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Cautionary tales from one not afraid to risk all

Astronaut-newshound -professor Toyohiro Akiyama explains how the farming life helps him plow fertile political ground in Japan and worldwide

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

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.

My mother was worried that I would be bullied in a public school, so she put me into a private school called Tamagawa Gakuen. I was so shy, though, that I couldn’t even stand up and read from a textbook. So my mother made me join the school’s drama club when I was in third grade. The first play I was in was a Bible story about Christmas, and I played the role of a sheep (laugh).

I understand you quit the drama club when you entered junior high school. Why was that?

Well, I was pretty good as a child actor, so I became part of a professional theater group that toured high schools in the Kanto region. There I witnessed how financially impoverished the actors were. Our meals changed depending on how many people came to the shows. I realized that being an actor meant to live in poverty.

Then you entered a senior high school, where you joined a newspaper club. How did that happen?

My history teacher recruited me to the newspaper club. I was yearning to learn more about society and how to live my life, especially in light of my father’s experience. He was a pharmacist who worked for a chemical company and researched what to add to coal to make it burn more efficiently. His company went bankrupt due to the energy revolution (when much of industry replaced coal with oil to generate power). Looking at my father, I felt I didn’t want to be a salaryman, because you can easily end up in misery no matter how hard you work.

All that coincided with the time when my teacher recruited me to the newspaper club, which made me interested in journalism. I was (initially) attracted to the fact that I could be an observer of a system, and that along with being a journalist came a range of “fringe benefits,” like getting to stay in the shade to “report” on students practicing in scorching sunshine for their school’s sports day (laugh).

After attending the International Christian University (in Mitaka, western Tokyo), you got a job with TBS, a privately owned broadcasting station. Why did you choose broadcast journalism over print?

Many people were saying, even in the early 1960s, that the print media were doomed. Senpai (senior students) I talked with at university also told me that a typical new newspaper reporter would have to spend at least four years at regional bureaus. And they said you wouldn’t be posted to the head office unless the regional bureau chiefs recommended you, or you got a bunch of scoops or had a good connection in the head office.

I chose TBS because the station is based in Tokyo and I knew I wouldn’t have to move away from the metropolis — though it turned out that I was posted to London about one and a half years after I joined. I was on loan to the BBC to create Japanese-language news programs on short-wave radio from there.

After you returned from Britain, you were assigned to the international news division (gaishinbu). Was it while you were in that division that you got married?

No. After the gaishinbu I did many other things, like making segments on overseas news in morning TV shows. I think I got married around then. Afterward, I became one of the producers for a program called “Hodo Tokushu (News Special),” which was something like the CBS “60 minutes” news program in the United States.

However, I spent the longest time in the political news division, including quite a long time at the Kasumi Club (the press club at the Foreign Ministry), and I also covered political “villages” (factions) within the Liberal Democratic Party. I was on the Chief Cabinet Secretary beat when Kiichi Miyazawa was in that post in the (1980-81) administration of Zenko Suzuki. Back then Junichiro Koizumi was still a very young politician, and I would bump into him in the toilet and casually ask him, standing next to him, how things were. I had no idea he would go on to become prime minister.

Was it soon afterward that you applied to become a “space correspondent” for TBS?

It was after I spent four years in Washington, as the bureau chief there from 1984 till 1988. After coming back to Japan, I became a desk editor in Tokyo, which was like being a police officer directing traffic with hand signals at crossings. From 1985 on, it was an exciting time for correspondents in Washington, with the emergence of (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and with the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty talks going on. Anything you wrote would be treated as top news. I would write 10 or 15 stories a day. It was like fishing in a fishing pond.

So you were a star reporter.

Yes — so compared to that, when I came back to Tokyo I found my job quite boring, and everyone else around me was thinking about how to move up the corporate ladder, talking about golfing and stuff.

Is that why you got interested in TBS’s project to have one of its journalists go on a Russian spacecraft?

