to Kazuoki Ueda, a Tokyo high school teacher and a member of the Penguin Conference Japan, and the love affair really blossomed after World War II accounts of friendly penguins by a Japanese Antarctic expedition cemented its cute image and its association with the icy southern continent.
However, most of the captive penguins in Japan are not native to Antarctica. Only two of the 18 species of penguins--Adelie penguins and Emperor penguins--actually live in Antarctica.
According to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a small majority of Japan’s captive penguins, about 1,800, are Humboldts such as Penguin Number 337, a species that comes from parts of Peru and the coast of Chile and is used to a climate similar to Japan’s. The Humboldt population has surged as Japanese aquarium workers have gotten used to breeding and raising the birds.
Japan also offers good opportunities to see other species. The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan in Osaka’s Minato Ward boasts 55 penguins, including King penguins and Adelie penguins, and a regular parade of the King penguins between December and February is a very popular attraction.
Penguins are also a major draw at the Kyoto Aquarium, which opened in March in Kyoto’s Shimogyo Ward. It keeps 29 Cape penguins, which can be seen swimming underwater from the first floor and waddling out of the water from the second floor.
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