Hanako, in the barren enclosure she’s lived in alone, for six decades.

Hanako the Elephant: 61 Years (and Counting) Alone in a Concrete Prison

Hanako is a 69-year-old captive Asian elephant currently living in unacceptable conditions at Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo. According to a recent magazine article I found about her, back in 1949 she was transported from Thailand to Japan as a youngster, to what would become her lifetime prison. And ‘prison,’ is not an exaggeration.

A 2015 article in a local culture magazine I found on a recent trip, describing Hanako’s story.

I was shocked and dismayed to see the conditions of her confinement firsthand, in what I would guess is one of the cruelest, most archaic zoos in the modern world. Totally alone in a small, barren, cement enclosure with absolutely NO comfort or stimulation provided, she just stood there almost lifeless — like a figurine. There was absolutely nothing else for her to do. It was beyond painful to take in. To make matters worse, this zoo is located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Tokyo, part of a public park known for also being home to the popular Ghibli Museum.

This likely means hundreds of thousands of global tourists have come and gone over the years, within meters of Hanako — all while she’s just stood there, with nothing to do and no company to keep, trapped in her concrete prison. I too am guilty of having simply come and gone, with a pain in my heart and a great sense of injustice, but simply not knowing what to do. At least, if anything, I can share the story of Hanako’s long, sad life here.

That said, there might still be hope for Japan’s oldest living captive elephant. I don’t know in exactly what form that lies. I assume Japan has no elephant sanctuaries. As the 3rd largest economy in the world, the country needs to make advances in its animal welfare efforts.

Let me know your thoughts and please share this with your like-minded or elephant-loving friends. I’m hoping somewhere out there is some justice for Hanako and other captive elephants kept in such horrendous, unacceptable conditions.

Hanako, in her concrete zoo enclosure.

*important update:

I would like to add here that since I first wrote this post, the movement has developed significantly. The petition now has over 380,000 signatures (wow!). I have also interviewed an expert on the topic who has educated me on the key precautionary measures would need to be taken to improve Hanako’s conditions asap.

With that, I would like to stress that I — backed by a global network of advocates—are trying to make a connection with the Inokashira Park Zoo, to work collaboratively with them on a solution for Hanako. They have admitted in recent media articles that their facility is not the most optimal for Hanako (or elephants in general) but they are challenged with a lack of funds to do much about it.

From a Japan Times article published Jan 7: “Hidemasa Hori (who is responsible for rearing and displaying the animals at Inokashira Park Zoo) acknowledges that in an ideal world elephants should be kept on soil, but he says it is very expensive to maintain such an environment, and a small public zoo like Inokashira Park Zoo, which is mostly run with taxpayer money, cannot afford it.”

We can help with that. I sent an email asking them to meet with me Feb 2, 2016, but have not heard back. First things first, she needs an independent expert assessment to deem whether she is fit for transport. Our global network for of Hanako advocates will raise the funds needed for this. If she is deemed fit for travel (although given her age, my expert thinks it unlikely), we can look into a sanctuary or better zoo within Japan. If not, then conditions in her current enclosure should be improved immediately: a full nutritional and environmental enrichment programme, and to offer her the very best in terms of space, soft substrates, sand piles to lie on, a heated pool and so on.

Appendix: (Previous Update from Nov 2015): I’ve emailed 5 elephant sanctuaries/NPOs with this story. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee responded with this message:

Hi Ulara,

Thanks for contacting The Sanctuary. We would suggest you contact a couple of international organizations like: ADI- Animal Defenders International www.ad-international.org/

And www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/elephants

They may have some information they can share with you about ways to help.

We appreciate your concern

  • Petter Granli, Co-Director/Co-Founder of Elephant Voices wrote back with this response:

Hi Ulara,

Thank you for writing. I will get in touch with colleauges about the elephant you are mentioning — to assess if anything can be done. I may also write a post on Facebook with the link to your blog post to see if there are anybody out there that can contribute. Is that ok for you?

To move the elephant far is not realistic, though, thinking about the age of this particular individual. But the elephant is certainly in desperate need of better conditions!

Kind wishes, Petter

  • Update: Sarah Jefferson, Zoo Check Support Coordinator at Born Free Foundation wrote back with this response:

Dear Ulara,

I am writing to you from the Zoo Check team here at the Born Free Foundation following your email concerning Hanako the elephant at Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo, Japan. Please accept my apologies for the delay in replying to you, but we have been inundated with reports concerning wild animals in captivity. Around the world millions of wild animals are exploited for human entertainment in zoos, circuses and dolphinaria or used as props for souvenir photographs. Through our global initiative, Travellers’ Animal Alert, Born Free’s Zoo Check team is working to investigate, expose and prevent captive wild animal neglect and suffering wherever we can. Zoo Check receives concerned reports from members of the public regarding zoos in Japan on a regular basis. However, I don’t believe we have ever received a report about Hanako before, which is surprising given how long she has been at the zoo. We were contacted recently by a lady who had visited 14 zoos in Japan, sending us reports, photos and footage. Of the zoos she visited, several had elephants, some of them kept on their own, held in small, barren, concrete enclosures, similar to poor Hanako (and in some cases worse). Sadly, the conditions throughout the zoos were generally poor for most of the animals, not just the elephants. The situation of solitary elephants in zoos really is a global problem. In 2013 Born Free released a report called ‘Innocent Prisoners’, looking at the 40+ elephants living alone in European zoos and circuses, and there was also a short documentary film, made in association with Born Free, called ‘The elephant in the Room’. As is the case in Japan, there is no dedicated elephant sanctuary in Europe currently. Sadly, this lack of sanctuaries means that there are often limited options for these elephants, particularly elderly or ‘problem’ elephants. There may be an option to move solitary elephants to other zoos with better conditions or that already have other elephants, but of course the zoos have to want to give them up for rehoming in the first place. It does seem that Inokashira Zoo is very proud of the fact that they have Japan’s oldest elephant and would probably be reluctant to let her go. That doesn’t mean that her enclosure couldn’t be improved of course. It’s shocking that nobody appears has made any effort to enrich her enclosure or make any changes that would make her life more tolerable. I am sure that the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquaria (JAZA) are aware of Hanako, and the other solitary elephants in Japan. They must also be aware of the poor conditions that exist throughout their member zoos, yet there does not seem to have been much progress made at trying to tackle the problems. We are aware of a group working in Japan called ‘Voice for Zoo Animals’ who are particularly focused on campaigning for better rights for animals in zoos in Japan and for better legislation to protect them. I wonder if they have any further info concerning Hanako — we will see if we can find out anything further and can at least raise our concerns with the relevant authorities. For more information about our work please visit our website at www.bornfree.org.uk. You can also keep up to date with the latest wildlife news and information by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and also by signing up to our free monthly e-newsletter — Born Free-Mail.

Yours Truly,

Sarah Jefferson



Founder @ www.elephantsinjapan.com Ex-editor @diplomat_apac+ comms @hootsuite. Works to inform, inspire and ignite others to better the lives of animals.

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Ulara Nakagawa

Founder @ www.elephantsinjapan.com Ex-editor @diplomat_apac+ comms @hootsuite. Works to inform, inspire and ignite others to better the lives of animals.