Kawaisouna Zou (1951) is a sad story by Yukio Tsuchiya about three elephants in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo during World War II…

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The cherry blossoms are in full bloom at the Ueno Zoo. Their petals are falling in the soft breeze and sparkling in the sun. Beneath the cherry trees, crowds of people are pushing to enter the zoo on such a beautiful day. Two elephants are outside performing their tricks for a lively audience. While blowing the trumpets with their long trunks the elephants walk along large wooden logs.

Not far from the cheerful square, there stands a tombstone. Not many notice this monument for the animals that have died at the Ueno Zoo. It is quiet and peaceful here, and the sun warms every corner. One day, an employee of the zoo, while tenderly polishing the stone, told me the sad story of three elephants buried there. He said today there are three elephants in this zoo. But years ago, we had three different elephants here. Their names were John, Tonky and Wanly.

At that time, Japan was at war. Gradually, the war had become more and more severe. Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day and night, like falling rain. What would happen if the bombs hit the zoo? If the cages were broken and dangerous animals escaped to run wild through the city, it would be terrible! Therefore, by command of the Army, all the lions, tigers, leopards, bears and big snakes were poisoned to death.

By and by, the came time for the three elephants to be killed. They began with John. John loved potatoes, so the elephant keepers mixed poisoned potatoes with the good ones when it was time to feed him. John, however, was a very clever elephant. He ate the good potatoes, but each time he brought a poisoned potato to his mouth with his trunk, he threw it to the ground. “As it seems there is no other way,” the zoo keepers said, “we must inject poison directly into his body.” A large syringe, the kind used to give shots to horses, was prepared. But John’s skin was so tough that the big needles broke off with a loud snap, one after the other. When this did not work, the keepers reluctantly decided to starve him to death. Poor John died seventeen days later.

Then it was Tonky’s and Wanly’s turn to die. These two had always gazed at people with loving eyes. They were sweet and gentle-hearted. The zoo keepers wanted so much to keep Tonky and Wanly alive that they thought of sending them to the zoo in Sendai, far north of Tokyo. But what if bombs fell on Sendai? What if the elephants got loose and ran wild there? What would happen then? Tonky and Wanly, too were doomed to be killed at the Ueno zoo, just like all the other animals. The elephant keepers stopped feeding Tonky and Wanly.

As the days passed, the elephants became thinner and thinner, weaker and weaker. Whenever a keeper walked by their cage, they would stand up, tottering, as if to beg, ‘Give us something to eat. Please, give us water!’ Their small, loving eyes began to look like round rubber balls in their drooping, shrunken faces. Their ears seemed too large for their bodies. The one big, strong elephants had become a sad shape.

All this while, the elephants’ trainer loved them as if they were his own children. He could only pace in front of the cage and moan, ‘You poor, poor, pitiful elephants!’ One day, Tonky and Wanly lifted their heavy bodies, staggered to their feet, and came close to their trainer. Squeezing out what little strength they had left, Tonky and Wanly made their last appeal. They stood up on their hind legs and lifted their front legs up as high as they could. Then, raising their trunks high in the air, they did their banzai trick. Surely, their friend would reward them with food and water as he used to do.

The trainer could stand it no longer. ‘Oh, Tonky! Oh, Wanly! he wailed, and dashed to the food shed. He carried food and pails of water to them and threw it at their feet. ‘Here!’ he said, sobbing, and clung to their thin legs. ‘Eat your food! Please drink. Drink your water!’

All of the other keepers pretended not to see what the trainer had done. No one said a word. The director of the zoo just sat very still, biting his lip and gazing at the top of his desk. No one was supposed to give the elephants any food. No one was supposed to give them any water. But everyone was hoping and praying that if the elephants could survive only one more day, the war might be over and the elephants would be saved.

At last, Tonky and Wanly could not move. They just lay on their sides, hardly able to see the white clouds floating in the sky over the zoo. However, their eyes appeared clearer and more beautiful than ever. Seeing his beloved elephants dying this way, the elephant trainer felt as if his heart would break. He had no more courage to see them. All of the other keepers felt the same, and they too stayed away from the elephants’ cage. Over two weeks later, Tonky and Wanly were dead. Both died leaning against the bars of their cage with their trunks stretched high in the air, still trying to do their banzai trick for the people who once fed them.

‘The elephants are dead! They’re dead!’ screamed the elephant trainer as he ran into the office. He buried his head in his arms and cried, beating the desk top with his fist. The rest of the zoo keepers ran to the elephants’ cage and stumbled in. They took hold of Tonky and Wanly’s thin bodies, as if to shake them back to life. Everyone burst into tears, then stroked the elephants’ legs and trunks in sorrow. Above them, in the bright blue sky, the angry roar of enemy planes returned. Bombs began to drop on Tokyo once more. Still clinging to the elephants, the zoo keepers raised their fists to the sky and implored, ‘Stop the war! Stop all wars!’

