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Meeting Japan’s most handsome gorilla at Higashiyama-koen Zoo

A couple of years ago, a story did the rounds on the internet about a handsome gorilla at a zoo in Japan that was causing quite a stir with Japanese women. It may seem bizarre, but the gorilla had such perfect, masculine features, that there had been a huge surge in female visitors who came to admire him.

If you’re from the UK, you might have come across this in the Daily Mail, a slightly fascist rightwing newspaper read by bored home-county housewives who like to see sexy pictures but only under the guise of disapproval.

The story of this good-looking gorilla and his giddy Japanese fans was perfect to make readers simultaneously titillated and appalled. You can imagine the comments:

“Them crazy slitty-eyed foreigners and their bestiality. Ooh, he does have nice arms though.” - A Daily Mail reader

I saw the story on social media shortly after I moved to Japan and then thought nothing of it.

Until a few months ago when I took a break from working in Tokyo to teach at a women’s university in the city of Nagoya.

After seeing a poster for a familiar-looking dashing beast at the station on my commute to work, I discovered that it was the same gorilla, his name was Shabani, and he lived at Higashiyama-koen Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which was walking distance from the university where I taught.

Obviously, I needed to go see him.

Partly out of curiosity, but also because being one of the few young, male teachers at a university populated entirely by 18 to 22 year old women, I guess I wanted to check out the competition.

Maybe I could convince him to join forces with me so we could go out on the pull together?

Higashiyama-koen Zoo and Botanical Gardens

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I haven’t been to many zoos, but this one struck me as pretty typical in terms of attractions. I went on a bleak December day not long before closing time, so it felt a little desolate, but the few Japanese families wandering around in their thick down jackets seemed to be having a good time. There are plenty of creatures to see and the zoo covers quite a large area, although with all the concrete, it does feel like you’re still in the city rather than being transported to the jungle.

As well as animal exhibits, there are also the usual play areas, some rides and these slightly incongruous dinosaurs:

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Looks better than the sequel to Jurassic World

More so than other zoos I’ve been to, I couldn’t help but notice that the cages seemed quite small, with most of the animals either sheltering in a corner or pacing up and down.

Therefore, before we discuss Shabani, let’s take a moment to think about the very serious plight of zoo animals and imagine this poor gorilla’s story:

A wild foreign beast, taken from its native land, forced to live in unsuitable, cramped conditions. Every day carted out on show for the amusement of Japanese people; gawked at by children, mocked by adults.

Oh hang on, that’s the life of an English teacher here. Sorry, my bad. Moving on.

Yeah, it’s obvious that the animals aren’t in great accommodation, but neither is anyone else in this country. I felt sorry for them but compared to the housing my company provided, they aren’t doing too badly! I have to climb a ladder to sleep on a futon. I’d be lucky if I had enough room for a small pool or a rope swing.

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I wanted to make a joke about this exhibit being a gruff Japanese man kept in cruel conditions, but that cage is bigger than my apartment

Japan's most handsome gorilla

Shabani really is quite the celebrity in Nagoya. As well as appearing regularly in social media feeds, he was also used in a video to promote the city’s municipal job recruitment effort:

I don’t really know what’s going on in that video, but this article by the Japan Times says that it shows young employees introducing their work at Nagoya City Hall, then Shabani says: “Let’s work together!”

Also, according to that article, a city official remarked:

“We would like to recruit someone like Shabani, who is strong, generous and nice to residents.”

Shabani’s reputation certainly preceded him.

Meeting Shabani

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Be honest, you would

At the entrance to the zoo, a staff member warned us that because it was getting later in the day and the zoo would close soon, we’d have to be quick to catch a glimpse of Shabani. We rushed around looking at the map, gradually getting closer to the gorilla exhibit at the end of the park. At first, we were worried that we wouldn’t know which enclosure to look for.

Then we saw the crowds.

Nothing was happening outside, but there was also a viewing area that showed the interior of the gorilla enclosure. As we pushed through, we saw him.

Sitting there with his back to the audience, nonchalantly munching something in a rather superior manner. I wondered if fame had gone to his head…

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Dude does his deadlifts

Then he turned around and all you could hear were iPhone camera shutter sounds, cooing nosies, and the Japanese equivalent of “Phwoar!”

To be precise, here’s what people were saying:

“Ikemen!” - Basically means 'hot guy'

“Kako-ii!” - Good-looking (a man can be good-looking in this sense, but so too can a car or anything well-presented)

“Sugoi!” - Wow / cool!

“Yabai!” - No way / oh shit! etc - used both positively or negatively to show you’re impressed or surprised

Just as the heads in front of me moved out the way so I could get a clear shot, Shabani turned his back again. Sadly I couldn’t get the perfect picture, even though he was obviously posing for us.

Shabani’s appeal

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Don't hate the player...

As the zoo was closing, we decided to head back out and towards the train home. Leaving the crowds behind, we pondered the appeal of Shabani. What is it that makes him so attractive? Remember that this article is about a big monkey, not a famous actor or musician.

My theory is thus:

Shabani has the pure masculinity that often seems missing in the modern world. Yeah, he’s a gorilla, but he has perfect features, powerful strength and displays the primal instinct that appears to us as a confident ‘bring it’ attitude. He's the epitome of biological fitness.

Apparently, all of this isn’t a common package in Japan.

Shabani-Higashiyama-Zoo3

It’s no secret that the birthrate is down here but there are also reports that nearly a third of young people are entering their thirties without having had sex. Whether it’s the rise of internet porn or the strict working culture, a lot of men either don’t have the time or willingness to pursue relationships.

I touched on the sort of fantasy worlds available when I wrote about maid cafes and love pillows in Akihabara. I mean, here’s a story about a guy who married his virtual girlfriend.

The term ‘herbivore man’ (Sōshoku-kei danshi) has even gained popularity, describing sensitive men who have lost their manliness and desire to pursue women.

What’s the result? Well, when overt masculinity appears, it’s popular. Shabani is even used on a brand of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. Just don't think too much about whether the recipient would rather be dating a gorilla.

I’m not worried though. My Japanese isn’t much better than my primate language, but I’m pretty sure Shabani agreed to go out to some bars and be my wingman.

We’ll be unstoppable.

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"Yabai!"

Photos by Simon Fogg / Higashiyama-Koen Zoo

What you need to know:

Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens Information

Opening hours: 9:00am to 4:50pm (last entry at 4:30pm)
Tickets: Adults 500 Yen / £3.50 / $4.50
Access: Three minute walk from Higashiyama-koen station
English site: www.higashiyama.city.nagoya.jp

So... Would you? Leave a comment below. And remember to check out the Destination Addicted Facebook page. Shabani might even stop by.

Simon Fogg

Simon Fogg

Semi-nomadic journalist and language professor. UK - Thailand - Japan - Taiwan.

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Meeting Japan’s most handsome gorilla at Higashiyama-koen Zoo
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