The image of an astronaut is somewhere between an 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. While his name might not be in many history books, his story is strange, funny, and oddly profound.
This obscure piece of space history begins in 1989. The Cold War was cooling and Japan was enjoying a “bubble era” of economic excess. 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
Akiyama worked as a reporter during the Vietnam War and even had a stint working for the BBC in London, however, his experience of space was limited through the lens of the media, such as his reporting on the Challenger disaster in 1986.
Before this, his most strenuous exercise was said to be lifting his cigarette to his mouth. Nevertheless, Akiyama spent over a year at the Star City cosmonaut training village undergoing medical checks, lectures, and physical training.
On the morning of December 2, 1990, he set off for space onboard the Soyuz TM-11 spacecraft accompanied by cosmonauts Viktor Afanasayev and Musa Manarov, six cameras, and a Japanese toy mascot. After two days of travel, they reached the final stop: the Soviet Mir space station. His two colleagues reported that they “hadn’t ever seen a man vomit that much.” He also constantly complained that he felt his head was going to pop from the pressure.
However, the show must go on. There’s some ripped footage of the TV show on YouTube, below, but there are very few details about what Akiyama got up to during his week in space, in between the waves of nausea. Thanks to a report from New Scientist in 1991, we do know that the frogs he is seemingly playing with in the video were part of an experiment to analyze if “weightlessness in space had any effect on the secretion of a neuropeptide by glands in the heart and brain,” referring to protein-like molecules that cells use to communicate.
After seven days, 21 hours, and 54 minutes of spaceflight, Akiyama landed back on Earth, reportedly making a quip about wanting some proper food and a smoke.
He retired as a journalist in 1995 and used his retirement pay-off to buy a farm near Fukushima – leaving behind his career, his family, and his friends in Tokyo.
Akiyama’s brush with history came again with the Japanese earthquakes and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011. As a result of the disaster, he had to abandon the simple life. Now, he teaches agriculture at Kyoto University of Art and Design, with an intensely philosophical view of environmentalism and a deeply skeptical outlook on modern industrial agriculture.
To give one last blow to the sinking Soviet ship, the Western media reported him to be just a hapless, 40-a-day “whiskey swilling idiot,” like a Woody Allen character neurotically bumping around space. However, his reflections on his time in space truly cement that he was never the space-jester character he was made out to be.
In a rare interview with the Japan Times in 2013, Akiyama spoke of his experience looking down on our planet and how it inspired his decision to leave Tokyo behind: “As I watched the Earth from 400 kilometers away, I looked back on the history of mankind and thought about the repetition of activities that helped us grow, to now number 7 billion people. What is the most basic human activity? Eating. I wondered how seriously I had thought about the act of eating, or growing things that we eat. How do farmers think about the food they grow? ...I felt I couldn’t die without having some basic knowledge about these things.”
He concluded, “What still struck me as impressive was the shining blue Earth, which looked like one form of life floating in the universe. At the same time, I was reminded of the thinness of the blue layer, which is the atmosphere... Such a thin atmosphere protects every living thing – forests, trees, fish, birds, insects, human beings and everything.”