Later, when the bodies of the elephants were examined nothing was found in their washtub like stomachs – not even one drop of water. With tears in their eyes, the zoo keeper finished his story. “These three elephants – John, Tonky and Wanly – are now resting peacefully under this monument.”
He was still patting the tombstone tenderly as the cherry blossoms fell on the grave, like snowflakes.


Kawaisouna zou (About.com)
Faithful Elephants (Ebooks; PDF)

In recent news:

“It’s important for people to think, ‘how tragic’ and ‘why did this happen’ from an early age,” Akiyama says. “Rather than vocal opposition to war, a feeling of pity is enough to begin with, and I think that kind of pure emotion will give readers a chance to think about war when they are able to understand the meaning beyond the story. I want children to listen to it,” she said.

91-year-old critic Chieko Akiyama looks back on seeds sown through children’s tale (Mainichi)

19 thoughts on “Kawaisouna Zou (Poor Elephants) by Yukio Tsuchiya: A True Story of Animals, People, and War

  1. Wow, this story really caught my heart and actually it let me nearly cry… what a sad story and how pitiful all the animals in zoos were during war time… incredible. It must have been the worst time for the trainers…
    Thx for this wonderful story, I haven’t thought of Zoo animals at war before.

  2. Yes, it is a very sad story to the extent that I had to use tissues when I first read it. It is a book written for children to highlight the nature of war. I feel that it should not be read to very young children, but, regardless of age, it would be best for a parent to pursue a discussion on the subject after reading the book.

  3. This story i seemed listened once before but not the whole story. After reading this, really feel very touched.
    It teaches us some lessons.

  4. Surprisingly, when I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who read this story to my class and I. I almost forgot about it completely till now…back when I first heard it, it did make me very depressed, but true enough I did learn from it. Reading it for a second time, I obviously understand it more and I feel that I can now fully appreciate it for all it’s worth, thanks for sharing!

  5. Ah, I find such experience quite educational and enlightening. When we re-read literature or paintings at different points in life, our interpretation might change. At different stages of life the values we assign to life issues will vary along with our perception. Moreover, as we gain experience and knowledge, we could discover a new angle, a new hidden treasure in a work, and truly understand its essence.

    1. not only in literature. in movies, even in songs. for example i’ve seen 5 centimeters per center many times and each time felt different.

  6. Get to the bottom of WHY this had to happen. There would have been no bombs falling, no scarcity of food for people or food for animals, no life or death decisions to make of innocent human and animal life IF the country (Japan) had not made the first strike at Hawaii. Japan is responsible for all this horror, as well as for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do not allow the blame to go anywhere but to those who decided to make the first strike on America.

    1. Japan “made the first strike at Hawaii.” Yes, and at the same time attacked the Philippians, the Dutch East Indies, Shanghai, and many other targets. Also, in 1941 militarist Japan had been waging war against the Chinese people for ten years — and conquered Korea forty years earlier.

      The responsibility for that war is totally on the Japanese government of that time. Their totalitarian government allowed no response other than total war. (The current government and people of Japan have renounced war, and built a nation of peace.)

      That said, it is important for everyone to know that warfare is not just glory and triumph. Lots of innocent people will die during a war. War is NEVER a first resort. War should never be entered into without a good understanding of the horrors involved.

      (I have relatives who were bombed in England, and friends who were bombed in Germany. Collapsing bomb shelters don’t ask if you are five years old before they break your leg.)

      The military government of the Empire of Japan chose war — the Chinese, the British, the Dutch, and the United States did not and would not have chosen war with Japan.

      So one lesson would be, “Don’t start a war you can’t win.”

      A better lesson is, “War is horrible. Avoid it.”

  7. Who’s to blame for the bombing, the starvation of humen and animals, but the Japanese leaders themselves? Who’s responsible or the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasiki but they themselves?

    1. Yes, Japan is responsible for many war atrocities in the 20th century, but it was the US government who decided to pursue such a horrible and unnecessary path. I hope it will never happen again.

      1. unnecessary…i wonder. although i don’t say bravo, i consider two parameters:1. the sino-japanese war and stubborness of the emperor and 2.usa’s own policy and political gains. unfortunately politics is a nasty game. i wonder, it can be played without dirtying your hands with blood and sacrifices of human lives

  8. It is a pity that I didn’t come across this story any earlier, even though I am familiar with stories like Sadaku, Cranes etc connected with Atomic bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. At the age of 65, I couldn’t stop tears rolling down my cheek. It is such pathetic story, so I do not know how children from no war lands receive it, can they absorb so much sorrow and pathos. But one thing is clear – Our soceity did not learn anything from wars. we have many war mongering countries. Lakhs of people are getting killed for so many
    issues. PEACE, will it prevail over our socity in the near future. It is becoming more and more elusive day by day. We the people livingon this Earth are responsible because we are not proactive to
    establish it on our Earth.

  9. I’m so sure I saw a cartoon about this as a kid in the 80’es. But I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Any ideas?

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