Pandas Bring High Hopes for Tokyo Economy, Diplomacy

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Japan pulled out all the stops to welcome its latest visitors Monday: a pair of giant pandas from China.

Panda flags lined the streets near Tokyo's Ueno Zoo – new home to the cuddly bears. The creatures even arrived in a plane painted to look like a panda.

Restaurants throughout Japan's capital served up panda-themed dishes, while cafes frothed their lattes with panda designs.

To say Japan is excited about its newest residents would be an understatement.

"The pandas are finally coming to town," jewelry store owner Masahiro Koyano told the Associated Press. "We are so excited."

Five-year-old male Bili and female Xiannu will fill a huge void left by Ling Ling, Ueno Zoo's last panda.

The 22-year-old died of heart failure in 2008 – living the equivalent of 70 human years.

The new Tokyo residents are on lease from China for $950,000 a year, a giant price tag for the Tokyo municipal government.

But the potential payoff could be huge.

The bears are expected to rake in $240 million a year, giving the local economy a boost.

It's welcome news for a zoo that's seen the number of visitors decline from 3.5 million to 3 million a year since Ling Ling's death.

Japanese leaders also see a big payoff in the latest panda diplomacy.

The Chinese imports come at a time when Sino-Japanese tensions are high, amid an ongoing territorial spat over disputed islands in southern Japan.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan's cabinet hopes the bears will help smooth relations with China.

"While it cannot be denied that various challenges and outstanding issues exist in Japan-China relations, I expect the move to help deepen mutual understanding among the public," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

Japan's love affair with pandas dates back to 1972 when the first pair arrived from China.

Their arrival marked the signing of a peace treaty between Japan and China, and set off a panda frenzy at the Ueno Zoo. Ling Ling arrived 20 years later.

Following her death, the zoo invested $1.1 million to renovate the panda cage, installing floor heating, a playground with a sandbox and landscaping, and new safety features.

Bili and Xiannu hail from China' s southwestern Sichuan province.

They'll be treated to rare bamboo from Japan's central mountains, similar to what they eat back home.

Bili is described as a "big eater and sporty" who enjoys tree climbing, while Xiannu has an "affable nature."

The public will get their first glimpse of the bears when the zoo unveils them late next month.