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Friday, July 7, 2017

Japan's Space Journalist

Uchū tokuhain - space journalist.

I have always wished I could be an astronaut - flying up into space… landing on planets outside our solar system, discovering new life, new civilizations and to boldy go where no man has gone before. Man… Star Trek had it right, even if the grammar was slightly off.

Even before I turned 4, I was watching Thunderbirds Are Go! on television… watching rocket ships and space stations and rescue ships thinking just how grand it all was. I named my first dog after one of the characters in that show.

I used to watch Commander Tom and Rocket Ship 7 on a Buffalo TV station as a kid; read and believed that a man could fly in comic books… I would read all manner of science fiction from the soft sci-fi like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and Adam Strange, to the hard stuff that took into account the physics and chemical engineering of everything.

One wasn’t better than the other… they were all grand.

When I was young, I watched with glee on my television step as Neil Armstrong took one small step for man - one giant leap for mankind.

I read all the National Geographic articles on the various manned lunar missions to our moon, Luna… and read every newspaper and watched many television news report I could get my hands on.

I continued to read the good stuff sci-fi novels, watch the movies and television shows (Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999, Star Trek, The Jetsons and Lost in Space), and dreamed I might one day be lucky enough to go to infinity and beyond.

I built model kits - the Revell Apollo-Soyuz kit was one such joy.
I'm not sure why, but I built the Soyuz craft (foreground) a ruby red. Probably because the Soviet commies were known as reds. Sigh. Or maybe it's because I thought it would a lot better than the green pictured on the box cover art.  
I watched that magnificent journey into shared flight by the US and USSR, and I thought if scientists could get together like this there was no way these two countries would ever fight a war to end all wars. I really did.

I watched the space shuttle flights - every one they ever televised… I watched Challenger blow up shortly after lift off and declared to the university dorm I was sitting that even still I would still go up tomorrow if they would let me.

My two best marks in university revolved around astronomy… and I should have gone further in space sciences… but I realized that if I was going to be an astrologer… er, astronomer (I always get those two mixed up), I wasn’t interested if it meant I had to work nights. Yes… I really did think that way.   

I watched and cried as another space shuttle burned up during re-entry… and I still read all I can on Space X and Japan’s JAXA missions.

But I never got into space. Instead… I became a journalist. I went to Japan… and decades later - I’m still awaiting man to land on something other than the moon as we did almost 45 years ago…

Now I write these blogs about very early aviation… and about Japan and my time spent there… and now… only now do I find out that Japan’s first man in space not only did so while I was living in Japan, I find out he was a journalist first.


Akiyama Toyohiro (秋山 豊寛) is now one of my heroes. Born in Tokyo on July 22, 1942, he spent 7 days, 21 hours and 54 minutes in space launched via the Soviet Soyuz TM-11 rocket mission and staying aboard that country’s Mir space station.

Holy sheep dip.

Why was I not informed? Why did no one tell me such things were going on in and outside the world? Sure… there was the language barrier… but why did no other foreigner discuss it with me?

Akiyama went to the International Christian University in Tokyo and worked for the TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) as a journalist for a year in 1966. 

He then moved to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) World Service between 1967-1971, before leaving to join the TBS Division of Foreign News, working as its chief correspondent in Washington, DC, USA between 1984-1988.

And then the Russians came calling.

For whatever reason, TBS and the USSR (Soviet Union - now basically known as Russia) had worked out a deal whereby a Japanese journalist could become the involved in the first ever commercially organized spaceflight. Ever.

While 163 TBS employees had applied for the opportunity, it eventually came down to two people: Akiyama, and female camera operator Kikuchi Ryoko.

The Soviets were pretty progressive in their selection process, eh?

Kikuchi was out, however, after her appendix started to flare up a week before the launch.

Did you know there are several chemical compounds that could be slipped into someone’s food that could cause severer stomach cramps that could mimic appendicitis?

I’m not saying that happened, of course… or am I? No… the jig would be up pretty quickly if anyone tried to do something like that. Conspiracy theorists go and sit over in that corner… no, that one. Thank-you.

Anyhow… Akiyama did what is known as a Research Cosmonaut training course at the famed Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia…

His Soyuz TM-11 flight launched on December 2, 1990, with mission commander colonel Viktor Afanasyev and flight engineer colonel Musa Manarov.
The official Soyuz TM-11 mission patch.

Unlike his two 3CP Soviet compatriots, Akiyama didn’t do anything scientific, except provide live, daily news reports back to the people of TBS, er… Japan… telling everyone what life was like for him and his crewmates aboard the space station Mir

When his time in space was over, Akiyama returned to Earth aboard Soyuz TM-10, along with cosmonauts Gennadi Manakov and Gennady Strekalov who were relieved of their command aboard Mir by Akiyama’s crewmates, leaving on December 10, 1990.

Gennadi (not Gennady), by the way, besides being the only one of the five to have now passed away, he is one of only two people (along with capsule mate Aleksandr Serebrov) to ever successfully use a launch escape system when a Soyuz rocket developed a fuel leak on the launch pad and was literally seconds from exploding in September 26, 1983.  

Now… since this was a commercial spaceflight, TBS obviously paid big bucks to the USSR for allowing a TBS employee to go into space—with no official amount ever released, it expected to be anywhere from US$12- to $37-million.

No one was selling that many newspapers or television ads to make that kind of money, so no kidding that TBS lost a reported US$4.7-million.

Known as the Space Journalist - which ain’t nowhere as cool as the Space Cowboy or Rocket Man or even Major Tom, let alone Major Matt Mason (an old coloring book I now recall having as a kid) - Akiyama returned to Earth and promptly took up the mundane job as the deputy director of the TBS News Division, retiring from the company in 1995.
Finding an image of my old coloring book is why I love the Internet. Now I'm going to look for and purchase a Big Little Book of Matt Mason. Apparently, Mattel may have purchased the "bad guy" in the series from a Japanese toy line. Or so the rumor goes. BTW, a Matt Mason action figure reportedly flew on astronaut John Glenn's space shuttle mission in 1998.     
Seriously… the guy went into space… who the hell could he ever look at mundane Earth news again without smirking about how minuscule the misdeeds of man are compared to the heavenly expanse that is space.

Married with two children, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by a 9.0 Magnitude earthquake on March 11, 1011 spawned a massive tsunami that swamped and killed the power that was keeping the Fukushima dai-ichi nuclear powerplant from overheating, Akiyama had to abandon his local area farm.

Space journalist… not a bad nickname to have earned, I suppose.

Here at the end of the blog, I kind of hope I will one day be chosen as a travelling companion by Doctor Who or perhaps anally-probed by some drunk alien on a dare by another drunk alien… hey… it’s worth it to get into space. 

Andrew (I want a personal jetpack like we were promised back in the 1960s) Joseph


  1. MMM - Major Matt Mason - was my favorite toy to abduct from my brother's toy box. I just felt sorry he had to keep that space suit on ALL the time. Barbie really enjoyed his company -- much more than macho G.I. Joe or pretty boy Ken. (Never had the coloring book, though ...)

    1. That's funny! I don't think I ever had anything more than the coloring book! I believe I saw it at a store - it had the cool moon cover, and while I preferred painting a la Jackson Pollock, like I said, this had a cool moon cover. We'd just landed on the moon... this was the best adventure ever for a kid!