Pandas help lighten the mood in Japan

TOKYO Fri Apr 1, 2011 2:35pm EDT

1 of 3. A girl holds a panda plush toy as she joins a crowd of people waiting for the opening of Ueno Zoological Park in Tokyo April 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

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TOKYO (Reuters) - A pair of pandas that arrived from China a few weeks ago made their first public appearance at a zoo in Tokyo on Friday, providing a little light relief for victims of the tsunami that hit the country in March.

About 300 people who were forced from their homes by the tsunami joined thousands of others at Ueno Zoo to welcome male panda Ri Ri and female Shin Shin, both 5 years old, whose arrival in the country was broadcast live on national television in February.

The pandas' debut was postponed for about two weeks due to the disaster on March 11.

The zoo asked visitors to contribute to the relief efforts after the massive earthquake and tsunami that killed or left missing about 27,500 people and made about 350,000 homeless.

"The mood in Japan is so bleak now. I hope more people will come see the pandas so they can cheer us up," zoo visitor Misaki Kamezaki said.

The last panda at Ueno, Ling Ling, died in 2008, although there are pandas at other zoos in Japan.

The presence of pandas in Japan is often linked to the state of relations with China, which often go through chilly spells due to issues such as Japan's handling of its wartime past and territorial disputes over islands.

China has donated to the relief effort, sending aid including clothing to the victims.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alan Raybould and Paul Casciato)

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