The Bizarre Story Of Japan's First Astronaut

Toyohiro Akiyama was the unlikely journalist who ended up taking a trip to the Soviet space station. Russian Federal Space Agency via www.spacefacts.de

The image of an astronaut is somewhere between a childhood hero Action Man and a short-back-and-sides, air force-trained, engineering school prodigy.

But then, there is Japan’s first man in space. Light-years away from any such stereotypes, Toyohiro Akiyama was the unlikely, chain-smoking journalist who ended up taking a trip to the Soviet space station, Mir. Like a Japanese Forrest Gump, his name might not be in many history books, but his story is strange, funny, extraordinary, and relatively unknown.

This obscure piece of space history begins in 1989. The Cold War was cooling and Japan was enjoying a “bubble era” of economic excess and decadence. As the USSR was sinking and Japan’s fortunes were rising, the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) dreamed up a crazy ploy to celebrate and promote the station’s 40th anniversary.

The plan involved a publicity stunt of epic proportions, one that could have only occurred in the transitory turn of the '90s. By 1989, Gorbachev was well on his way to disarming the USSR. The Soviet Union was losing missiles, money, and power. But while the United States had spent over 30 years trying to one-up the Soviets in space, they then realized they could use the wealth of bright sparks working in the Soviet space program. Fearing that a collapsed Soviet aerospace-military industry would cause a mass exodus of talented scientists to every corner of the world, the West wanted to keep the industry afloat and encouraged cooperation with the USSR’s space program.

With the United States' blessing, TBS paid ¥1.5 billion ($10 million) to send a journalist up to the Mir space station for a TV show called “Nihonjin Hatsu! Uchuu e” (loosely translated as “The First Japanese in Space!”). A mad idea. But then again, this was the TV company that commissioned and aired "Takeshi’s Castle."

Not only would this be the first Japanese citizen in space, it would also be the first journalist in space. So to land this history-defining role, TBS and the Soviets decided to send the 47-year old salaryman, Toyohiro Akiyama, a TV journalist who had never even muttered a word of Russian.


The down-to-Earth spaceman. Russian Federal Space Agency via www.spacefacts.de 

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