Before that, my generation of TV journalists was greatly influenced by the work of (Canadian communication theorist) Marshall McLuhan, who wrote (on the profound impact of TV on people) in his book “Understanding Media” in the 1960s.

Another symbolic event was the (1972) Asama Sanso incident, in which elements of the (radical student group) Unified Red Army took hostages and holed up in a mountain cottage in Nagano Prefecture. It was a suspense drama happening right there, with a standoff between police and the group members broadcast live with no interruptions by commercials for two or three days. The TV viewer ratings soared.

I felt right then that the essence of TV is suspense — the fact that people in different locations share the same moment. So I felt excited at the idea of doing live broadcasts directly from space. Reporting news live was almost like a religion to me as a TV journalist. If it only takes 90 minutes to go around the globe on a spacecraft, I thought, I could create a 90-minute live news program.

How did the idea of sending a correspondent to space come about within TBS?

At that time, TBS was approaching the 40th anniversary of its foundation and there were lots of discussions about what the station should do to mark it, out of which the space project came up. Well, not entirely.

My life goal, by the way, is living long. Why? Because the longer you live, the more you will find that what you believed at one time proves to be completely false or that you’ll find you have been deceived.

I used to follow U.S.-Japan relations and world affairs closely, particularly from 1984 to ’88 when I was stationed in Washington. The U.S. has a law that mandates its government to declassify foreign relations-related documents 30 years after they are created, which means that documents pertaining to the era I used to cover will start to be disclosed from 2014.

Not long to wait now.

You see? The role of the mass media in Japan has been to dance (to the government’s and the authorities’ tune), to act as a government mouthpiece and to help the government spin information. Whether you are aware yourself, or not, that’s your job. So the declassification of U.S. foreign policy documents is a good chance for me to see who tried to manipulate me. That intrigues me. And the reason I say this is because it has something to do with our space program.

I don’t see the connection.

It’s very complicated, but after Gorbachev swept to power in 1985, he unilaterally carried out a series of disarmament efforts on the part of the Soviet Union, which culminated in the (Dec. 2-3, 1989) Malta Summit (at which the Soviet leader and President George H.W. Bush declared the Cold War was over). I don’t have the time or resources to go to the U.S. National Archives in Washington (where declassified documents can be seen), but there must be lots of academics waiting for the release of those documents. They are so important that they are sure to prompt researchers to write papers on them. I’ve always wanted to read and study such papers, and that’s why I decided later to retreat to the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture.

After I went into the mountains, I kept in contact with my sources, and I’ve heard intriguing things about U.S.-Soviet relations. There were two things the U.S. showed the greatest interest in when it held a series of disarmament talks with the then-USSR. One was the management of decommissioned nuclear weapons, including their dismantling. The other was the management of means by which such weapons are transported.

What was really at stake, though, was (the fate of) the Soviet space-industry engineers. If the missile industry finished, America would be peaceful — but where would the jobless Soviet engineers go?

Do you mean they would go to third-world countries?

They would go wherever their brains were needed. And America knew that. Who created the U.S. Saturn V5 rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon? It was (German-born) Wernher von Braun, wasn’t it? And who was von Braun? He was one of the team that developed (Nazi Germany’s) V-2 rockets, which were used to attack London (during World War II). So, it was extremely important for war victors to manage the engineers of defeated countries whose key industries experienced a demise. To keep the cash-strapped Soviet rocket industries from rapidly disappearing, the U.S. needed to get other countries on board. In other words, we (meaning TBS, which poured billions of yen into the Russian space program) were actually dancing on a stage set by the U.S. and the USSR.

That’s a huge story.

When our space project was in progress, other countries were also involved (with the Soviet space engineers), such as Austria and West Germany. Also in Britain, a private-sector group launched a space program called Project Juno. You see? France had already been involved since 1985, while Spain also tried, though it didn’t work out in the end.

