Hello Dugong: a Weird Animal Lover in Japan
Obsessive fandom is what brings a lot of people to Japan. Some even borrow the Japanese word for it. Those otaku, part of the subculture that took that term into English, head to Harajuku and Akihabara looking for people dressed up as their favorite characters from anime and manga.
In Japanese, though, the word otaku means a person who delves a little too deep into any kind of interest, not just pop culture or cartoons. So while it might sound crazy to travel nearly seven thousand miles to go to the zoo, that’s what you do when you’re a weird animal otaku.
And in Japan, my love of odd animals fit right in. Yes, it’s a country famous for its obsession with cute, but you can get cute anywhere. I say the heck with cute. You can have your graceful and majestic, your herds of antelope that leap lightly through the air, smiling sleek dolphins and fat cuddly boring pandas. Instead give me the squat, the dull brown, the warty and the pin-eyed, the waddling and awkward and even the downright icky.
Japan gave me all of that – and the souvenirs to go with it.
Glorifying the giant guinea pig
The capybara is the world’s largest rodent, a 100-pound relative of the mouse and the guinea pig. It’s rectangular, covered with rough shaggy brown hair, and has webbed feet for swimming. No one would ever accuse it of being conventionally pretty. Actually, no one in the US is likely to accuse the capybara of anything, because mostly no one’s even heard of it.
But in Japan, I walked into a resort hotel and was greeted by a poster advertising the local aquarium’s new capybara exhibit like they expected it to be a big selling point. And it probably was,because apparently the Japanese adore the capybara. One zoo in Nagasaki has a petting area where you can walk through and pet the giant rodents, and more than one Japanese capybara exhibit provides them with their own hot spring bath.
I didn’t make it to Nagasaki on this trip, but back in Tokyo, I enjoyed shopping at a store entirely devoted to a cartoon character called Kapibara-san. Like most cartoon animals, Kapibara-san has his edges smoothed and cuted-up, but I wasn’t complaining. Not when I could get capybaras on a datebook, hand towels, a package of lemon-flavored candies, and refrigerator magnets – and that’s leaving aside any number of other things I regretfully decided would not fit in my suitcase.
A word from our weird animal sponsor
Another of my favorite obscure animals is the tapir. I’ll wait a minute while you go and Google that and find an animal that one writer said resembles ‘the result of a night of passion involving a pig and an anteater.’ That’s only one of the many mistaken-identity theories you’ll hear from zoo visitors if you stand beside a tapir exhibit for a while – except, apparently, in Japan.
In the bar district affectionately called Piss Alley in Shinjuku, I photographed an advertising banner featuring a cartoon of two tapirs drinking mugs of beer. When I posted the photo online, my bewilderment got me an explanation: The tapirs are drinking a shot of whiskey in beer, a drink called bakudan. That’s the word for “bomb,” which contains the word for tapir, baku.
What made my heart leap, of course, is that this wordplay assumes that average people know what a tapir is. That’s truly a culture after my own heart.
Most people don’t know what a dugong is either, but you might be able to imagine taking a manatee, smoothing out most of the wrinkles, lightening up the color, and giving it a forked tail. You’ll get an animal that is only found in a very small handful of aquariums around the world, none of them in North America. So who wouldn’t take a three hour train trip to go to the aquarium in the unheralded town of Toba?
The main reason I didn’t have room to pack more Kapibara-san souvenirs was what happened on my visit to the Toba aquarium giftshop. The clerk gave me individual gift bags for each item in 300 dollars’ worth of dugong-themed products. Because no way would anyone buy 300 dollars’ worth of stuffed dugongs, dugong shirts, dugong washcloths, dugong tote bags, dugong magnets, dugong stationery, and dugong bath salts, all for herself, right?
Maybe I should have said something. But then I wouldn’t have these two dozen little plastic bags with dugongs on them too.
And the shopping turned out to be the least of it. That morning when we were watching the dugong, my Japanese friend had asked a staff member when feeding time was. Fortunately, she prefaced this question by saying “My friend came all the way from America to see the dugong.” And fortunately, I was easy to pick out of a crowd at the Toba Aquarium, where I was probably the only foreigner in town.
The result was that a couple of hours later, as we were walking down the corridor with my bulging shopping bags, this same staff member appeared out of nowhere and said she was going to take me behind the scenes to meet the dugong.
As a former zookeeper myself, I knew that this was an uncommon privilege – and one that’s basically never offered to a stranger on the spot.
I remembered the one time I’d done it myself: a man told me he’d brought his wife all the way from New York City to the zoo in Washington DC for her birthday to see a sloth. Since the animal was uncooperatively invisible in the exhibit, I brought them back to the keeper area to see it. Finally I was getting my karmic reward for that good deed.
I’ll spare you the squealing about how I got to pet the dugong, as well as the photograph I took of the fascinating dugong dung resting on a scale where every precious bit is weighed, recorded, and analyzed. Let’s just call this a lesson in not being shy about your weird obsessions, and even
more, making sure that your friends aren’t either.
A small dose of cute doesn’t hurt
Sure, I was also surrounded by evidence of devotion to more conventionally likeable animals. In fact the neighborhood I stayed in was crawling with them. Yanaka, an old part of town off the beaten tourist path, is walking distance from Ueno Zoo, where the panda inspires just as much fanaticism as back home in Washington DC. Yanaka was also full of cats wandering the streets, unofficial mascots of the neighborhood, and cat-themed shops.
There was also evidence of another graceful creature with a huge role in Japanese culture, the fox. Many shrines have statues of foxes, which are said to be servants of the god Inari. But I was a little surprised at first to find that those weren’t the only canines to be found at the shrine near my inn: the grounds were a gathering place for the local dogs and their owners.
Really, it would be going too far to say I worship animals. When I thought about it, though, that seemed exactly right to me.
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Linda Lombardi is the author of two books, The Sloth’s Eye (April 2011, Five Star Mysteries) and Animals Behaving Badly, a humorous look at animal behavior in science and the news (Perigee/Penguin, October 2011). My work has appeared in local newspapers and a variety of magazines and websites, and for several years I was the pets and animals columnist for the Associated Press.
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