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BIG IN JAPAN
Mukai Chiaki

Mukai ChiakiAt a press conference in January 1999, veteran astronaut John Glenn referred to his colleague Mukai Chiaki as the person most likely to win a sumo tournament in outer space. Not because of her figure though, he hastily explained. "She has more energy than anyone I know of."

Energy is one way to sum up the dynamic 46 year-old Chiaki Mukai, who has accumulated more awards in her life than seems possible. In fact, there is now a national award named after her.

Born May 6, 1952 in Gunma prefecture, she successfully entered the prestigious Keio High School for Girls and moved to Tokyo. After graduating, she studied medicine at Keio University, receiving her doctorate in 1977. There followed two residencies in General Surgery, one in Shizuoka and one in Kanagawa, after which she returned to Keio University Hospital to specialize in cardiovascular surgery. It was at Keio that she met her husband, fellow doctor Mukai Makio, whom she married in 1982. In the mid-eighties she was promoted to first chief resident, and then assistant professor in the Keio Department of cardiovascular surgery.

In 1985, Mukai received her call to the stars. She was nominated and then selected by the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) as a payload specialist for the International Micro Gravity Laboratory, on board the space shuttle Columbia. She was flown to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Texas in 1987, to begin training. Her first flight was in July 1994, during which she took part in many physiological experiments in zero gravity, logging 353 hours in orbit and becoming the first female Japanese astronaut.

The second flight came in October-November 1998 on board the Discovery, in which she served with John Glenn, the former American senator and oldest living astronaut. The two sparked up a warm and very respectful working relationship, later speaking of how deeply they were impressed by each other' personal qualities. Although still a visiting professor of Keio University Hospital, Mukai is currently based at the Johnson Space Center and is also a Research Instructor at the Department of Surgery of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas.

Although the full benefits of space shuttle research have yet to filter through to the general public, Mukai Chiaki is heralded by the Japanese authorities as a triumph of personal determination, courage and hard work. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government recently "borrowed" her image for an advertising campaign promoting environmental awareness, with a cute cartoon Mukai in the newspapers saying "Let's Make Tokyo an Eco-City."

Her personal achievements are doubtlessly impressive and she is frequently held up as an inspiration to others. But an inspiration to do what exactly is not made clear. While in orbit on the Discovery, she initiated a competition to finish a traditional tanka poem of which she had written the first three lines, a poem on the subject of weightlessness. Following this, with the eyes of the world's media trained upon her, she united Japan's youth in another competition - to choose a name for her toy teddy bear.

Mukai Chiaki as an image of modern Japan: flying high, or simply lost in space?


John Paul Catton

BIG IN JAPAN:
299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
Singer/songwriter
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
Comedian
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
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272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
Author
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
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269: Moritaka Chisato
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268: Mukai Chiaki
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267: Natto
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266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
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265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
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264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
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263: Shigeo Nagashima
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262: Ayako Totsuka
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261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
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260: Chiyotaikai
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259: Pocky
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258: Itsuki Hiroshi
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257: Pocket Monsters
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256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
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252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
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251: Rie Miyazawa
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250: Shazna
Visual-kei band

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