All these space projects were happening from 1989 through 1991 or 1992. After that, the U.S.-Russian space cooperation agreement, signed in 1992 (between NASA and the Russian Space Agency), enabled the U.S. to offer massive amounts of money to the Russian side. And even since its Space Shuttle program concluded (in 2011), the U.S. has continued to fly astronauts from all over the world into space, using the Soyuz spacecrafts in Russia. All of these things point to the fact, I think, that the U.S. has tried to prevent a brain drain of Russian space engineers.

Do you think your TBS project was also part of the whole U.S. scheme?

Yes. It was in that context that I trained rigorously to board the Russian spacecraft. How naive I was.

Anyway, I was quite anxious to be the first professional journalist to report live from space — something that even Americans hadn’t done then.

You trained for more than a year in the then-Soviet Union, undergoing medical checks, lectures and physical training. What was the toughest experience for you?

(Pause) The toughest one was learning Russian. I was over 45, you know. It’s tough for anyone that age to learn a language they’ve never studied before.

But were you not afraid of accidents, especially after the 1986 Challenger disaster?

We are surrounded by deadly dangers in our daily lives; it’s just that we are not aware of them. Look at 3/11 (the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake). In the world of engineering, you can’t have “absolute safety” — that’s why the “nuclear village” engineers can’t be trusted. How can they say nuclear power plants are absolutely safe? That’s not possible. Experts who call something safe when it can’t possibly be safe are living in a world of religion, not science.

What is the most memorable thing you saw from outer space?

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.

Also, I could see at a glance different time zones before my eyes — the zone where it was still in the afternoon, to the zone where dusk was approaching, to places where it was getting dark and ones in pitch darkness. It was like listening to an orchestra of colors, so to speak.

That’s poetic. But then you left TBS in 1995. Why?

I started to feel that I wanted to reflect on the role of TV and whether we in TV journalism had fulfilled our responsibility. It was still fine when I was reporting, as I felt I was fulfilling a certain sense of responsibility. But then I was given a managerial post. Managers are only concerned about the survival of the organization, and I felt there were many other people who were better suited for such work.

So was that why you started looking for other jobs?

I just needed time to think. I guess I could have stayed on, if I’d insisted, as an anchorman or something. But I didn’t find that attractive. You can only live your life once.

Why did you pick Fukushima as a place to move to?

Because land was cheaper there. I didn’t have any friends there.

Did you leave your family behind in Tokyo?

Yes. My wife was working.

So were you separated from your wife and your two children?

Right. But they came to Fukushima in summer, using my house like a cottage. Plus my family had been used to me being apart from them all along.

Why did you decide to be a farmer?

That’s simple. As I watched the Earth from 400 km 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? And what role has rice farming played in the history of Japan? I felt I couldn’t die without having some basic knowledge about these things. I guess I felt like one of the encyclopédistes (18th-century French writers who promoted the advancement of science).

It sounds quite radical to suddenly move into a lifestyle that involves you trying to grow all your food.

Actually, it’s not possible to grow everything you eat. The other thing is, I have long known how society is polluted with synthetic, chemical substances. After witnessing the beauty of the Earth I made many TV programs on environmental issues, and have come to realize that our environment is protected by what cannot be exchanged for money and what is of no use to human beings.

Then came the 2011 earthquake and the nuclear meltdowns. I’ve read your diary from those days that was later turned into a book, and I was amazed at the swiftness of your reactions to the accident. You left your home in Fukushima the day after the quake, based on the bits of news you gathered and the phone calls you made to acquaintances. When did you find out that the government was holding back information?

It was simple. I had reported on the fifth anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster (in present-day Ukraine) and the Three Mile Island accident (in Pennsylvania in 1979), so I knew all too well what the governments of the U.S. and Russia had done.

I had read books on how the Japanese government has dealt with nuclear accidents in the past. When there’s an emergency, what the authorities try to do is to maintain “law and order.” What is order? It’s protecting the system presiding at the time. At the core of the government at the time of 3/11 were two lawyers — Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and Vice-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku — and a prime minister with an engineering background (Naoto Kan). What do lawyers do? They explore possibilities within the world of order. What does maintaining order mean to them? To maintain the order of the existing “nuclear village.”

