Here’s an anecdote I came across the other day about Indira, the elephant that Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru gifted the children of Tokyo after World War II:1

Japan, like all “modern” nations in the Imperial Age, had built several zoos during and after its modernization drive. It had also imported animals from other Asian countries, including Indira’s predecessor, the prosaically-named John from Thailand.

When John arrived at the Ueno Zoo in 1924, the zoo administrators hired an elephant trainer from India to teach John some crowd-pleasing tricks.

 

The Indian trainer was a rather fragrant fellow, owing to his refusal to bathe. Eventually, the reason for his ablutophobia was revealed: he was in fact a Russian criminal fugitive hiding out in blackface.

 

The mistake of his hiring was eventually rectified, but tragically, John was put to death along with a whole lot of other zoo animals in the carnage of World War II.

In the post-war period, perhaps as a reaction to the most grown-up business of war, there was a reorientation to a child-like innocence in Japanese society. Two precocious seventh-graders submitted a petition to the upper house of the Japanese parliament to find a replacement for the elephant of Ueno Zoo. The petition snowballed into a public campaign, and the Tokyo government collected over a thousand letters from the children of the city, all addressed to Prime Minister Nehru of India, pleading with him to send them an elephant.

An employee of the Mitsubishi corporation availed upon an Indian contact, N. H. Niyogi, who knew Nehru personally. The children’s letters were entrusted to Nigyogi, who took them with him to India.

(It’s noteworthy that at this time, India and Japan did not have diplomatic relations as Japan was still under the administration of the Allied powers.)

Nehru, always a masterful diplomat, saw an opportunity to further the Indo-Japanese relationship at a time when the Japanese were suffering through severe post-war privations. He waived war reparations toward Japan and picked out a fifteen-year old female elephant from the kingly state of Mysore to gift the Japanese. He named her “Indira” after his own daughter.

In a message to Japanese school children, Nehru told them they should treat the elephant “as a gift not from me but from the children of India to the children of Japan. The elephant is a noble animal much loved in India and typical of India. It is wise, patient, strong yet gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities.”

The arrival of Indira on the shores of Japan was a big deal—even the prime minister of Japan was present. Tadamichi Koga, former head of the Ueno Zoo, said the arrival of Indira the elephant was “one of my happiest memories. I still remember that I was deeply moved when I saw a letter from Premier Nehru on his decision to present her as a gift to Japanese children.”

Indeed, Indira was put to work from the start, touring over a dozen cities in Japan to bring some much-needed cheer. Over four million Japanese visitors came to see her.

Eventually, Indira’s star dimmed, eclipsed by subsequent panda diplomacy. In 1983, Indira passed away—ironically, barely a year before her namesake was assassinated.