'Tama-chan' gets seal of approval from a charmed Japan

An arctic seal with a weak sense of direction and cuddly good looks wanders into Tokyo's waterways - and Japanese fans' hearts

Mention that Japan cannot get enough of a blubbery sea mammal and people might guess that Tokyo's chefs are busy with a new type of whale sashimi.

But a very different passion has emerged recently as the country has been caught up in a frenzy over a lost seal.

"Tama-chan" has been a celebrity since last August, when the bearded arctic seal appeared in the polluted Tama River (hence the seal's name) near Tokyo, thousands of miles from its probable home in the Bering Sea.

The cute mammal with the appalling sense of direction quickly generated a wave of concern in keeping with Japan's new self-image as a more-relaxed and conservationist nation.

Ten years ago, Japan was known for putting industry first, even if it meant sacrificing the workforce and the climate with the result of karoshi (death by overwork) and industrial pollution.

Today, the country is prouder of its role in brokering the Kyoto Treaty on greenhouse-gas emissions. And Japanese are so attuned to iyashi, or relaxation, that one major news program is decorating its set with grass and trees and urging watchers to chill out more.

Not everything has changed, of course. The government is still promoting whale hunting, and last year, one bureaucrat referred to Minke whales as the cockroaches of the oceans. Still, there are signs that whale watching is becoming more popular than whale eating among young people, as boat tours increase and restaurants adjust menus.

But nothing has hit the nation's new soft spot as powerfully as Tama-chan. After the seal was first spotted, newspapers were filled with expert comment on whether an arctic seal could survive the swelteringly hot Japanese summer - not to mention the grimy waters around Tokyo Bay. Every sighting drew crowds and a swarm of TV crews. Fan clubs formed and politicians wasted little time in associating themselves with the seal's popularity. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government granted Tama-chan freedom of the capital's waterways, while neighboring Yokohama legally registered the mammal as residing on the bank of the Katabira River.

Naturally, the winsome seal's new fame did not please everyone. Tama-chan's quickly granted residency status - long denied to even long-term non-Japanese residents - prompted some foreigners to draw whiskers on their faces and march to a government office to request similar favorable treatment.

The mammal also became the focus of an ideological dispute when the Society That Thinks About Tama-chan clashed with The Society That Keeps Watch Over Tama-chan over whether the seal should be left to its own devices or repatriated. Friction reached a head in March, when the former group attempted an early morning seizure of the seal using frogmen and teams carrying giant nets.

The land-lolloping Tama-chan, however, slithered into the water and sped away, remaining largely out of sight for two months - much to devotees' dismay.

Its shocking reappearance came last week, when the worst fears for a wild seal living in such a densely populated area were realized by close-up pictures of a fishing hook through its right eyelid.

"Tama-chan, are you OK?" was the anxious question asked everywhere last week, as a nation pushed aside its worries about North Korea's nuclear missiles, the SARS outbreak in China, and perennially awful economic news.

The Asahi newspaper even drew a comparison with embattled Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. A cartoon showed a premier with barbs piercing his face labeled "Record low stock prices"; "Dissension within the Ruling Party"; and "North Korean nukes." The caption read, "Jun-chan (his nickname), are you OK?"

Few tears, of course, will be shed for Mr. Koizumi. The same cannot be said for Tama-chan, who returned to the front pages when the Pana Wave Laboratory, an apocalyptic sect, declared that only the wandering seal can save the world. The sect's leader also noted that the group has been feeding Tama-chan for months.

But any public sympathy that might have been generated for Pana Wave by this campaign has been outweighed by suspicion about its doom-laden statements. Although the sect has never been implicated in a crime, its bizarre behavior has been compared to that of Aum Supreme Truth, which carried out the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways. Police raids have uncovered nothing to suggest that Pana Wave is dangerous, but that has not stopped the sect from attracting even more media attention than Tama-chan, who fortunately lost his hook over the weekend.

The effect of all the attention has been very different. The seal got a fan club - while Pana Wave was driven out of every community it approached and was tracked by more than 100 riot police.

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