TOKYO — It was the hottest news in Tokyo: Policemen halted traffic Tuesday morning on an eight-lane downtown thoroughfare to allow a duck and her nine ducklings to cross safely.
The motorists waited patiently, some for as long as 20 minutes, while the ducks slowly made their way from the man-made pond in front of the headquarters of the Mitsui Trading Co. to the water-filled moat of the Imperial Palace.
The crossing marked the climax of what has come to be known in the Japanese press as "duck fever." Many of the 100 reporters and photographers who covered the event for the nation's major newspapers and five television networks had waited all night for the crossing. Some had been standing vigil since May 20, when the ducklings were hatched on the Mitsui pond.
For four years now, the same duck has raised her young on the Mitsui pond, then crossed over to the palace moat where she has taught them to fly. This year's parade from pond to moat attracted more attention than ever because of a television documentary about the mother duck that appeared on New Year's Day, a holiday that for Japanese emphasizes family ties.
Last Sunday, about 25,000 people showed up in front of the Mitsui Building in the hope of being there when the birds crossed to the moat. Several people reportedly fell into the pond before guards roped it off.
At a nearby subway station, workers got so tired of directing questioners to the Mitsui Building that they put up a sign bearing an arrow and the words, "This Way to Ducks."
By popular demand, Nippon Television has shown the documentary three times since it first appeared, and the network has received 2,000 letters, many from mothers saying how much they had learned from the female duck.
One of last year's ducklings hatched late and hence developed more slowly than the others. The scene of the mother duck taking special care to teach this slow learner how to fly brought tears to the eyes of millions of viewers.
In the documentary, the mother duck took off from the palace moat in late summer, leaving the slow-learning duckling behind. But she returned a few days later to fetch the youngster, which had by then gained strength enough to fly.
The ducks have also given people a chance to laugh at themselves. On Monday morning, the ducks made three false starts, and each time the 100 reporters, a dozen policemen and scores of spectators rushed after them, only to see them turn back.
On Tuesday, the crowd was back, and a cheer went up when the ducks completed their 50-yard journey. When the ducklings hesitated to follow their mother into the moat, a bystander shouted, "Go on now, follow your mommy!"
Kyo Ogawa, deputy director of Mitsui Trading Co.'s general affairs bureau, said, "The mother flew in and out of the moat 16 times, to show the ducklings how to jump."
Ogawa readily admits that the ducks have been a publicity windfall for his company. Mitsui has gone all out for mother duck, setting out special rat traps to protect her eggs from predators.
Japan's Environmental Protection Agency has used the incident to its advantage, too. The agency has distributed thousands of posters showing a policeman, whistle in mouth and hand upraised, holding back a line of snorting trucks and buses while a line of ducks crosses the street. The message: "We Protect the Weak."