The hugely popular manga series “Lupin III,” whose eponymous protagonist is an indomitable master thief who never fails to pull off even the most ambitious heist imaginable, is hardly “Japanese” in style as well as narrative.

So is the creator’s in-your-face pen name of Monkey Punch. At first, I was fully convinced he had to be an artist from some exotic foreign land.

But I was wrong.

His real name was Kazuhiko Kato, and he died on April 11 at age 81.

Born in the laid-back town of Hamanaka, home to the Kiritappu Wetland near the eastern tip of Hokkaido, Kato grew up helping his family’s “konbu” (edible kelp) harvesting business. As a boy, he was fascinated by such novels as Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” and the “Kaijin Nijumenso” (The fiend with 20 faces) series by Ranpo Edogawa.

Upon graduation from “teijisei koko” (part-time high school), Kato moved to Tokyo as an aspiring manga artist.

He was 28 when he debuted as a manga artist after a sample work he submitted to a number of publishing houses caught the attention of a manga magazine editor.

The editor later gave him the pen name of Monkey Punch, convinced that Kazuhiko Kato just did not sound right for the style of his work.

“Lupin III” was made into anime series for television as well as the big screen, and proved explosively popular across generations.

“The foggy and rocky scenes I draw in my manga are those of Kiritappu in my old hometown,” Kato would explain whenever he gave talks in Hokkaido.

According to the Hamanaka municipal government’s commerce and tourism department, a section of the town’s restaurant and bar district is called “Lupin III Street,” with unoccupied establishments bearing shop signs that say “Pub Fujiko” and “Jigen Bar” after the series’ two other popular characters. Tourists flock to those spots to pose for photos.

At three train stations of the JR Nemuro Line that runs through the town, life-sized panels of the manga characters greet visitors.

Kato himself frequently participated in the town’s various Lupin-themed promotional events, beaming at everyone.

Ever genial and unassuming, Kato was much loved and widely respected.

In his younger days, he went for a while by the name of Eiji Muta. Had he kept that name, perhaps Lupin’s adventures would have been less colorful or spectacular.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 18

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.