Shabani: The making of a metrosexual gorilla

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Shabani the gorilla has caught the attention of lots of young women on social media

Since March, Japanese women have been swooning over a gorilla called Shabani in the Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens. It's not the first time Japanese popular culture has fallen in love with a large inarticulate creature (see Godzilla).

This week Western media picked up the story and the sensitive, nurturing gorilla of the Japanese imagination became a hunky beast. The BBC's Yuko Kato looks at the bizarre anthropomorphic language used in Japan and the West in the making of this "metrosexual" gorilla.

It was the sensitive eyes and hauntingly good looks that caught the imagination of young, female Japanese zoo-goers - perhaps not entirely seriously.

While chest-thumping ferocity is normally associated with the gorilla, what caught the Japanese imagination is rather different.

Visitors began posting photos on social media back in March this year, commenting on his brooding good looks.

Since then, Shabani has been a regular in domestic news and social media and the words they have used are interesting.

Ikemen: It's the Japanese slang for "handsome guy". The word is a combination of "I-ke" (pronounced "ee-kay"), which is an abbreviation of a word meaning "cool" or just "good", and "men" derived from the English.

But it was when the zoo said Shabani was a good and responsible dad to his two young children that the other words come in.

Ikumen: Another slang word meaning "a hands-on dad who looks after his children" - "iku" being an abbreviation of the word "iku-ji" which means "raising children".

Shabani was shaping up in Japanese social media as the perfect role model for the modern Japanese male.

Image caption A tweet sent by one fan read: "The gorilla called Shabani at a Nagoya zoo is so 'ikemen' I can't stop laughing. I so want to go see him, it's too much"

For many Japanese women, especially busy working mothers, an "ikemen" who is also an "ikumen" is their dream come true, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of Japan's top pop idol, Takuya Kimura, who is now 42 and a dad of two.

There has been a trend among Japanese male celebrities to emphasise that they are good and loving fathers, and Shabani's popularity may be the latest addition to that trend.

He was born in the Netherlands 18 years ago and came to the Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya, Aichi prefecture, in 2007 as a gift. In human terms he would be in his mid- to late-thirties, the age most men, human or ape, are at the height of their strength and virility.

And what has proven more endearing for adult women is that Shabani's wife Nene is 24 years his senior, who bore his son aged 40 - a surprising age for a female gorilla to give birth, according to the zoo.

Dark and brooding: According to local media reports, many women who flock to see Shabani in action are using words of admiration often attributed to the likes of George Clooney or Hugh Jackman or Japan's own Ken Watanabe - "shibui" (meaning "bitter") and "nihiru" (derived from the English "nihilistic") both used to describe "dark and brooding" men.

Image copyright Reuters/AFP
Image caption Shabani has been getting the sort of attention usually directed at US actor George Clooney

When Western media picked up the story this week, they posted multitudes of pictures of Shabani looking "handsome" and "thinking deep thoughts".

The words being used to describe him are "hunky" and "heartthrob" and "hot". He "flexes his muscles" and he stares broodily into the distance.

Many Japanese would probably not object but the gorilla's "hunky" qualities are not what it's all about. It's not his metrosexual qualities but his "spornosexual" qualities that seem behind this coverage.

In any case, zoo spokesperson Takayuki Ishikawa says gorillas have always been popular among regular zoo visitors, with some elderly couples coming to visit almost every day. But with the recent rise of Shabani's popularity, the crowds around the gorilla enclosure have doubled with more young women.

Mr Ishikawa says the zoo staff don't necessarily see Shabani as a particularly outstanding handsome gorilla but that gorillas all tend to have striking features.

"Perhaps because more people have actually taken the time to really look at them, they are noticing for the first time how attractive gorillas are."

Related Topics

More on this story