Frederick S. Litten
(Freddy Litten)


Ueno Zoo, 1941-1945

Starving the Elephants ‒ The Slaughter of Animals in Wartime Tokyo's Ueno Zoo; in: The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, vol. 38-3-09, September 21, 2009.

In summer 1943, 27 lions, leopards (including a half-year old cub), elephants, and other "dangerous animals" were killed in Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. The governor of Tokyo, Ōdachi Shigeo, decided on both the slaughter itself and its timing, not because of any immediate danger, but for propaganda reasons: he wanted to shock the residents of Tokyo into taking seriously the threat of air raids. The acting director of Ueno Zoo, Fukuda Saburō, selected the methods - and for several animals he chose starvation.
The story of the starving elephants has become well-known in Japan through picture books (such as "Faithful Elephants") and films, but only in the form of a myth about the terror of war. This article will reconstruct the slaughter and its background, and put it into its contemporary context.

Concerning "Faithful Elephants" (author: Yukio Tsuchiya; illustrator: Ted Lewin; publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 1988)

When confronted with the true story of the animals in Ueno Zoo during the Second World War, some people have defended the American edition of Tsuchiya's "Kawaisōna Zō", claming that it only takes "creative license" or that it has captured the "essence" of the events.
While it is certainly possible to view "Faithful Elephants" from different angles, both because I am a historian and because the book is subtitled "A True Story of Animals, People and War" I will take a brief look at two questions that seem to me, and probably many readers, to arise from this story.

Question A)
Why did the animals have to be killed at all?

Answer according to "Faithful Elephants":
Tokyo was bombed "every day and night", so to keep humans safe in case the cages were bombed and the animals escaped, they had to be killed.

Before November 1944, Tokyo had only been bombed once, in the so-called "Doolittle Raid" of April 1942. With awareness of the dangers of any future bombing of Tokyo quite low among the population, the recently installed governor of Tokyo decided in August 1943 to have the animals killed to use their death as propaganda - one especially aimed at children.
Therefore there was no immediate reason to kill the animals to keep humans safe. It was not even a precautionary measure, considering how far away the Americans were from bombing Tokyo again, but simply timed and done for propaganda reasons. This also explains why the governor did not allow even some animals to be evacuated; they had to die to serve the purpose. (That the whole scheme was quite useless is a different matter.)

Question B)
Why did the elephants have to be starved?

Answer according to "Faithful Elephants":
After other animals had been poisoned, one of the elephants (John) was given poisoned food. However, he threw it away with his trunk. Then it was attempted to inject him with poison, but the needles broke because of his thick skin. Only then was it decided to starve him and the other two elephants, Wanly and Tonky.

Not all other animals were poisoned. Some of them were beaten to death, strangled, or, in the case of a polar bear, starved (though probably "accidentally"). John was actually put on starvation a couple of days before the order to kill the animals arrived. There are conflicting accounts on whether he and/or the two female elephants were given poisoned food or water. It is certain that injecting them with poison was not attempted, because blood being taken from Tonky shortly before her death proves that it would have been possible to enter poison into their bloodstream, too.
Tsuchiya does not mention the possibility of shooting the elephants (and other animals). This would have been possible technically, but was ruled out (it is not exactly clear, by whom) because it might have disturbed the other animals and neighbors. However, two years earlier, four "surplus" bears had been shot within the grounds of the zoo.
Moreover, the elephants were not the only animals deliberately starved to death at Ueno Zoo. In 1945, when bombings actually became devastating, the two remaining hippos had to die in the same way. The sources don't mention whether any alternative methods had at least been contemplated.
It seems that for those in command of the zoo starvation was a valid method to kill their animals.

Tsuchiya's "Faithful Elephants" misrepresents the actual events at Ueno Zoo in practically every aspect, from central issues to details. There is at least one person who claims that this does not matter because of the "peace" message contained especially in the picture of the elephants' keeper raising his fists and crying out "Stop the war! ..." But this didn't happen - in fact, could not have happened. It has no basis in real events and is both historically and "culturally" wrong.
One may approve of the illustrations, or of the way Tsuchiya constructed a tear-jerker out of wartime propaganda. Yet this is not a "true story" anywhere near to the level of, say, the Anne Frank diary. If "Faithful Elephants" is used to teach history, this should be spelled out clearly - but, of course, the question then arises why it should be used at all, except to present it as an example of egregious falsification of history. Whether the "end" of "peace propaganda" justifies Tsuchiya's "means" could then, however, be discussed fairly.

Some more comments on Japanese picture books concerning animals, children, and war can be found here.

Im Sommer 1943 wurden im Ueno Zoo in Tokio 27 "gefährliche Tiere" (Löwen, Leoparden, Elefanten, Bären usw.) getötet. Ōdachi Shigeo, der Gouverneur von Tokio, hatte diese Tötung und auch den Zeitpunkt für Propagandazwecke beschlossen. Er wollte damit die Bevölkerung Tokios schockieren, damit sie die Gefahr von Luftangriffen ernster nehmen würde. Der kommissarische Direktor des Ueno Zoos, Fukuda Saburō, wählte die Methoden ‒ und für einige Tiere wählte er den Tod durch Verhungern.
Die Geschichte der verhungerten Elefanten ist in Japan wohlbekannt: durch Bilderbücher, Filme, und vieles mehr, allerdings nur in der Form eines Mythos über die Schrecken des Krieges. Dieser Artikel rekonstruiert die Tötung und ihre Hintergründe und stellt sie in einen zeitgenössischen Kontext.

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F. Litten