Spike Japan

After the earthquake: So farewell then, Plutonium kun


It’s not widely known, but the feckless, reckless, and soon to be penniless operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), built an eight-storey tribute to itself, Denryokukan—The Hall of Electric Power—deep in the heart of the Tokyo youth fashion mecca of Shibuya back in the Orwellian year of 1984, when the picking of the fruits of its tree of monopoly profits was good.

I’d love to bring you a live report from The Hall of Electric Power (admission free), but sadly I can’t, because it was closed in April last year for renovation and was due for a grand renewal open, as we call such things hereabouts, with the impeccable timing that only a master of disaster such as TEPCO can muster, on March 20, just nine days after the tsunami set in train the continuing carnage at Fukushima Daiichi, and The Hall will remain closed, its website informs with deep apologies (if a website could bow, this one would), “for the time being”.

Unable to sample the treasures of the Alpha Wave Library and the delights of the Induction Heating Herb Café first hand, I’ll have to fall back on a report of a long-ago visit by a traveler from Finland, who calls The Hall “a bizarre electrified Disneyland with displays like The Electric Forest and the ever-popular Demand Side Management Theater”. He goes on to recount a surreal 3D movie being shown in the eighth floor TEPCO Hall:

I was expecting a 3D tour of a power plant or the life of a uranium atom or something, and the first 15 minutes were indeed a 2D cartoon on how to conserve energy, but then the actual movie started—and wow! It was very 3D, limited only by the relatively small screen and motionless seats, but the movie itself was an absolutely stunning animated feature called 銀河鉄道999 (Galaxy Express 999). The movie packed all the twists and turns of a 2-hour movie into 15 minutes, with our approximately 10-year-old protagonist taking a steam locomotive in the company of a wispy blonde in a fur hat. The locomotive flies out into space, where he meets a waitress named Kurea who is made of transparent crystal, walks around naked and weeps about being lonely. Then there’s a laser-gun firefight, the train goes out of control and heads straight into an asteroid field, the blonde turns out to be an evil robot in disguise and then the boy wakes up and realizes that it was all a dream… or was it?

But what most intrigued me about his account was reference to a trio of image characters, as we call them hereabouts: “Cosmos kun, Pluto kun (as in -nium) and TEPCO’s generic mascot Denko chan…all explaining why nuclear power is good for you.”

To my eternal chagrin, I haven’t been able to track down Cosmos kun, but Denko chan (でんこちゃん), whose name comes from the “den” of electric power (電力, denryoku), the “ko” (子, child) in which female names so often end, trapping their bearers in a state of eternal childhood, and the generally female diminutive suffix “chan”, can be found everywhere in TEPCO propaganda. Here she is, with finger characteristically a-wagging, admonishing us to “Take care of electricity!”

And here, exhorting us to “Make friends with electricity!”

She features on a bewildering variety of character goods, as we call them hereabouts, from pen top to mobile phone strap, bento lunchbox to T-shirt. Here she graces a pair of oven mitts.

She has—inevitably—attracted her own fan art, some of it—just as inevitably—rather racy.

But the undisputed star of the galaxy of TEPCO image characters must be Plutonium kun. I once wrote of Yu-chan, the cartoon mascot of the battered former coal town of Yubari, that “Japan of course has a massive talent for cuteification: if you can cuteify coalmining, you can cuteify anything”, but never in my darkest nightmares did I dream of encountering Plutonium kun. He’s a hard lad to track down, not having proven as popular as Denko chan, but I did manage to salvage this image from the recesses of the Internet.

The text, with its furigana reading aids above every kanji character and its childish vocabulary, in which “non-fissile uranium” is referred to as “unburnable uranium”, is aimed at the very young, to get them hooked on plutonium from an early age, and demands, nay begs, to be translated, so here goes:

Plutonium is made by having unburnable uranium (uranium 238) soak up neutrons in a nuclear reactor, and when it turns into plutonium it can be used as a fuel in nuclear power generation, just like uranium. By using plutonium, uranium resources can be used more economically. Plutonium kun is a visualization of unburnable uranium being transformed into plutonium.

Plutonium kun also appeared in a 10-minute anime made about a decade ago by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (now the Japan Atomic Energy Agency), an industry body specializing in the development of fast-breeder and advanced-thermal reactors, an anime that was swiftly withdrawn in part because of a scene in which Plutonium kun gets his boy pal to drink a glass of liquid plutonium while he sweetly intones that “I’m hardly absorbed by your stomach or intestines and I’m expelled by your body, so in fact I can’t kill people at all”.

Kind hands have made the anime available in its entirety here, although for the squeamish and those who don’t speak Japanese I recommend as a sampler the 30-second clip here.

The events of 3/11 make it unlikely we will see the likes of Plutonium kun again. If only his real-life namesake were so easy to eradicate. But wait—there’s one last use to which he can be put. By all accounts, the many routes in and out of the 20km-30km evacuation advisory zone and the 20km evacuation zone around Fukushima Daiichi are largely bereft of warning signs or patrols to prevent the wandering motorist from straying too close to the plant. Why not get TEPCO to deploy the hordes of Mickey Mouses made temporarily unemployed by the closure of Tokyo Disney Resort because of the liquefaction of its parking lots, dress them up as Plutonium kun, arm them with Jedi lightsabers, triple their pay for danger money, and post them on the access roads at the perimeter of the exclusion zone to direct traffic? It would be far less cruel, after all, than the way TEPCO treats its employees battling to avert catastrophe within the plant. And it would serve to remind the world that, as its logo hints, TEPCO has always been a disastrously Mickey Mouse kind of company.


[With massive props to A.E. for the Denryokukan tip-off and many thanks to H.T. for the reminder of the similarities between the TEPCO logo and his mouseship.]