education Japan JET Middle School Tokyo

Depressing Elephants

This year, the Sunshine English textbooks were updated.  One of the new stories is called “Faithful Elephants” and is about the sad end of three elephants at  Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo during WWII:

Many years ago, there were three wonderful elephants at the Ueno Zoo.  The elephants were John, Tonky, and Wanly.  They could do tricks.  Visitors at the zoo loved the see their tricks.

Japan was at war then.  Little by little the situation was getting worse.  Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.

If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.  So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.  Before long, it was time to kill the three elephants.  The zookeepers did not want to kill them, but they had to follow the orders.  They started with John.

John loved potatoes, so they gave him poisoned potatoes together with good ones.  But John was so clever that he ate only the good potatoes.  Then they tried to give him an injection.  But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through.

When this did not work, they decided to give him no food.  Poor John died in seventeen days.

Then the time came for Tonky and Wanly.  They always looked at people with loving eyes. They were sweet and gentle-hearted.

However, the elephant keepers had to stop giving them anything to eat.  When a keeper walked by their cage, they stood up and raised their trunks high in the air.  They did their tricks because they were hoping to get food and water.

Everyone at the zoo said with tears, “If they can live a few more days, the war may be over and they will be saved.”

Tonky and Wanly could no longer move.  They lay down on the ground, but their eyes were beautiful.

When an elephant keeper came to see them, they looked so weak.  He became too sad to go back to see them.

Bombs continued to drop in Tokyo.  And a few days later, Tonky and Wanly died.  Later, when the bodies of the elephants were examined, nothing was found in their stomachs — not even one drop of water.

Today, the three elephants rest in peace with other animals under the monument at the Ueno Zoo.

There are many, many things wrong with this story.  Some grammatical, some stylistic.

However, I’m not concerned with these here.  What I find unacceptable about this story’s inclusion in a textbook approved by MEXT (The Ministry of Education) is that it contains blatant historical inaccuracies, that when taken into consideration, completely undermine the importance of this story as a (purported) piece of history.

First, the story makes several statements or allusions that are simply untrue.  In the second paragraph it says:

Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.

This is false.

Consider this timeline (which I will refer to later on).

  • December 1941 – Attack on Pearl Harbor
  • April 1942 – Doolittle bombing raids on Tokyo
  • August 13th, 1943 – Starvation of John the elephant begins.
  • August 1943 – John dies.
  • September 4th, 1943 – A memorial service is held for all three elephants.
  • September 11th, 1943 – Wanly the elephant dies.
  • September 23rd, 1943 – Tonky the elephant dies.
  • June 15th, 1944 – B-29 Raid on Kyushu launched from China.  The first raid on the Japanese home islands since the Doolittle raid.
  • Nov 17th, 1944 – B-29 raids on Tokyo begin and last until Japan’s surrender.

As you can see from this timeline, Tokyo was not bombed for a full two and a half years during the war – the time that the textbook alleges “Bombs were dropped on Tokyo everyday.”

This fact exposes another inconsistency in the story.  The very next paragraph says:

If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.

Since there were no bombs being dropped, this premise is false.  The paragraph continues:

So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.

If there were no bombs falling on Tokyo, then what was the reason for the killing of the animals?  Even if there were bombs falling, if the bombs landed close enough to damage and open the metal cages, surely this would also injure or kill the animals.  If their safety alone was the concern, then they could have been relocated to the countryside.  There certainly could be other explanations – lack of food, lack of funds to maintain the zoo. After all, this was war.  But of course, as in war, the true story of why, how, and by whom, the elephants were ordered to be killed is more complicated.

A few google searches revealed two useful resources on this incident.  This article in Japan Focus, which chronicles in great detail the power struggle and series of events that led to the elephants’ deaths, and this webpage (in Japanese) devoted to the treatment of zoo animals in wartime.  They both delve much further into the motivations and chronology than I will here in this textbook critique, but their main points are very important:

  • The governor of Tokyo at that time, Odachi Shigeo, had recently returned from a posting as governor of Singapore, where he had seen the war firsthand.  He felt that the people of Japan needed a shock to wake them up to the realities of war, and chose to use the elephants as martyrs to this end.  As zoo director Koda wrote in his memoir about Governor Odachi, “when he returned to the motherland to become governor of Tokyo and saw the attitude of the people, he seems to have felt keenly that he had to open the people’s eyes to the fact that this was not the way to go, that war was not such an easy affair.” (市長をしていた大達さんは、内地に帰って、勝ち戦と思い戦争の怖さも知らないでいる国民に自覚させるために、動物園の猛獣を処分することによって警告を発したのでしょう。)
  • Not only had Fukuda, the acting director of the zoo after Koga, “confidently listed” the amounts of poison needed to kill the elephants, but zoo records show that Tonky had been given injections of medicines and had had blood taken soon before his starvation.  The story in the textbook says “Then they tried to give him an injection.  But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through,” which seems unreasonable considering that injections and blood samples had been easily administered on Tonky.  Why was John different?
  • The story fails to explain why John was the first to go.  As it turns out, John had been a violent elephant, and this was the reason for putting him down first.  The zoo director “decided to put down the violent male elephant, John, and his starvation was begun on August 13th. (暴れん坊のオスのゾウ「ジョン」を処分することを決めて、8月13日より絶食を行う。)
  • Maybe most horrible of all these revelations is that on September 4th, 1943, after John had died, and while Tonky and Wanly were still undergoing forced starvation, a public memorial service was held at the zoo to mourn the deaths of the three elephants.  I repeat: this was while Tonky and Wanly were still starving nearby.