And the mass media in these situations have no options but to follow the government line. It’s not just limited to the Japanese media; look at what happened to the U.S. media after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. During the Falklands War (between Argentina and Britain in 1982), the BBC barely managed to ban the use of the word “enemy” to refer to Argentina. I instinctively knew what the government authorities would try to protect, so I didn’t believe them.

What gave me the best pointer was the fact that President Barack Obama ordered all Americans to evacuate from within a 50-mile (80 km) radius (of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant). There was no better message than that. The government was bound to lie.

I stayed in the city of Koriyama, 60 km away from the Fukushima plant, until March 16 because I didn’t know what would happen to the Hamaoka nuclear power plant (in Shizuoka Prefecture, some 200 km southwest of Tokyo). If something had happened at Hamaoka (due to seismic activity), it would have caused a massive northbound exodus of people from Tokyo, which would have blocked the traffic. After I saw the Hamaoka operations were suspended, I moved to Gunma Prefecture, 200 km away from the (Fukushima) nuclear plant.

So did you think that Hamaoka could have been affected by a separate quake?

Yes. I really thought anything could happen. Strong aftershocks were hitting Fukushima every day.

What do you think of the post-3/11 antinuclear movement in Japan and its failure so far to change the government’s policy on nuclear power?

In Kyoto (where he now lives) we had a welcoming outcome (in July 21′s Upper House elections), with a member of the (antinuclear) Japanese Communist Party winning a seat. I don’t particularly like the JCP and I’m not a communist — if anything, I’d be more black than red (laugh). But when I read the statements by all the candidates running for the Upper House from Kyoto, nobody except for the JCP candidate said they were clearly opposed to the restart of nuclear reactors.

So the antinuclear voice was clearly expressed in the election. But the mass media failed to inform the voters. They treated the nuclear-power issue almost like a good luck charm. And Tepco only announced after the election that radioactive water from the Fukushima plant had seeped into the groundwater and flowed into the sea — but they should’ve known that already! Isn’t this media control? So my biggest theme at the moment is to stop the restart of nuclear reactors in Japan.

What do you make of the fact that the reactors haven’t been stopped permanently, despite the series of massive demonstrations in front of Prime Minister’s Office and elsewhere, and despite the massive damage done to people’s lives, with many having lost their livelihoods due to the Fukushima disaster?

I’m confident we’ll stop them eventually. I think it’s a 100-year war. And to make that happen, ordinary people need to keep voicing their opinions. It’s a roundabout way, but that’s the only way. So I’m impressed that many people haven’t given up and that (in the Upper House election) they voted for (actor and prominent antinuclear campaigner) Taro Yamamoto in Tokyo. More than 600,000 people voted for him, and most of his supporters are young people.

The old people are just thinking about stocks; most of them are brainwashed by the “order” side. And there are many people with no compass. In that sense, I feel there’s a place for education, and I find it rewarding to teach students, because most of them these days don’t read newspapers or watch TV, which are tools to brainwash people. Most of them check news on the Internet or they don’t at all.

So do you see hope in students who don’t take any interest in news?

That’s where my hopes are — teaching those who are free of the influence of the mass media; from zero. It might sound like I’m spitting in my own face — as I made a living in the media for 30 years — but I’m reflecting deeply on some of the horrible acts we have committed in the media — things which led people to lose their power to think for themselves and let others do their thinking.

You teach farming here at the Kyoto University of Art and Design, an institution which is geared toward artistically minded students. How do you connect agriculture with art?

You can’t be creative by letting others think for you. I think the act of farming — the experience of “listening” to the wind and the light through all of your senses, as well as smelling and feeling the earth — offers the opportunity for students, in the four months they spend in the fields, to get their brains rewired. It might not work for everyone, but it offers that chance.

  • Joe Sewell

    Wondering what Mr. Akiyama thinks of Jim Stone’s version of events at Fukushima on 3/11/2011?