Naming the Pandas

Society Culture

A panda cub at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo has been seizing Japanese headlines ever since its birth in June 2017. Amid much fanfare, its name was announced on September 25 as Shan Shan. Or should that be Xiang Xiang? As symbols of Sino-Japanese cooperation, the animals’ names fall into something of a gray area between the two languages.

Repeat After Me

Ueno Zoo now has three pandas. The cub’s mother is Shin Shin and the father Ri Ri. These names are most commonly written in katakana, but are based on Chinese characters. (The standard Romanized versions here come from the Tokyo Zoological Park Society’s official English website).

Shin Shin in kanji is 真真 (meaning “true” repeated, as are many panda names) and takes the Japanese pronunciation. Ri Ri, however, is 力力 (“strength”), and derives from the Chinese reading li. The newest member of the family’s name in kanji is 香香 (“fragrance”), which would be pronounced Xiang Xiang in Chinese. If the cub’s name is Romanized like her father’s, though, it will follow the Japanese convention and be Shan Shan.

Why all the repetition? This, too, comes from Chinese. It makes the name sound cute in the same way that the suffix –chan does in Japanese. Double naming for pandas has been standard at Ueno Zoo since Kang Kang and Lan Lan arrived in 1972, following the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. The practice is also followed at Kobe Ōji Zoo, which currently has one female panda named Tan Tan.

Ueno Sticks with Tradition

The nation’s panda capital, however, is Adventure World in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture. It has five of the loveable animals and its own distinctive naming custom. All cubs born there have names ending in hin, based on an alternative reading for the character 浜 (the “hama” in Shirahama). Eimei, born in China, is joined by Rauhin, twins Ōhin and Tōhin, and little Yuihin, who recently celebrated her first birthday.

Before selecting the name Shan Shan, Ueno Zoo invited suggestions from the public. The day after the cub’s birth, a little girl interviewed on NHK offered up the idea Pinku Pintarō, a name inspired by the newborn creature’s tiny pink appearance that gained considerable momentum on Japanese social media. If there had been a poll, it might have won. Yet, although tradition ultimately took precedence on this occasion, perhaps Pinku Pintarō’s time will one day come.

Pandas in Japan at a Glance (as of September 2017)

Ueno Zoo, Tokyo 3 Shin Shin (F), Ri Ri (M), Shan Shan (F)
Kobe Ōji Zoo, Hyōgo 1 Tan Tan (F)
Adventure World, Wakayama 5 Eimei (M), Rauhin (F), Ōhin (F), Tōhin (F), Yuihin (F)
(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Shan Shan celebrates her hundredth day since birth with her mother, Shin Shin, on September 20. Photograph courtesy of Tokyo Zoological Park Society; © Jiji.)

nature animal panda Ueno Ueno Zoo