Soviet-Japanese relations thaw at zero gravity

December 09, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- From an orbit 250 miles overhead, Tokyo's urban sprawl looks "messy" and the oceans surrounding Japan appear to be "losing the power to cleanse themselves."

For a week of unsurprising reports like these -- sometimes punctuated by descriptions of how headaches and upset stomachs feel at zero gravity -- Japan's TBS television network has spent $35 million to turn one of its political reporters into history's first "outer space correspondent."

In the process, the network has dominated Japan's TV news audience for a week. It has also given Toyohiro Akiyama, the 48-year-old reporter-cosmonaut, an unexpected role in the rapid de-mystification of Russia and things Russian. The process has been gaining momentum among the Japanese this year after more than four decades of estrangement between Northeast Asia's biggest country and its richest.

Mr. Akiyama's eight-day trip to Mir, the Soviet space station, is the product of two years and $23 million of planning and preparation after TBS agreed to pay $12 million to the Soviet government as his fare aboard Soyuz TM-11.

Making the space ride the centerpiece of its 40th anniversary celebration, TBS has kept Mr. Akiyama and the Soyuz mission on the air in a prime time schedule that will total nearly 40 hours by the end of the trip.

In addition to live reports by Mr. Akiyama from Mir, the network has stationed cameras and communication crews across Japan and in several other countries to give the famous and not-so-famous some TV exposure by talking with the outer-space correspondent as he passes overhead.

"I dreamed of going into space as a child," Alberto Fujimori, a Japanese emigre who earlier this year became president of Peru, told Mr. Akiyama as the space station passed over his country.

"As I got older, I got more realistic. Now, I'm concerned about a lot of problems in Peru."

As Mr. Akiyama passed over Japan on Thursday morning, this was his report:

"Oh, it's so fast! Izu is already coming into sight. I can see Mount Fuji. Oh, I can see Tokyo! Where is Akasaka? I can see the coastline."

Izu is a peninsula southwest of Tokyo, near Mount Fuji. Akasaka is one of Tokyo's most famous night-club districts.

On the ground, TBS cameras showed about 100 people gathered at the Gakugei-dai shopping district in Mr. Akiyama's neighborhood, where the main street has been renamed "Akiyama Street" and shops have promised discounts to celebrate his return.

"The water is not clear," he informed the audience as he approached Japan. "It suggests that the seas are losing the power to cleanse themselves."

"It's a really small island," he said after passing Honshu, Japan's main island. "Tokyo looks messy; that is, it doesn't have a clear outline."

By week's end, Mr. Akiyama had yet to report anything -- about outer space or about the Earth -- that hadn't been well documented long ago.

But for millions of Japanese, the important point was less the content of his reports than the fact that this technology-happy country at last has its own man in space, 29 1/2 years after Yuri Gagarin led the way.

A cartoonist for the Asahi newspaper expressed one common line of commentary with a cartoon that showed a TV viewer wired to a meter to record his excitement levels at various news events. For events like the U.S. moon walk, the meter in the cartoon ran off the scale. For the first Japanese in space, and the first journalist, the meter scarcely jumped to 10 percent.

Several Japanese commentators have pointed to remarks in Soviet newspapers, some of which have deplored the "commercialization" of one of their country's most prestigious undertakings in the interest of fattening Moscow's lean hard-currency reserves.

Commercialization was visible right from liftoff. The rocket was festooned with nameplates from TBS and from sponsors the network recruited to help cover some of the cost of the project.

For many Japanese, the chance to see a countryman moving about inside a Soviet spaceship, and helping the two Soviet cosmonauts dock the capsule to the Mir station, is another in a yearlong series of steps away from the fear and hostility that have permeated relations between the two countries. Japan and the Soviet Union still don't have a peace treaty concluding World War II.

Those steps have included a northern Japanese hospital's acceptance of Soviet boys for treatment of severe burns twice this year, a steadily increasing number of northern Japanese businesses exploring prospects in the Soviet Far East, and plans for President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to come here next year, the first Soviet leader to visit Japan since the war.

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