TOKYO -- For a reporter who has just achieved a scoop of literally cosmic dimensions -- and run up what must be the biggest expense voucher in reportorial history -- Toyohiro Akiyama is doing a lot of complaining on the air.
Akiyama, a political reporter for the Tokyo Broadcasting System television network, has become the first journalist ever to report live from outer space, joining a Russian crew this week on the Soyuz TM-11 spacecraft for an eight-day trip to the Soviet space station Mir and back.
TBS, searching for a suitable way to celebrate its 40th year on the air, paid the Soviets an estimated $12 million for Akiyama's round-trip air fare to space.
In a country where everybody needs a title, TBS has given Akiyama a great one: "Outer Space Correspondent." Still, the network is billing Akiyama's big story as "an ordinary guy goes to outer space," and that captures the flavor of the journalist's daily reports.
In direct contrast to the traditional astronaut's assurance that "everything is A-Okay," the 48-year-old Akiyama -- a four-pack-a-day smoker when not in orbit -- seems to have a new complaint every day.
He has no appetite. He needs a smoke. He's dizzy because all the blood settled in his head. The liftoff felt like "riding a dump truck down a rocky road." It's hard work going to the bathroom without gravity to help. His stomach feels like it's standing straight up. His head feels like it's floating away. He badly needs a smoke.
One night TBS showed Akiyama's wife, Kyoko, at the Russian space center in Baikonur, speaking by radio to her husband in the distant spaceship. "Are you okay, dear?" she asked. "I am definitely NOT okay," he replied, adding that he had a bad case of space sickness.
Akiyama's network approached the Soviets and started planning for this trip more than two years ago. TBS executive Hichiro Sasaki said the network thought about asking for a ride on the American space shuttle Columbia, but decided it would take NASA too long to act on the request. NASA's own plan to take a reporter on a space voyage was put on hold after the 1986 Challenger explosion.
For the Soviets, the tie-in with Japanese TV offered a chance to move forward on commercializing the Russian space program. Indeed, the Soyuz rocket was so commercialized it looked like a flying billboard when it blasted off Sunday. Its nose cone and fins were festooned with the logos of TBS and other Japanese corporate sponsors, including a toothpaste firm and a producer of paper diapers.
In addition to the money paid to the Soviets for a seat on the spaceship, TBS says it has spent $23 million on the project. The network says it will recoup some, but not all, of its costs through deals with nine sponsors, who not only put their names on the rocket ship but also get commercial time during Akiyama's nightly broadcasts from on high.
Akiyama, who was TBS's Washington correspondent before he landed the outer space beat, has spent 14 months in the Soviet Union training for this week. As an insurance policy, the network sent a second reporter through the entire training procedure in case something happened to Akiyama.
TBS has 120 people, including its anchor staff, in place at the Soviet cosmodrome. To get good shots of Sunday's blastoff, it put a remote camera so close to the rocket that flames melted the expensive device. Akiyama also sends footage back to Earth through his compact TV cameras, and judging from his film he seems to know his way around the Soyuz capsule; he has helped the Soviet crew at important moments, such as the successful docking Tuesday with the Mir space station.
The TBS network has set up relay stations, NASA style, around the world to make sure it has the clearest possible connection to Akiyama each evening for its 7 o'clock news broadcast.
The network has been showing space-related specials for more than a year. It has scheduled 35 prime-time hours of Soyuz TM-11 broadcasting this week. Having bought exclusive rights to broadcasts from the Soyuz, TBS is permitting its five major competitors here to use three minutes of tape each night.
In its publicity materials, TBS says this big investment of money and time is designed to "contribute to Japan's development of space" and help this nation explore the universe "without being bound to the U.S. for help."
But media experts here say another reason is that TBS needs to increase the ratings of its nightly news programs in Japan's dog-eat-dog ratings battle. TBS's arch rival, the Fuji Television network, has passed it in news ratings, and TBS also ranks behind NHK, the respected public network. But Akiyama, the first Japanese person to ride a rocket ship, has become a national obsession here and his network's ratings have skyrocketed as people tune in each night to find out how he's doing.
Meanwhile, above it all, Akiyama continues his ordinary-man approach to his orbiting assignment. When he moved from his spaceship into the Mir space station, the reporter was handed a big banner honoring "The First Japanese Person in Space." The only problem -- as the smiling Akiyama knew, but the Russians didn't -- was that the Japanese characters were upside down.