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Saturday, 10 August 2013

Former astronaut Toyohiro Akiyama talks Radiation, Corruption and more by arclight2011part2 [interview review]

[interview review]

Published on 5 Aug 2013
by Tomoko Otake
Aug 3, 2013
by Tomoko Otake
In December 1990, journalist Toyohiro Akiyama made headlines the world over when he blasted off aboard a Soviet rocket to become the very first “space correspondent” in history.

The Soyuz capsule with the 47-year-old Tokyo Broadcasting System reporter strapped inside later docked with the Mir space station as part of an unprecedented $10 million (¥1.5 billion) deal between the USSR’s cash-starved space agency and the ratings-hungry private TV network.

Akiyama then spent nine days in space, broadcasting live his zero-gravity experiences and describing experiments he was conducting.

Besides being the first reporter in space, Akiyama was also the first Japanese to ever leave Earth’s atmosphere. That distinction fell to him because Mamoru Mohri, who the National Space Development Agency of Japan had selected for an earlier NASA mission to the Space Station, had to endure a delayed departure following the 1986 Challenger disaster.

For Akiyama, who underwent more than a year of medical checks, training, lectures on space engineering — and Russian-language study — in and near Moscow, his Dec. 2, 1990 liftoff from Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan was a perfect opportunity to fulfill his dream of reporting news live from space.

Throughout his long career, which has included covering politics and diplomacy in Tokyo and Washington, he says he always believed in the power of TV journalism and the impact on viewers of live broadcasting.

Nonetheless, in 1995 — just five years after he’d marveled at the beauty of the Earth from 400 km away — he quit the TBS network and moved to the countryside. He insists that was no career change, but the natural extension of his journalistic drive for hands-on knowledge and experience — in this case of eating, “the most basic human activity,” as he sees it, and food production.

At that time Akiyama left his wife and two children behind in Tokyo and settled in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Takine, nestled in the Abukuma Mountains that stretch from Ibaraki Prefecture in the south to Miyagi Prefecture in the north. There, he started growing vegetables to eat, as well as shiitake mushrooms that he sold for a living.

But just as fate had intervened to make him Japan’s first-ever astronaut, Akiyama’s life was again changed by events beyond his control — this time the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the meltdowns of three reactors that followed at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco).

His Takine home was only 32 km from there and, though he neither had a television nor newspapers delivered to his home, he was quick to react. On March 12, he packed a few valuables, hung a portable radiation detector around his neck and drove his truck to the city of Koriyama 60 km away from the disabled nuclear plant.

As a former newsman, Akiyama was well aware not only of official reactions to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and other nuclear accidents in the past, but also of the workings of Japan’s “nuclear village” — the cozy pronuclear network of politicians, government officials, bureaucrats, power-company elites and the media. Consequently, he knew that the Tokyo government would withhold vital information on radiation risks to “maintain law and order,” he says.

So, as the nuclear crisis continued seemingly unchecked, he moved further away to Gunma Prefecture, where a farmer friend offered refuge. As he says, he has had no option but to abandon his Fukushima home and business, as the mushrooms are now contaminated with radiation.

Then, in November 2011, Akiyama took a post as a professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design. It was there, in a prefab hut beside a vegetable field atop a hill on the main campus, that the 71-year-old Tokyo native sat down for a three-hour chat with The Japan Times. As well as recalling his childhood, his career as a journalist and his pioneering trip into space as a reporter, he also shared his thoughts on the political environment that made the Japanese TV network’s space project a reality, why he thinks farming is a journalistic endeavor — and the challenges facing the antinuclear movement and its possibilities.

Let me first ask you about your childhood. I was surprised to read that you say you were rather withdrawn when you were young. Is that really so?

I grew up in the Seijo district of Setagaya Ward in Tokyo as an o-bocchama (a boy from a well-to-do family). I was withdrawn and didn’t want to be away from my nanny, who raised me.

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