These three elephants may have been wonderful animals.  It’s sad that they ended up as ancillary victims of a human war.  But the true tragedy of this story is not simply in their deaths, but in how they died, in the equivocating, cruel methods used to kill them.  It is completely unexplained in the story, and both of the resources that I found, why the elephants were simply not shot.  Would this not have been more satisfactory, both to the army and the zookeepers?  Excuses are made in the diaries of the zoo director Fukuda, that the noise of the gunshots would “scare” the population.  But, was this not the intended effect?  To “open the people’s eyes” to the hard realities of war?

Due to the textbook’s simplicity and gross inaccuracy, the true, complicated nature of this story as a piece of history, and its moral dimensions of human cruelty, are skirted and warped into a sentimental and dangerously simplified platitude on war and peace.  This whitewashed version of history does not belong in an nationally approved curriculum.  It certainly has no place in an English textbook.

If you use this textbook, and are asked to model-read or deal with this story in class, make sure your students know the whole story.  Help them be critical thinkers.  Help them ask questions about this story and about their own history.  Help them understand not only the story in English, but the critical and skeptical stance that one should bring to any encounter with a new text.


  • Above is a simple presentation that I made and showed to our 3rd grade students after their final reading of the story.  I would recommend showing it to them after their first reading, and then have them reconsider the story with this new information in their subsequent readings.
  • It seems that this story book is somewhat well known in American education circles as well, in the book Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya.  There seem to be lesson plans for this on the internet for the elementary school  level.  I would suggest finding another story that deals with Japan and the war.

8 replies on “Depressing Elephants”

This story sounds to me like a fable. I can’t pin down why it seems apocryphal, because I’m currently too intellectually lazy to analyze what exact aspects are making me think that it does, but I think on the very face of it the story does not seem literally true as written.

I read it over, read quickly through your entry, and almost came down to the comments to say “Well come on, Sean, it’s a story. These things are often exaggerated.” before I realized that you are condemning, quite correctly in my opinion, its inclusion in what is to be taken as a completely factual textbook for education.

This is a good post.

Hey Sean, thanks for this post. We are currently reading over this story in my English classes, so I’ve been doing some research about the history of it because it all seems a bit out of order to me. I was happy to come across this page. I agree with your post here and I don’t like teaching the kids this story when it is not factually correct. I want to give them this “alternative” version, so they can think critically and make their own minds up. But I don’t want to piss off any Japanese people. Because I suspect that this story is dear in their hearts and if the foreigner goes off on a tangent saying that this story in the textbook is not true then I might not be everyone’s favorite person for a while. How can I give them an alternative version whilst still being culturally sensitive? If you can still help me, I would appreciate it. Thank you.

smartiecookies, glad to see your comment. I was pursuing the same line of questioning as you two years ago when I first dealt with this story in class. There is plenty of information about this incident online, as you have found, but nothing about this current incarnation. I’m not sure how well I explained the logical inconsistencies to the class, but my JTE allowed me to show them the simple presentation at the bottom of the post (which could be much better). I didn’t choose to use that this year, because, as you said, it does rather feel like you are the foreigner swooping in to rain on their national pride and methods of remembering and teaching about this part of history. This is especially true if this kind of government-sanctioned “creative reinterpretation” of historical events raises your hackles like it does mine. It’s not good teaching to go on an angry tear in front of a group of 9th graders. I think if there are ALTs who are in every class, then it might be possible to design lessons that incorporate a critical thinking component as they read, possibly combined with their own research. Depending on your relationship with your co-teacher, I think it can simply be enough to ask them some questions about what they think of the story. My own students were able, for example, to ask how a cage could be destroyed but an animal inside that cage remain fine. You might also show them the timeline and then ask them why they think the story might say that bombs were being dropped. Finally, the horrible fact that the memorial service was conducted during the starvation of Tonky and Wanly is enough to call the whole premise of the “kind elephants” and their hapless but well-meaning zookeepers into question. From this point, students are probably mature enough then to start questioning the validity of this story as an authoritative text, a step which, while small, is still significantly more valuable than them simply getting depressed while reading such a morbid tale.

Just wanted to say thanks. While reading the story, a lot of things didn’t sit right with me and seemed a bit unexplainable (killing the animals didn’t seem to be necessary since the bombs that were dropped would hurt the animals too). Also, why starvation was necessary (not just shooting them). So, just did a google search and came here. Appreciate your desire to get down to the truth of things.
because the story is この話は、実際にあったことをもとに書かれた物語です。i think it was a poor choice to include in the text.

Ah, one more thing.
The story is actually taken from a children’s book. In the back of sunshine, the story is actually written by 土屋由岐雄(Tsuchiya Yukio)
So, similar to the story of “Solomon and the Bee” (also in the textbook) in that it takes a children’s book that is based on a person/event from history. Solomon didn’t talk with any bees and the elephants were killed as an example to the public, not out of danger. The problem is that it purports that events happened as so (while, of course, making no such claims involving Solomon relying on a Bee’s advice).

and i reread the post and saw that you already wrote that (oops! i need to be a more careful reader!) sorry for crowding the comments section

I understand that there are many historical details teachers are not permitted to teach in Japanese schools ( such as the rape of Nanking and the cooperation with the nazis). Is there a department of censorship you can consult to learn if your history lessons cover banned topics before you are fired or labelled a traitor and seditioner?

Teachers are permitted to teach those topics. There’s not a widespread denial of the events of Nanking outside of right wingers. I doubt that the textbooks have the same slant that Chinese textbooks would have, but I have not seen them. And as far as department of censorship, that would be the Ministry of Education, which approves all textbooks nationwide, sort of like the Texas School Board in the US.

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