Lan Lan, one of the first two giant pandas that came to Japan in 1972 as gifts from China, died in 1979 at Tokyo's Ueno Zoological Gardens. Many Japanese took the news hard, but none was more heartbroken than Shiro Nakagawa, the pandas' chief keeper since their arrival at the zoo. So deep was his grief that Nakagawa could not bring himself to attend Lan Lan's autopsy.
A few days later, Nakagawa contributed an essay, titled "You Kept Your Promise," to The Asahi Shimbun. According to Nakagawa, he got Lan Lan to "promise" on New Year's Day that she would have a baby by the end of the year. She kept her promise and became pregnant, but died before giving birth. For Nakagawa, it was a double tragedy.
Nakagawa, known affectionately as "Panda Kacho" (Panda section chief), died on July 16 at age 81. An animal lover from childhood, he devoted his life and career to caring for animals, serving as director of the Tama Zoological Park and later of the Ueno Zoological Gardens.
Upon earning a degree in veterinary medicine, Nakagawa had his mind set on working at the Ueno zoo. He pleaded with the zoo's director to hire him for a part-time position for 230 yen a day. After working his way up for five years, he became a full-time employee, showing how truly he loved his chosen profession.
About 20 years ago, when The Asahi Shimbun reported that the London Zoo was on the verge of closing down due to financial difficulties, Nakagawa was one of the first to respond. Together with TV personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, he organized a drive to solicit donations from the public. Thanks partly to these donations, the London Zoo survived, as did many of its animals, who otherwise might have been put down.
Nakagawa showered equal love on high-profile and lesser-known animals alike. I can picture all those animals Nakagawa cared for during his life--and they are legion--greeting him at the pearly gates. Lan Lan and her mate, Kang Kang, must be overjoyed to see him. Nakagawa is going to be busy up there reminiscing about all the old times with his beloved wards.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 20
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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