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TOKYO (Reuters) - A wild spotted seal that swam up a Japanese river and has lived there since early this month is now a Japanese media star, with children and adults alike flocking to see it as a welcome distraction from stress and bad news.
On any given day, hundreds of spectators pack the banks of the Arakawa river in the city of Shiki, about 30 km (19 miles) north of Tokyo, to catch a glimpse of the seal nicknamed "Ara-chan" -- a combination of the river's name and an affectionate suffix used for small children.
"Ara-chan! Please come out so we can see you," shouted two-year-old Sayuki Toyama on Tuesday, shortly before the gray seal heaved itself out of the water to sunbathe on a rock.
Some onlookers crouched down on the river's sloping banks to snap pictures, while behind them trucks from Japanese TV networks rolled into place and cameramen set up their tripods, preparing to broadcast the seal's antics live.
"It's refreshing to take a walk here and watch the cute seal, since being in the house makes us nervous these days -- we don't know when earthquakes will come," said Makie Namiki.
Eastern Japan has been rocked by frequent aftershocks following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Residents have been barraged with bad news since then, including worries about radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.
Shiki officials made Ara-chan a citizen of the city on Tuesday in recognition of the seal's growing fame.
"We're presenting the seal with a special resident permit because it has become a close friend to local people," said official Osamu Nakamura.
Seals are an uncommon sight around Tokyo, especially so far upstream from the ocean, but Ara-chan is not the first.
In 2002, a wild bearded seal was spotted in the Tama river near Tokyo. Nicknamed "Tama-chan," the seal set off a similar national frenzy and was also granted citizenship, before eventually swimming away.
Reporting by Hyun Oh; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Paul Tait