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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - "Ace" is Japan's latest hero. Fans dissect his daily comments on message boards, where some post gushing tributes to his voice and his expressive face, and spend hours watching video clips of his performances.
Far from an actor or rock star, Ace is one of the officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the operator of Japan's crippled nuclear plant, who face the media each day for updates after the disastrous March 11 earthquake and tsunami that set off the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
"I spend several hours each day thinking about Ace or watching his clips," one online follower said on a message board dedicated to Ace.
Though the public from the start praised the hard work and courage of the on-site workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant who toiled to bring the situation under control, officials at the Tokyo home office came in for criticism.
But after weeks of seeing Ace and colleagues such as "De Niro" -- nicknamed for his resemblance to actor Robert De Niro -- at twice-daily news conferences streamed live over the Internet, tackling hardball questions from sometimes testy reporters, respect for them has grown.
Ace, whose real name is Hikaru Kuroda, is by far the most popular. An earnest-looking manager with a gently receding hairline, he dresses -- like the others -- in a navy-blue uniform work jacket with the company logo on the breast pocket.
Known for his technical knowledge and for responding concretely to even the toughest queries, he worked at a nuclear plant for a decade, finishing his stint last year.
Fans debate the best "Ace moments" on the message board devoted to him, which has attracted nearly 300 posts.
"I think his rich expressions and the unpredictability of his actions, as well as his voice and fingers, are sources of his charm," one said.
"De Niro," TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita, is known for his apologetic manners, while technician "Calimero" -- nicknamed partly after a cartoon character -- explains technical matters and has drawn praise for his habit of drawing quick diagrams on a whiteboard when needed to explain things.
Not to be outdone, some officials on the government side also have their fans despite a general sense that the cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan could have handled the crisis better.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, a deputy director-general at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, is known for his plain-spoken explanations and never being rattled, even when reporters occasionally erupted in angry shouts.
A Harvard law school graduate who was formerly in charge of trade policies at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the bespectacled 54-year-old Nishiyama, given the affectionate nickname "Nishiyan," was chosen to speak at media briefings a day after the disaster.
"I have good feelings for this guy. You can tell that he is working hard," one fan said in a message board.
While public skepticism remains that authorities are holding back information on radiation, many in the online community said they hoped the crisis would end as soon as possible so the hardworking officials could finally take a rest.
"When this is all over, I want to thank him for his work and pour him a glass of beer," one Ace fan said.
Reporting by Yoko Kubota; editing by Elaine Lies