If you thought it was only the astronauts who trained all their lives that get to go to space, now’s your chance to think again.
While space tourism appears to be an imminent possibility today, one Japanese civilian ended up looking down on Earth in the early 90s, becoming the first person in the nation to go to space.
Toyohiro Akiyama was a 47-year-old, chain-smoking journalist when he made history. His arrival in space was decided by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), which was trying to find a way to celebrate its 40th anniversary at the tail of the Cold War.
That celebration had to be epic, as Japan was also reaping the fruits of an economic bubble. TBS believed it could send the first Japanese to space.
TBS paid ¥1.5 billion ($10 million) to send Akiyama up to Russia’s Mir Space Station, IFLScience noted. As the network behind variety shows “Takeshi’s Castle”, “Waratte Iitomo!” and “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!”, it aired his journey through the nightly series “Nihonjin Hatsu! Uchuu e” (“The First Japanese in Space!”).
Despite his salaryman lifestyle that involved smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, Akiyama somehow managed to go through the standard cosmonaut training, which lasted for more than a year. He also had to learn Russian, which he recalled as bweing the “toughest” experience.
By December 2, 1990, Akiyama was off to space. Time beyond the atmosphere, however, did not come easy for the journalist. He suffered episodes of nausea and thought his head would explode. A fellow cosmonaut said he “hadn’t ever seen a man vomit that much.”
But Akiyama carried on, especially with the multi-million investment resting on his shoulders. As Japan and USSR cheered over their new friendship boosted by capitalist excess, anti-Japanese Western media portrayed him as a stooge and called him a “whiskey-swilling idiot” and an “anti-hero,” Neojaponisme wrote.
Akiyama returned to Earth after seven days, 21 hours and 54 minutes of space travel. He reportedly wanted to smoke and get some “proper food” as soon as he landed.
He recalled the most memorable thing he saw from space (via The Japan Times):
“The scenes I saw from 400 km above the Earth. The diameter of the Earth is 13,000 km, so you can’t see the Earth in its entirety if you are only 400 km away. But 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. So it made me visually aware that the atmosphere is so thin, and such a thin atmosphere protects every living thing — forests, trees, fish, birds, insects, human beings and everything.”
Akiyama left TBS in 1995 after some introspection. He then moved to Fukushima from Tokyo to lead a simple life as a farmer, but when the nuclear disaster occurred, he had to relocate once more.
Akiyama currently teaches agriculture at Kyoto University of Art and Design.
Here are some highlights of his journey: