Tezuka still celebrated in Tokyo's 'Astro Town'

This is the first instalment of a series on Osamu Tezuka, a widely loved manga creator. Its title comes from the lyrics for the English theme song for "Astro Boy," as "Tetsuwan Atomu" is known in the United States.

Call it 'Tezuka town'

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Osamu Tezuka, known as the "god of manga." Events and exhibitions are being held nationwide, with stage performances scheduled in the metropolitan area during the year-end season.

After the end of World War II, Tezuka moved from Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, to Tokyo, where he left behind numerous masterpieces. Even a quarter-century after his death, many people are still enchanted by his work.

Whenever a train on the Yamanote Line departs from JR Takadanobaba Station in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, the "Astro Boy" theme song reverberates throughout the area.

Outside the station, characters from Tezuka's works can be seen on a gigantic mural 2.7 meters high and 16 meters wide, and streetlights along the shopping street in front of the station bear plates depicting well-known creations of the manga artist.

Installed before and after Astro Boy's birth year (2003), all these fixtures are the result of calls from nearby store owners. "In all this time, nobody's ever made a mark on that mural," chuckled Mikio Iida, 73, who belongs to a local business association for Takadanobaba. "Tezuka's got some kind of authority, all right."

First serialized in 1952, "Astro Boy" is set in the future world of the 21st century. The manga depicts the trials and tribulations of a 100,000 hp robot boy, beginning with his creation in the "Science Ministry" located in Takadanobaba, where Tezuka Productions has accordingly been located since 1976.

A name with currency

"Astro Money" - a local currency featuring Astro Boy's image - circulates through this "Astro Town." Ten years ago, Tezuka Productions and others launched a campaign to give back to the area.

The currency, which can be earned by taking part in local cleaning activities and morning radio calisthenics, comes in units of "horse power," where 10 hp is worth 10 yen (S$0.11). Astro Money can be obtained and redeemed at participating stores.

While he lived in the neighborhood, Tezuka was a regular customer at Ichiban Hanten (No. 1 Chinese restaurant), a Chinese eatery in Takadanobaba.

This restaurant operates a "my chopsticks" system, whereby a first-time diner can pay a 100 yen charge to purchase a pair of chopsticks, which are then personalized with the customer's name and kept at the restaurant.

At every visit hereafter, the customer uses the same pair of chopsticks. As part of an initiative to reduce the use of disposable chopsticks, the registration of "my chopsticks" is rewarded with 10 hp.

Manager Yoshiie Yamamoto, 63, is a big fan of Tezuka's work.

"Even though he was this 'god of manga,' he was the humblest guy," he recalls. "When he'd get delivery, he'd always call me over with this friendly grin, all 'Excuse me, do you have a second?'"

The special menu item "Deluxe Shanghai Lo Mein" was created based on Tezuka's common request to add seafood and sauteed vegetables to lo mein. However, the restaurant only began advertising the dish as "the taste Osamu Tezuka loved" on its sign this year.

"I'm so indebted to Tezuka, so I didn't want to make money off his name," explained Yamamoto. "An acquaintance kept pressing me, like 'Isn't it about time?' So I started putting it out."

Yamamoto is happy to see customers smile when he passes them Astro Money. "There's no currency as charming or popular. I wonder if we can give back a little of what Tezuka gave us."

Influence on robotics

This year's International Home Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition, held at The Tokyo Big Site venue in Koto Ward's Ariake district, saw the presentation of a rehabilitation tool called a "power-assisted hand."

When a user inserts a hand into the glove, an air pump assists the bending and stretching of the fingers. Since its launch in June, an estimated 140 units have been sold.

The developers are photography studio manager Masatoshi Kitamura, 62, and his associates, who hail from Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture.

When the five friends were discussing the next 20 to 30 years of local revitalization in February 2009, they all agreed that when people think of the future, they think of Astro Boy.

Deciding to reinvigorate the robotics industry, they formed "Team Astro" in August of the same year. With the cooperation of Kanagawa Institute of Technology, they completed their first product prototype, the power-assisted hand.

"Astro Boy shows us a future where humans, robots and nature can all coexist. From this point on, science must move forward in pursuit of this ideal," Kitamura said with conviction.