- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

TOKYO A seal that has strayed from the frozen north to take up residence in rivers near Tokyo has acquired a huge following that reveals more about social and environmental problems here than about the animal itself.
Tama-chan, a tawny-coated bearded seal of about nine months, first turned up in the river after which it is named the Tamagawa in August, and has since relocated to the Katabira river, which runs through a heavily industrial part of Yokohama just west of the capital.
With its whiskers and big, round brown eyes, the seal quickly became a media phenomenon and was a hit with a public that had a love of all things "kawaii," or cute.
For about two months, nearby residents and schoolchildren, mostly women and girls, were in the grip of Tama-chan fever, turning up in the hundreds, squealing and applauding at every appearance of the seal.
Savvy hawkers started selling Tama-chan T-shirts and ice-cream vendors set up stalls nearby. One local baker produced a seal-shaped cake and was reportedly selling 100 a day.
At the end of the year, Tama-chan was among the 10 most popular and commonly used new terms of the year, and three compact discs of songs extolling the seal pup were on sale.
Things have quieted somewhat since the seal settled in the Katabira, but a daily routine has been established by the seal's self-appointed guardians.
From dawn, five or six members of the "Tama-chan o mamoru-kai" (protection association) are on the lookout for the seal, which is now about 5 feet long and weighs an estimated 240 pounds.
"This morning we saw him at 6:30, but I reckon he's been here since 1 a.m. because he only comes up [on the cement river bank] when the water level is high enough because of the tide," Chiaki Fujita, a spokesman for the 150-strong group, said on a recent Tama-chan watch.
Yukio Akatsuka, a university professor and social critic, is appalled by reaction to the seal.
"First it got picked up by the media, then by businesses. Tama-chan is so-called entertainment similar to the ones appearing in festivals and markets," he said.
"People go there to see Tama-chan in the same way we pay to see animals in zoo. … They don't charge to see Tama-chan, so instead there are people who have started to sell products."
Mr. Akatsuka contrasted the behavior of the Japanese with that in Britain when wayward sea creatures turned up in the Thames River.
"I did not hear about people trying to earn money on the creature, but only about their concerns on how to protect or save it," he said.
Amid all the media frenzy in Tokyo, there was precious little discussion of why a seal whose natural habitat is the Arctic Ocean washed up in temperate in summer almost tropical waters. Some say the seal's arrival may be linked to global warming and melting ice caps.
"The media concentrated on Tama-chan because it is cute, and not on other environmental issues, like the dams" and widespread use of concrete on the rivers , said Yasuo Tanaka, 72, who founded the seal's protection association in November.
As Tama-chan fever subsided, the local authorities and ordinary people showed a noticeable change in behavior, Mr. Tanaka said.
"The issue of the environment has started to attract more attention. Some people say Tama-chan has taught them there is a danger: They recognize that the seal came because of climate change."
The river has become cleaner as the local government makes more of an effort to clean it, and fewer people are throwing rubbish into it, Mr. Tanaka said.
The seal's presence also has helped forge new bonds among people , as the association's members meet regularly to exchange information or hold exhibitions related to Tama-chan.
Piano teacher Tomoko Genkawa, 48, has been visiting her furry friend twice a day since October.
"I first got interested in Tama-chan because I found it very cute. I started coming every day and I found it more interesting to study its facial expressions. … Then I started to be curious about its physical condition," she said.
Mrs. Genkawa said the seal changed her life after the death of her brother-in-law in November.
"My husband and I were both very depressed. Because of Tama-chan, our life has brightened up. It gave us the courage and energy to bear our life."
Mr. Tanaka said that three persons suffering from "hikikomori" voluntary isolation from family and society, usually inside the sufferer's bedroom, a condition affecting more than 1 million Japanese "have recovered, thanks to Tama-chan."
"They heard about Tama-chan through the Internet and on TV. They started coming, and three months later their behavior has changed. They communicate with the rest of us," he said.
Specialists, the authorities and Tama-chan fans agree that there is no question of returning the seal to its Arctic home.
But, driven by the urge to mate, the day likely will come in four or five years, if not before, when the adult Tama-chan heads north to find other seals. Mr. Tanaka said he fears the end of everything pleasant that the seal's presence has brought to the Tokyo area.
"Some people say [the Tama-chan o mamoru-kai] still should meet, but it may be very difficult. The association could fade away," he said.

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