Japanese Fall Hard For 'timid' Garden Eels

Japanese fall hard for 'timid' garden eelsA small species of eel has become something of a craze in Japan, spawning songs, books and even a special "day" to honor the humorous sea creatures.
About 40 centimeters long, "chin-anago" (spotted garden eel) is a species of conger eel that lives in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

When it comes to chin-anago fandom, it's hard to top Atsushi and Hikaru Shibuya.

The young couple encountered the congers in summer 2012 while on a date at Sumida Aquarium near Tokyo Skytree. They fell in love not only with the coy eels, but also with each other.

"They let me feel their freedom," Atsushi, 35, says of the eels that live in colonies with their tails buried in the seabed and their upper bodies swaying back and forth with the currents.

"I like to wonder what each eel is thinking about as they live their lives," Hikaru, 27, adds.

Nov. 11 is designated as "Garden Eel Day" by the Japanese Anniversary Association. The 11th day of the 11th month was selected because the eels poking up through the sand resemble the number "1."

Atsushi and Hikaru decided to get married this year. The wedding was held next to the tank at Sumida Aquarium housing their 634 spotted friends. And, of course, the wedding just had to be on Nov. 11 at 1:11 p.m.

Japanese video-sharing website Nico Nico Douga streamed live the aquarium's garden eel tank for 115 hours from Nov. 6. It may have been just a broadcast of a fish tank for some people, but more than 790,000 viewers appear to have thought otherwise.

"I think many people can't help but empathize with how garden eels rarely show their entire bodies and live timidly, hiding inside a hole," said Sakiko Kondo, a public relations officer at Sumida Aquarium.

The little eels are known to quickly retreat into the sand at the approach of any potential predator.

Digimerce Inc., operator of job search website Joy Job, released a series of online ads in March featuring garden eels and their behavior.

"Their movements are really whimsical and have human qualities," said Masaya Ishida, director of the company's marketing branch.

Illustrator Ai Iseki, 29, and singer-songwriter Junya Watanabe, 30, released a self-produced CD, "Chin-Anago no Uta" (Song of the garden eel), in September. It contains the song they released on YouTube in 2010, which has so far garnered more than 360,000 views.

"(Garden eels) hide away as soon as another fish appears," Iseki said. "Their behavior really broadened my understanding of the animal world."

Publisher Holp Shuppan also joined the fad by publishing a photo book titled "Yurayura Chin-Anago" (Swaying garden eels) also on Nov. 11.

More aquariums are starting to exhibit colonies of garden eels. According to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, while 34 of the 70 member aquariums were displaying the creatures at the end of 2005, the number increased to 45 out of 65 by the end of 2012.

One such facility is Aquamarine Fukushima in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, an aquarium that was damaged by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The garden eel tank was damaged heavily by the disaster, leaving nearly 100 specimens dead.

Many fans requested that the aquarium bring back the fish, and the operator started exhibiting a small colony of 40 garden eels in September 2013.